How could internet connected smart fridges change the face of online retail?

Can you imagine texting your washing machine from the office, instructing it to begin the drying cycle? Or remotely viewing the security cameras connected to your home when you're on holiday after the alarm is activated? How about sprinklers watering the garden because they have detected a drop in moisture levels, or a fridge which does your shopping for you?

The smart fridge has been used as the real-world example of the connected home for many years – the idea that your fridge will know when you're running out of milk and order the product from your online grocer who then delivers the product to your door. And with more innovation in the fulfilment space, from click & collect to Amazon's Fresh proposition, the idea of an internet connected fridge becomes even more appealing to consumers, while potentially becoming another challenging technology for grocers to integrate.

Steve Mader, vice president of digital retail insights at Kantar Retail, says the industry has to remember that all connected devices from a smart phone to a smart fridge need to make the shopper's life easier.

He noted many grocers like Waitrose and Sainsbury's are innovating the shopping list through hardware and mobile applications, while the BBC's recipe website also allows readers to buy ingredients in a couple of clicks of a mouse. Meanwhile, Amazon has also launched a device to enable the shopper to scan barcodes of products in their house to add to a shopping list, which is not far removed from the smart fridge concept.

"We're seeing a lot of retailers using list mechanics and trying to activate the list and convert much more easily," he says. "Any retailer should be looking at ways to open up the list platform, using hardware suppliers and software companies to leverage their website."

Not smart enough

But right now smart fridges, like the ones manufactured by Samsung, are more of an expensive example of tomorrow's connected technology than a white goods item likely to be purchased for the kitchen today.  

Marco Matera, CFO and co-founder of Alfred Smart Home – a finalist of this year's John Lewis JLAB start-up competition – says smart fridges today are just not smart enough.

"You can change the temperature setting of your fridge from your mobile app, but a smart fridge should be able to tell you exactly what is missing and work together with the product sold by the grocer to communicate things like when food is past its best," he says.

"People are not ready for the smart home. They will not want to spend £5,000-£6,000 on a fridge just to know the temperature," he adds. "Once the market is established, once everyone has a security system, washing machine and thermostat, then consumers will buy things you can connect."

And with energy suppliers introducing smart thermostats and insurance companies encouraging surveillance packages, Matera believes the market will be ready in less than five years.

Not-so-distant future

In order for the technology ecosystem to be complete, Sarah Eccleston, director for enterprise networks and IoT, UK and Ireland, Cisco, says it is not just the fridge that needs to be connected to the internet.

"It's not until the groceries and the grocers are also connected will consumers feel the benefit of a internet enabled fridge."

She says the concept of a fridge monitoring its contents and predicting what consumers will run out of "doesn't tweak a grocer's online strategy, it completely overhauls it".

"It will be able to predict if you're going to run out of something soon. For instance, it's hot outside and you only have two ice lollies, but there's three of you in the house – that's when it becomes really valuable," she says.

Eccleston explains that a smart fridge will be able to predict what food you need and message your grocer to ensure it has the product in stock on the day you visit the store  to do your shopping –which it knows because of the data gained from loyalty cards.

"When I go shopping on Friday, the grocer will use its digital signage to offer me half price fish-fingers to go with the frozen chips I came in for because these things can start talking to each other.

"It will also enable the eCommerce strategy to be predictive, upsell other products and remind you what you've forgotten to buy," she adds, explaining food items could be automatically added to a shopping list in a similar concept to the Amazon Dash button.

"The idea of writing a shopping list is really old school," says Eccleston, echoing the importance of devices needing to make a consumer's life easier.

How hard is it to pop out for milk?

But director of Shoppercentric, Claire Pearson, is not convinced there is a consumer benefit. She says: "The major problem I have with the idea of this is that it is OK if you eat – and live – the same way all the time. This issue is that people don’t – they go away, have guests, go off things, want variety, so chances are you’d constantly be over-riding it, so it wouldn’t be saving you a whole heap of time. And how much effort is it really to write a shopping list and pop out for milk?"

Pearson also said while grocers are already struggling to make money from online groceries, this could be another pain point of integrating the technology.

"The operational side of your fridge just ordering a pint of milk and block of cheese – when and how would that get delivered? Who would be prepared to deliver that on its own? Until you could tie it in with ambient goods so you can get a decent sized order, I just can’t see how retailers could make it work."

Mader also said consumer adoption will be challenging because of the purchase cycle of a fridge which tends to be between 10 and 20 years. "Many of these connected devices are changing so rapidly, so I think shoppers are hesitant to invest heavily into something which could be out of date almost within a year."

He also noted consumers are increasingly concerned about security fears. Only this week, it was discovered by security researchers Pen Test Partners that hackers could steal Gmail account details from connected Samsung smart fridges.

The connected kitchen

Eccleston argues grocers would also benefit from the information collected from other kitchen appliances. "The oven or microwave – it's not only the connected fridge, but the supermarket could learn what you're cooking and what recipes you're using."

For the connected kitchen to become pervasive, many parties need to come together – the consumer, appliances, grocers and food need to all be connected to the internet, and of course manufacturers need to produce the smart technology at an affordable price.

It might even take an innovator like Amazon to release its own fridge, which as a technology company it might be able to do by snapping up a smart goods manufacturer. Eccleston says this would allow the tech giant to lock its customers into its Amazon Fresh grocery proposition.

But Amazon would be the exception to the rule, she says, because grocers would struggle to whitelabel white goods as technology is not their core business – "The core function is still a fridge, even if it is connected to the internet."

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