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Cutting edge tech, convenience and grocery's new era

Widespread automation in the supply chain and smart appliances playing a greater role in everyday home life are two major developments the world's grocery companies will need to consider as they look to serve the modern shopper – all while focusing on the fundamentals of offering convenience and delivering inspiring experiences.

That was one of the key messages from Joanne Denney-Finch, CEO of grocery intelligence organisation IGD, who was speaking to delegates at the Canadian Grocer Thought Leadership Conference in Toronto in November. She told those in attendance there is a new blueprint spreading across the global grocery industry.

Outlining her vision for the future of global grocery retailing, Denney-Finch said greater automation of everyday, staple purchases will push consumers to seek out excitement and creativity for the balance of their grocery shopping.

"Retailing is splitting into two parts: one largely automated and super-efficient and the other based on delivering inspiration," she commented.

"Eventually distribution centres will be operated almost entirely by robots and trucks will drive themselves. Our smart appliances will use sensors to guarantee great cooking results and people will hand over many decisions to their smart devices. We'll sign up to long-term deals, because that will be simplest and deliver best value. So as shoppers, our key staple items will turn up just in time, whenever we need them."

Denney-Finch suggested that as people's lives grow more hectic, spontaneous buying and eating will also become more popular.

"Online services will respond to this too, with meal kits and ready-to-eat food delivered to the door at rapid speed, but physical stores will always have the edge for instant gratification and for products we like to see before we buy."

The IGD CEO argued that big stores will have to work harder to entice people in an era when people are looking to buy food on the go and replace the traditional once-a-week big shop with regular top-up trips. This is not a new trend – it has been developing over a number of years now.

At a the IGD Big Debate event in London, last month, Co-op commercial director Michael Fletcher said the convenience sector has been a beneficiary of modern retailing. With continued growth in online grocery retail, it has meant consumers are more likely to stop off at their local stores to replenish certain items.

"Ironically online growth [as a general grocery industry trend] is our friend because as you go through to an online shop you probably move from shopping once a week to every 11 days," he noted.

"If you move to once every 11 days that drives a top-up shop, so to an extent the more online grows – and the same is true of discounters – the greater the growth in convenience."

Reflecting on what the future holds for big stores against this backdrop of greater convenience shopping, Denney-Finch said: "They'll become much more exciting, featuring lots of fresh food, new products, special events and more ways to taste, learn and discover.

"Experts will be on hand to give advice and deliver personal service. Branded manufacturers will be helping their retail customers to differentiate and deliver excitement because those that don’t will be marginalised."

She called on grocery stores to become "edgier and more inspirational", while adding that data and technology skills are also increasingly vital in the industry.

"You're going to need a rich range of skills to be fit for the future… as skills will separate the winners from the losers. But I firmly believe the future will be more rewarding than anything we've seen before."