From field to fork – How technology is enabling the food supply chain


In our lengthy analysis of the food supply chain and how tech companies are changing everything in it, we’ve gone from autonomous tractors and smart greenhouses in Part 1 to revolutionary low-energy mass pasteurization. in meat processing plants in part 2, and technological, robot-rich warehousing and route-optimized transport in part 3. Now is the time to examine the final link in the chain of food supply – how technology is augmenting and changing the retail food shopping experience.

Online order

First of all, it is important to understand that in modern supermarkets you do not need to go to a supermarket at all. With online ordering and smartphone apps, many supermarkets offer a home delivery service – and nearly half of grocery shoppers in the United States purchase at least some of their food purchases online. With bookable delivery slots and potentially tight windows, this means you order online from a near real-time list of available food items, which is processed from the nearest warehouse to your chosen supermarket or in the “dark supermarket”.

A dark supermarket is essentially a dummy supermarket, where human staff or, in some cases, robots, will use an AI tool to fill multiple baskets with people’s orders at the same time. Then, whether in a warehouse or a dark supermarket, your order will be loaded, probably, but not necessarily by hand, into trucks on a pre-planned daily delivery schedule that has likely been calculated by the logistics algorithms either from the local fleet management software of a grocery store or the fleet management software of a company specializing in last mile delivery.

The truck, whoever owns it, will carry the logo of the supermarket of your choice, to maintain the idea of ​​a seamless delivery process by one company. The route planner will maximize the number of deliveries made with the least amount of fuel used, to ensure the process is fuel efficient and cost effective.

The driver will then arrive within your delivery window, unload your particular order based on computer instructions of what your order is and where it is on their truck, and ask you to electronically sign to say you have received your purchases, usually on a small tablet or portable electronic device. Signing off will mean the end of that leg of the food supply chain, and the driver will then continue their day, closing other legs based on their daily list, provided electronically.

During this time, if you ordered online through an account or app, the supermarket’s technology will have contacted your bank, requested funds electronically, received authorization to withdraw them, and sent notifications to update your account loyalty program with additional loyalty points, coupons or other incentives to continue shopping in the supermarket of your choice.

And that’s before you even set foot in your local supermarket.

Barcoding and price updates

Product barcoding is not quite what you might expect. The barcode simply identifies the item itself, not what it costs, so the fact that when scanned at checkout a price appears, matching the price on the picket fence under the product when you check it out. you’ve recovered is the result of a lot of store-side technology rather than manufacturer-side.

Every supermarket will have a horde of price strategists, who will make deals with suppliers, raise or lower the price based on sales, inflation rates, and other factors. And then the information is sent through the store network, to update the price of an item identified by a particular barcode, so that when it’s scanned, the correct price is displayed and you won’t are neither too expensive nor too expensive.

Barcode scanning has become so ubiquitous that shoppers rarely think about the implications of the same product, marked with the same barcode on its packaging, potentially weeks before it goes on sale, costing a different price in two different supermarkets. There’s awesome technology behind the trick, and the best trick is to make it seem like a simple fact of life.

Store-side warehousing and storage

It’s not yet universal, but some large supermarkets have now embraced the era of robotics for their on-site warehousing and shelf-stacking roles. At this time, this would not be universally economical, but some department stores are justifying it by a) reducing overall in-store staffing costs through this form of digital transformation, and b) using the same robots for multiple functions, including warehouse work, shelving stacking and janitorial work – potentially saving three staff roles for the price of one robotic system, which is economically efficient, even as it increasingly pushes the customer experience towards a Futuristic Robo-Mart.

Self-service registers

Self-service registers are in a sense the ultimate result of the supermarket philosophy. Before supermarkets, customers visited a range of small shops and never handled the products they ordered – they were prepared and delivered by a shopkeeper. The philosophy of the supermarket has always been that the customer does more work – wandering the aisles, picking up items of their choice, etc. Self-service registers simply take this to the next level, theoretically eliminating the need for clerks (although the systems are still easily confused and require human intervention before a sale can be made).

The self-service register is really a conglomeration of technologies – barcode scanners, digital scales, a portal to the product index for the store, so that scanned items are correctly identified and priced, etc. But they are gradually becoming a new norm. in supermarkets, allowing, for example, socially anxious people to have a better experience (while admittedly reducing the opportunities for daytime human interaction for anyone with loneliness issues).

The self-diagnosing and self-correcting self-service ledger, powered by AI learning, may not be ready for years to come, so the human role of clerk won’t go away soon – but integrating technological innovation into the structure of the supermarket is helping to provide a faster, more efficient and more logical approach from the supermarket to the act of shopping at the supermarket.

just get out

Taking this principle of the customer doing all the work even further, we are now in the era of “just on foot” shopping. In stores that offer it, the customer takes a portable scanner with them when they walk through the store. They will need to have registered online for a customer account and registered the scanner to the account for the duration of the trip. Each item they put in their basket, they scan it, establish a priced shopping list that corresponds to the contents of their basket.

The way the process is completed has some variations. Some stores still require you to go to a self-service checkout to pay for your scanned basket of goods, but the evolution of this system is already beginning and should soon include either tap-and-pay functionality built into scanners, or even supermarket account payment, where you use an app on your phone and the account your purchases are linked to is automatically debited. Then… you go out.

Cashless payment

The payment card is not a new technology, although many people still remember a time when most supermarkets were largely cash-only establishments. But recent innovation has taken up the idea of ​​card payment beyond the need for physical cards. Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and a host of others mean you don’t need to have your actual cards near you – meaning you’re much less likely to lose them at the supermarket – but an app on your phone serves as your payment method as it is linked to your card details. Many stores now also have their own bespoke payment apps, which not only allow you to pay with your phone, but also automatically add the loyalty points you’ve earned to your account.

Once you left the store, the food supply chain had technically completed its connections. But from farms to processing plants and factories, to warehouses, to supermarkets, all the way to you, the food supply chain continues, day after day. And day in and day out, tech companies are out there, coming up with new innovations to improve the chain, smooth the process, and ensure the food supply chain runs in the most economical way. What will the channel look like tomorrow?

We will tell you later.


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