Am I alone in finding supermarkets the most confusing places in the world?
Most supermarkets have around 3,000 to 5,000 SKUs (stock-keeping units) on their shelves. That may make sense to store managers but, to us consumers, it can make for a confusing experience.
You may know where to find frequent purchases like milk, but what about irregular items? Does pesto live with vegetables, in the sauces aisle, or somewhere else? When I find it, I can learn the location – but, when I step in to a new store, I am lost again.
Aiming to make the experience straightforward, the big chains invest millions in the new science of supermarket design. They use techniques like bird’s-eye cameras, footfall tracking and crowd-modelling software to observe consumer movement, aiming to implement the optimum layout. It results in tricks of the trade like “golden zones” and “impulse areas” to catch shoppers’ attention en route to their next list item.
But these interventions serve the goals of the supermarket – to sell more produce – not of the consumers, who just want the quickest route through.
Research by consumer analyst Simeon Scamell-Katz has shown these distraction tactics can actually result in consumer resentment. Placing the milk at the back of the store, forcing consumers to walk farther in order to surface more offers en route, is less likely to provoke return visits that simply showcasing it at the front of a store.
To modern digital marketers, these bricks-and-mortar mind games are baffling. Online, to solve the problem of unstructured information, we built search engines. Electronic retailers have now mastered the art of leveraging search, both off-site and on-site, to drive people to product pages. And they are skilled at using ads to draw people straight to specific product locations, closing the attribution loop at the point of purchase.
If we can do this online, why not in-store? I believe that day is coming, when supermarkets will get to move consumers from the digital realm, to a store and help them navigate the maze of shelves using mobile technology, straight to a precise shelf location.
It starts with machine learning. When you collect and process information on consumers’ preferences, you can give them perfect answers to the questions they ask.
Then comes the revolution – real, turn-by-turn navigation inside supermarket premises, from a consumer’s current location to a specific item position. Shoppers are already used to in-car navigation between premises. In the near future, our devices will show us the way to the pesto, or the milk or the chicken in the same way.
The building blocks are already in place. On the cartographic side, Google Maps already supports custom creation of indoor maps. And positioning technology to power navigation is evolving fast. For navigation to generalised shelf categories – say, sauces – Bluetooth Low Energy is already able to help.
For more specificity, Philips has a technology that embeds super-precise position tracking in LED lights above shoppers’ heads. Called Visual Light Communications (VLC), it works by bouncing light down to shoppers’ phone cameras and is already installed in Carrefour stores in Belgium, where customers are already navigating from the door to the baguettes in no time.
Now we can see the excitement generated by Amazon Go will further validate the idea. Whilst Amazon’s experimental supermarket concept majors on an ability to walk out without paying, it depends on the store’s backend systems knowing the exact location of items on shelves as well as shoppers’ proximity to those shelves. In other words, in-store mobile location awareness is the underpinning not only of navigation but of the future of commerce itself.
In-store supermarket navigation will be about more than the real world in isolation. When this problem is solved, brands will be able to link physical stores to the online experience, holistically. Consumers can start their purchase journey with online discovery, receiving navigation instructions to their nearest store – and all the way inside, where they can touch and feel their specific chosen item for consideration.
Indoor navigation could even upgrade the world of advertising. Imagine when brands – like Knorr or Heinz or Coca-Cola – could learn just how many people had been driven by an ad to their specific location in a supermarket aisle. Systems could help them understand the moment an item was either purchased or walked away from, allowing brands to use attribution to close the loop on return on investment.
Are supermarkets as ready for the revolution as consumers and brands are? Some building blocks will be required.
First, grocery chains should embrace the basic indoor map features on offer today. Too few take advantage of this capability, even though many consumers are driven to visit by maps themselves. Conditioning consumers to expect rudimentary indoor mapping is an important first step in driving up the expectation of full navigation.
Second is re-tooling stock systems with more granularity. When technology allows for precise navigation, chains had better use it – so nevermind generic navigation simply to aisle 19, companies will make their stock databases more specific to support laser-targeted indoor navigation.
We are on the cusp of a revolution here. Soon, we will be able to navigate from our laptop to a store and to supermarket products effortlessly – and I will be able to find my favourite cheese the next time they move it.