The future of grocery shopping according to the ‘Supermarket Guru’


In the late 1980s, Phil Lempert, a retail consultant known as the “Supermarket Guru,” commissioned a painting of his vision for the grocery store in the year 2000.

The colorful result, by Herbert Hofer, whose style is described as primitive, shows shoppers milling about randomly placed stations laden with fresh produce, meat, fish and baked goods. Balloons offer a celebratory feel, and no rigid aisles lined with cereal, pasta or soup are in sight.

“Well, we haven’t gotten there quite yet, but this is what I would love to see the new supermarket look like,” said Lempert, showing a slide of the painting in a webinar aimed at forecasting 2021 trends in food retailing.

Changes in technology, competition and consumer sentiment – all put in hyperdrive by the coronavirus pandemic – make the scene in the painting more likely, he suggested during the event hosted last month by The Food Institute.

Lempert also envisions a new protocol for grocery shopping in the near future:

Consumers will go online to reserve a time to shop their favorite supermarket, then place an order for “all those unemotional jars and boxes and cans” that are pantry staples.

Stores no longer will be giant beasts of 40,000 square feet or more, through which shoppers travel up and down aisles filling their carts with goods. Rather, the back half of the store will be a micro-fulfillment center where robots will assemble the previously placed online orders of staples; the front half will resemble the food bazaar in Hofer’s painting.

“The front of the store is going to be fun; it’s going to be engaging,” Lempert said. There, shoppers will be able to choose their own produce and meat and talk to staff about the various offerings.

Once finished in the fresh half of the store, shoppers will grab their robot-picked online order and exit – likely in less time than in the past.

Supermarkets for years have followed a favored layout of fresh goods around the perimeter and staples in the center aisles. Entering shoppers are greeted by the aroma of oven-baked bread and eye-appealing produce, but then must walk to the far end of the store for dairy – in the hopes they’ll load up their carts along the way.

But Lempert said supermarkets nowadays are scary places with the new COVID necessities of masks, plexiglass and one-way aisles.

“People like food; people like to shop,” he said. But if they’re even going to the store, they’d like to be done shopping in 10 minutes or less, rather than spending the average 22 minutes they used to.

“We need to inspire shoppers” to keep them coming back to the brick-and-mortar store, while also helping to improve the shopping experience through ease and speed of online ordering, Lempert said.

“If we can accomplish that, guess what happens to our industry? We go through the roof.”

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected]





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