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We asked the experts here at IMS Evolve to give their insight into what 2021 might bring for retail technology...

2020 has been a strange year in so many ways. How we work, shop and live have been drastically overhauled, and there is a consensus that the world won’t ever go back to how things were before the pandemic. However, many of the innovations and changes that we have seen in the past 12 months have actually been improvements on ways in which we live, from improving consumer choice to making businesses more efficient. In many ways, 2021 is set to build upon the changes that 2020 initiated and will no-doubt look to embed the best innovations into the post-pandemic world. One area in which we have seen some of the biggest changes, and where these changes are set to remain and evolve, is in the food retail sector.

With over two decades of experience working closely with the food retail industry, IMS Evolve houses many food retail experts with unparalleled knowledge and experience. We asked them how they thought 2021 might change the way food retail operates. Here are their top 5 predictions for what next year may have in store for the sector:

Remote maintenance is here to stay

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of our work lives, with the requirement of working from home extending into the engineering sector. Whilst some maintenance needs will always require an engineer to be physically present, new solutions are already being deployed to help enable remote diagnostics and, where possible, remote fixes. Aided by IoT to release the power of connected machines and infrastructure, the efficiency of these solutions has meant that maintenance issues can be quickly and proactively identified, diagnosed and prioritised, all without the need for an onsite engineer. Organisations will continue to innovate in remote engineering technology to drive further off-site capabilities long after the pandemic is over. 

Digital and detailed Food labelling

From concerns over hygiene in wet markets to fears of lower quality food standards post-Brexit, there is an increasing public demand for more information about where their food comes from. Technology already exists to monitor and maintain food quality, but organisations will begin building on existing data points to monitor food products all the way from the farm to the factory, and finally to the supermarket shelf to the consumer. Technology will enable consumers to see the full history of their food by simply scanning a barcode and instantly seeing the supply chain process of that product. Such traceability and transparency in the sector is drastically needed to rebuild consumer confidence.

Stores will be optimised for the customer

 Currently, many retailers use connected technology, such as IoT, to optimise their machines and drive improved efficiency, from refrigeration temperature monitoring and management to dynamic scheduling for store HVAC & lighting systems, all of which helps to optimize energy usage. Alongside this, in-store consumer tracking technology is available that pinpoints, in real-time, where shoppers are in the store. By combining these two streams of technology, retailers could have the opportunity to automate critical infrastructure based on the real-time situations. For example, sensors can track where the busiest areas of a store is and, when connected to advanced IoT solutions, the rate at which air is turned over to ensure a fresher environment for customers can be automatically adjusted. The same can be done with heating, cooling or lighting, augmenting areas of a store to ensure energy is only being expended when and where it needs to be and conserved when certain aisles are empty. Ultimately, this combination of technologies can enable an enhanced shopping environment for the consumer.

Food retail supply chains will have their efficiency improved by AI

 There is already a huge amount of data collected about our food, but the next step to really utilise the information we have will be the development and deployment of true AI within the food retail supply chain. Machines will be programmed with set parameters and work with data from suppliers, distributors and food retailers to autonomously improve efficiency within the supply chain, from rerouting delivery drivers to use more effective routes to improving product quality, safety and shelf-life by optimising the environment food is stored and transported in. Most imperatively though, these advanced technologies will offer a ubiquitous solution for the whole supply chain and will ultimately enable less technically sophisticated suppliers to enter into the supply chain alongside larger vendors on an even playing field. 

Supermarkets will make an effort to get to know their customers personally

A lot of technology has been infused into supermarkets to help them comply with social distancing regulations and ensure a COVID-safe environment, such as checking temperatures of shoppers before they enter. Other technology, such as RFID sensors, can also be leveraged to help retailers understand individual customer shopping habits. Supermarkets will increase connectivity between consumer apps and physical stores to gather data on what they physically buy, as well as data they already hold on their online shopping habits, to personalise push notifications and marketing messages on a consumer’s phone, both during their on-site shop and after.

Food retailers, more than most, have successfully overcome many obstacles in the face of a fast-changing and demanding 2020 landscape. Disruption paves the way for opportunity, and retailers will undoubtably come out of a challenging year looking to build back more robust, innovative and competitive.