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The Evolution of Supermarkets

Ryan Willis

We often find ourselves talking about how “retail is dead” and how technology is changing so quickly that we can barely keep up with the latest developments – but what has actually changed in the world of retail over recent years? Here, we explore how supermarkets are evolving and why they won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

A move towards organic

One of the biggest supermarket-related stories in the run-up to the festive period was Iceland’s Christmas ad campaign. Produced in partnership with Greenpeace, the campaign highlighted the brand’s decision to stop using palm oil in all of its own-brand products, due to concerns over its environmental impact. The animated short film wasn’t cleared for television transmission by Clearcast due to its apparently political nature, but if anything, the attention generated by the ban only delivered more publicity for Iceland and its campaign.

Either way, the Iceland campaign is representative of an ever-increasing trend in the supermarket sector to sell more organic and environmentally friendly produce. There has also been a broader push for brands to be seen as more ethical in a consumer space where this is increasingly an important driver of decisions on which companies customers choose to do business with.

The rise of the discount store

One noteworthy recent development in the UK is within the “pile high, sell cheap” discount supermarket sector, which German-owned retail giants Lidl and Aldi have dominated for years. In the second half of 2018, Tesco launched its new discount brand, Jack’s, with its first store opening in Chatteris, Cambridgeshire last September. The new Jack’s stores adopt a no-frills approach similar to the other shops operating in this market segment, with simple shop layouts, no fancy fixtures or fittings, and a greatly simplified range of competitively priced products for consumers to choose from.

Innovative technology is also a cornerstone of the new Jack’s brand, with customers having the option of three ways of checking out: standard cashier payment, self-service checkouts, or a new pay-as-you-go phone app called Shop Smart. The app allows shoppers to scan each item with their smartphone as they take it off the shelf, and then check out by simply scanning a barcode at the till when they’ve finished shopping.

No more queues?

The Jack’s Shop Smart app is representative of wider tech innovations that have the potential to really change the face of supermarket shopping. Earlier in 2018, the opening of the first Amazon Go store in the United States demonstrated what may well be the shape of things to come.

The retail giant’s move into bricks-and-mortar shopping has one glaring difference from the typical retail environment: there are no cashiers. Instead, cameras and sensors are used to track purchases, allowing customers to shop and leave without queuing at a checkout. When consumers leave the store, Amazon bills the purchases to the credit or debit card registered against their Amazon account.

While some may have legitimate concerns about what this kind of cashier-free shopping will do for retail jobs, stores such as Amazon Go will still need to have staff on hand – for example, to help customers with queries or to check ID for beer, wine and spirits purchases. Perhaps more significantly, Amazon’s recent move from online retail into bricks and mortar sends a clear message that it clearly does not see the grim future for the high street that many of the headlines of recent years would have us believe is inevitable.

Supermarkets have developed to fit the consumer’s demands heavily over the years – even to the point of not really being supermarkets any more. However, the fundamental and most important part of a supermarket is still going strong, and that is to make sure customers can get what they need, when they need it. We’ve seen some huge changes, and it’s only going to carry on changing!

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