Whole Foods' New Chain Puts Tech Front and Center, Unleashes New Opps for CPG Brands

When Whole Foods announced earlier this year it was planning the launch of a new chain of stores designed to cater to the needs of Millennials, many scoffed at the food giant’s approach. The most common critique was whether or not a single generation really needed a dedicated grocery store. However, beneath a flurry of press coverage, there was a key point that seemed to be going unnoticed by most: the profound newness of introducing technology into the grocery store environment. 

Until recently, the proliferation of technology into the physical store space has played a supporting role to mobile retailer technology. While Target perfected its best-in-class mobile couponing app “Cartwheel,” its physical store space remained, for the most part, unchanged. Safeway and Wegmans both made creating shopping lists easier than ever, but when it comes to navigating the aisles we are still living in a dial-up era – and even that’s a stretch. 



The details on exactly how Whole Foods plans to embed technology into its new store concept are still hazy, but we can imagine it will likely play one of two roles: to solve for an existing shopper barrier or to evolve a traditional element of the store. Pressure-sensitive shelf mats, like Panasonic’s Powershelf (which are already in use at some Whole Foods stores), alert store employees when a product needs to be restocked so shoppers are never left disappointed by an empty shelf. Aisle411 has partnered with Google’s Project Tango to turn the tired old shopping cart into a personal shopping assistant that helps with navigating the store and delivering dynamic offers. Regardless of whether these technologies are in the foreground or background of the grocery store experience, there will be new opportunities for CPG brands to get in on the innovation. The following are some of these key opportunities. 

New touch points in the shopper journey.

When technology is added to serve a new purpose in a retail store, there will naturally be new touch points in a shopper’s journey that brands can influence. These emerging touch points are at the core of all opportunities for CPG brands. The Powershelf mentioned above could easily be branded, something that Pampers has already done. While this isn’t likely enough of a reason in and of itself for a shopper to add Pampers to their cart, it does build the brand up as a reliable choice that can always be depended on. 

A customized shopping experience

Another theme of emerging touch points could be a truly customizable shopping experience. Imagine the essence of Coca-Cola’s Freestyle machines, fountain soda dispensers that allow the user to combine a wide range of drinks with a variety of flavorings, brought into the grocery store. With a machine similar to the Freestyle, the salad dressing aisle becomes a place where new flavors are created based on exactly what the shopper wants. A few iPad kiosks at the deli could turn workday lunch orders into an efficient and interactive experience allowing the entire meal, beverage and chips included, to be packaged up and ready for takeout. Regardless of the tactic, CPG brands should think about how the introduction of technology could help to create innovative solutions that provide real value for their customers.

Integration of technology

Probably the most attainable and realistic solution for brands is the integration of existing retailer mobile apps with whatever technology we begin to see in grocery stores, and vice versa. Because the most robust grocery shopping technology currently lives in smartphone apps, these apps need to evolve to be the hub connecting all these new in-store touch points. If your brand’s NFC-enabled shelf talker doesn’t work with a given retailer’s mobile app, that’s a missed opportunity. Retailers should follow a similar approach to Snapchat: the company carved out a section in its app for news media to create and deliver short bursts of content. How about if Target’s app allowed Kimberly-Clark to serve up content to create a cohesive and enriched shopping experience? 

Technology enabled retail stores are nothing new. Clothing stores like Nordstrom and Burberry have been innovating with technology for quite some time now. However, as Whole Foods develops its new stores with technology at the core, it’s likely we could see other major retailers follow suit. The success of this trend lives and dies in how technology enhances the consumer experience. Keep an eye out for whether it serves as a useful enhancement or a bothersome complication for the increasingly-connected shopper. This value add will undoubtedly be the key to technology’s in-store success.

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