The Future of Grocery

After reading Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America, my imagination got the best of me.

Heinen’s is a central character in the book. It’s a fantastic grocery chain in Cleveland and Chicago. I couldn’t help but imagine the future of grocery shopping as I read the book.

I had a vision.

I’m walking up to a Heinen’s. I feel a haptic notification on my watch and glance down.

“Would you like to enter into Shopping Mode?”

I tell my watch, “yes,” and a prompt asks if I’ll need a shopping cart for the trip. I say, “yes.”

As I walk through the doors of Heinen’s, my shopping cart autonomously glides in my direction. I could push it, but I’d rather just let it follow me.

I browse the seasonal produce and discover a watermelon radish. I’ve never seen one before. I pick one up and hold it next to a screen in the produce display. A video automatically starts explaining what a watermelon radish is, where and how it’s grown and nutritional information. The video ends with some recipe recommendations based on other recipes I’ve shopped for in the past. I selected the “Watermelon Radish, Orange & Goat Cheese Salad.” I hear an alert on my phone.

My shopping app would like to know how many people will be joining me for the salad. I tell the app 6 people, and a shopping list is generated. Some of the items have a little icon indicating that they’ve been purchased in the past 10 days, and therefore, I might already have them at home. The shopping list also recommends pairing the salad with lamb. I like that idea. I head over to the meat section of the store.

As I walk up to the meat section, the butcher behind the counter greets me by name.

“Hi Justin, how are you doing man? How was that tomahawk steak last week?”

I know he probably doesn’t recognize me. He has an iPad queuing up my name with a picture of my face and recent purchases. I don’t care. I like the personalized treatment.

I tell him I’m looking for lamb. He recommends the Lava Lake Lamb. My phone notifies me that a video is available. The butcher greets another customer while I watch a quick video on Lava Lake Lamb. I’m sold. The butcher is busy packaging up meat, so I walk up to the meat case and use my finger to circle the pieces I want on the glass of the meat case. My watch confirms my selection and tells me I’m the 4th person in the queue. I go through the store collecting the rest of my shopping list while I wait to be alerted that my meat is ready.

When I’m ready to check out, I go to the bagging station. As I relocate everything from my cart to my bags, I watch the monitor tally up the total purchase. I confirm all the items and total is correct. The purchase is automatically deducted from my debit card. As I walk out of the store, my cart returns itself to the line of carts waiting for the next customer.

* * *

That’s the fucking future. Grocery stores will contract into smaller stores, and they will offer two primary purposes: specialized and educational shopping experiences as well as serve as a community hub.

To achieve this vision, Heinen’s needs an Innovation Butcher Shop. A place to slice and dice ideas into technical solutions. Heinen’s needs an innovation lab that outputs proven prototypes in alignment with the priorities of Heinen’s business objectives. The innovations would leverage technology and design thinking to – first and foremost – improve customer relationships, but there would also be resources applied to improving operational efficiencies and developing exclusive products for Heinen’s to retail.

This is an opportunity for Heinen’s to accumulate a portfolio of intellectual property that would directly benefit the Heinen’s customer experience as well as drive down operational costs and improve productivity. As Heinen’s demonstrates the benefits of this IP, they could then license the technology to grocers in other markets.

Why do so many forward-thinking companies have innovation labs? For dumb companies, it’s a lot of theater to recruit talent. For smart companies, innovation labs offer a nimble incubator to test ideas in a tight feedback loop. With small iterations, these loops can quickly develop prototypes to deploy across the business and unproductive ideas can be eliminated.

Grocery is no longer a brick and mortar destination. Grocery is the channel we get our food, and grocery can play any role it wants to in that channel. Grocers can become the farmers and grow produce directly on their shelves. Grocers can be the distributors and bring products to consumers’ doorsteps, and grocers can continue to act as retailers differentiated by unique shopping experiences and events.

The bottom line is Heinen’s has a loyal audience, and they have their physical attention while in the store – which gives Heinen’s a big opportunity to sell into this audience – and since grocery is no longer constrained to brick and mortar, Heinen’s can be selling products and services into this audience 24/7.

The innovation lab could explore the following…

Enhance Customer Intimacy

Relationships are cultivated through communication. Technology influences and shapes communication. Heinen’s could stay at the forefront of how people communicate and stay relevant in those channels.

Shopping Experience

The fact that Instacart and BlueAppron are billion dollar companies tells me there is too much friction in the grocery shopping experience for millennials. This friction could be eliminated with technology. Tools could be deployed to monitor and analyze the shopping experience to identify pain-points for consumers, and solutions could be tested.

Last Line of Defense

Grocery stores are uniquely positioned as the last line of defense between mass marketing and consumer health. There is a lot of confusing information published by food manufacturers. Grocery stores have a responsibility to cut through this bullshit and steer consumers to the facts. In coordination with local doctors, Heinen’s should prioritize education for their customers, and the innovation lab could coordinate the events and curriculum.

New Product Adoption Protocol

In addition to helping consumers navigate marketing messages, Heinen’s should have a process for new-product adoption. There are thousands of delicious and nutritious products that never gain traction because the manufacturers don’t effectively drive trail and in-store education. Heinen’s could offer a proven system for product adoption to young manufacturers in exchange for a portion of their trade spend. This would create a new revenue stream for Heinen’s and growth potential for new brands.

Delivery Services

The future is on-demand. To compete, Heinen’s could leverage their purchasing volume to compete with delivery services like produce delivery – think Farmer’s Box – or prepared meal delivery. These delivery services drive revenue from consumers when they’re away from the store. The innovation lab could identify the most cost-effective services and market them to consumers.

Exclusive Products

With everything on-demand, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to attract foot traffic into retail stores. Unique experiences will be an important draw, but unique and exclusive products can also pull people into stores. The lab could develop these products and source the supply chain.


You heard it hear Heinen’s. Now, go make my future happen.


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