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Tech and Food: Digital Integration Continues to Fuel Growth Innovation

In this edition of digital food culture watch: burger-flipping robots, Walmart vs Amazon in online grocery, car dashboard ordering and Chipotle looks to digital to invigorate sales

Small robot serving burgerTraditional relationships between industry and consumer are falling victim to significant disruption — and this disruption is digital. It is affecting all facets of consumer life — especially in the digital food marketplace. Technological advances have become a ubiquitous part of people’s everyday lives, and new introductions occur on an almost daily basis. Here’s our Hartman Retainer Services analysts’ take on how technology influences the way people think about food and its effect on food culture from four news items that caught our attention.

Burger-Flipping Robots: Replace or Assist People?

One tech development by the owner of CaliBurger, Cali Group, is the burger-flipping robot “Flippy,” which uses a camera to identify items on a grill and operates in cooperation with a human, who still has to place uncooked burgers on the grill. Consumer-focused innovations include kiosks developed by another Cali Group subsidiary, which can use facial recognition technology for payments, order customization, or identification. The company insists that, despite these tech developments, the restaurant industry of the future will still strongly rely on a human element for both emotional labor and operations supervision.

Implications for the food and beverage industry: Cali Group appears to be becoming a leader in technological innovation for the restaurant industry. Maintaining equilibrium between current consumer interests in culinary techniques, scratch preparation methods, and freshness cues at restaurants is perhaps possible in a world of increased restaurant automation, but it will take a carefully considered balancing act to perform, one which should be unique to the value propositions of individual restaurants.

Walmart Attempts to Keep Pace with Amazon in Online Grocery

Earlier this year, Walmart announced that it will be making its same-day online grocery-delivery services available to over 40% of U.S. consumers living in 100 metro areas by the end of this year. The service, currently in 6 cities, will cover eligible orders over $30 and charge a flat fee of $9.95 on top of the order price. The move comes as Walmart seeks to keep up with Amazon’s rapid expansion of delivery services to consumers nationwide. Amazon recently made online orders from Whole Foods, which it owns, free for Prime members in certain cities, promising delivery within two hours (a one-hour delivery costs Prime members $7.99); Amazon plans to expand the service nationwide (in Whole Foods areas) by the end of this year.

Implications for the food and beverage industry: Walmart’s actions are clearly a direct response to Amazon’s command of online grocery and its new forays into fresh delivery as it begins to leverage Whole Foods’ brick-and-mortar footprint and cultural cachet. While Amazon’s delivery service is clearly a winner in terms of both price and time window, Walmart’s much more extensive physical retail presence nationally means that their service may be the more viable option for many. Walmart’s new offering is an appropriate move to make, but it remains to be seen whether it is too little, too late for capturing market share from Amazon in online grocery-delivery services.

Car Dashboard Ordering…A New Take on “Pay-as-you-go” Technology

The New York Times reports on how some new General Motors vehicles are now equipped with a free system called Marketplace, which enables drivers to order and pay for products and services (including restaurants) directly from the car, without a cell phone. Experts question the safety of such automation, but auto industry representatives say that the technology improves safety with a simpler user interface than phones.

Implications for the food and beverage industry: Car dashboard ordering and shopping is still in an early-adoption phase, but this technology is one with potential for disruption in both restaurants and grocery retail. With self-driving cars, the possibilities for use will expand significantly, too. Many companies, however, are not currently prepared for a likely future of cars as a simultaneous point of sale and self-driving delivery mechanism. Stay tuned as we continue to watch how consumers’ expectations of immediacy in the food space continue to evolve as technology advances beyond dashboard ordering in cars.

Chipotle: Digital Is to Infuse More Speed into Fast Casual

Fast casual icon Chipotle is looking to digital as the pathway toward growth. Chipotle has added pick-up shelves for digital orders and is testing drive-up windows for digital orders at several restaurants. They have added a second make-line dedicated to digital orders in about 750 restaurants with the expectation to implement the feature to all restaurants by the end of 2019.

Implications for the food and beverage industry: Digital does seem very clearly connected to throughput and increasing same-store sales, but it is also highly connected to customization of orders as a way to reinvigorate interest and buy-in. Digital ordering affords consumers the opportunity to spend more time thinking about what exactly they want to get, and then to get it more quickly when the time comes. So if done correctly, it can be a great combination of convenience and customization — two aspects that consumers clearly want in restaurants.

And yes, the lines in front of open-format stations can be a welcome opportunity that removes some of the pressure of deciding in the moment what you want, but in some cases, it isn’t the best look for restaurants unless everything is really fresh and appealing. Digital ordering alleviates both the consumer decision pressure and the potential for impressions to go bad.

The emphasis on digital seems to be a convenience play, one that may be part of a broader push to getting things moving faster, a QSR strength that perhaps Chipotle needed to work on. The question remains, however, about how Chipotle will layer in quality cues that currently come from open-production formats when they anticipate more traffic from people who spend less or no time inside the restaurants.

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Food & Beverage Occasions Consumer Package Goods Technology/Social Media Trends Foodservice/Restaurant


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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