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Can we break 4000 year-old shopping habits?

Updated: Nov 25, 2022

They say old habits die hard but to break ones that have been knocking around for 4000 years sounds just that little bit harder.

Imagine a world where you could reduce the length of time spent on your food shopping by 75%.

Well, it now exists! Here in 2022 AD, tech is already there to help the shopper save on the big three shopping barriers: time, money, and angst.

Tech such as AI, APIs, algorithms – whichever way you wish to define it - are making great inroads. We’ve heard about smart fridges that tell you the contents of your fridge and their expiry dates to help you plan your shopping: now your smartphone, apps and widgets have been developed to help you decide what to cook via recipes that link directly into your online grocery shopping.

This is simply a development of age-old behaviour: shopping lists and recipes have been found since at least 2000 BC in Egypt-Mesopotamia.1 It is no surprise that our self-funded WindowOn research, where we are keeping tabs on changing consumer habits, shows list-making to plan meals continues to be a stable shopping habit for at least 62% of shoppers of all ages.

Scholars are recreating ancient recipes from cuneiform tablets

A more recent activity of course is the search for inspiration around recipes as a common pastime: more than 70%2 of adults use social media instead of cookbooks for recipes.

Retailers (and publishers on any platform) have been getting in on the act too, with digital expertise from companies such as Northfork, that will convert a digital recipe into a product in-store basket. Jez Collins from Northfork explains:

“Collaborating directly with retailers, the journey starts with the content.”

Recipes feature heavily on retailers’ landing pages and Northfork also has the technical foundation for enriching recipe apps (e.g. Tasty) while shopping. The basket is then handed over to the retailer for check-out.

Northfork claims this delivers value and volume sales growth, with fresh produce categories thriving. We understand that consumers only cook from a handful of their favourite recipes, so it’s of no surprise that shopping by recipe results in a wider repertoire of products bought. Jez Collins from Northfork tells us that for one of their lead retailer clients (Coop, Sweden), 1 in 6 baskets contain a recipe. There are some very clear shopper benefits:

“When it is done right, it [the use of the recipe product collator] can reduce the length of time spent shopping by some 75%.”

Shoppers, consumers and the environment also benefit from a whole bundle of upsides: healthier eating, money saving or fitting with my personal cost and quality balances, less waste (precise measurement of fresh foods), scratch cooking and even energy saving, all of which can assist in the cost-of-living challenges faced by many consumers. On top of this, Jez Collins explains that the retailer has the opportunity to deliver a positive experience by reducing the burden of the repetitive, mundane, weekly or daily meal planning:

“By meeting the consumer at the point of inspiration.”

and importantly, the recipe experience is protected: any external shocks such as shortage of specific foods or supply issues results in recipe removal “If it’s not in stock, the recipe is not displayed”. Poor experiences must be avoided allowing trust to develop in order to drive repeat behaviour.

Northfork in Action

While this space is characterised by ambitious start-ups such as Northfork collaborating directly with retailers and recipe apps, other companies such as Whisk operate slightly different models. Here, the consumer signs up and saves recipes/ smartphone online lists. Whisk then uses AI to match ingredients to what is currently in stock and still fresh in the local area and organises for local delivery/ click and collect.

James Leech, head of product at Sainsbury’s, says: “Customers are increasingly choosing to do their grocery shopping and find recipes online. They need to find their favourite foods quickly and conveniently and this new partnership with Whisk will help inspire shoppers with a huge range of recipe ideas and make it even simpler for them to add to their bag and buy.”3

There are also the more “traditional” recipe box delivery service gurus (Hello Fresh/ Gorillas) who are keeping the market competitive with claims about less waste, fewer trips to the grocery stores and therefore less expensive shopping. Timeliness is also key here with companies like Kavell, based in Sweden, offering groceries to your door in 10-minutes via their app.

So, what’s in prospect for the next five years? Forecasting is never more difficult but the combined impact of all these offers means there is great potential for recipe experience shopping behaviour to prosper, with tech and AI playing a critical part in this, particularly among younger shoppers. Our latest WindowOn trend report shows smartphone usage for list compiling at 68% among 18-24 versus 15% for 65+ and while usage of other smart devices (Smart speaker, TV, iWatch, Smartwatch) is currently relatively low, it is expected to grow.

While not all applications are success stories (e.g. Amazon Dash buttons), the role of tech will continue to challenge or disrupt 4000 year old shopping habits of grocery lists and recipe inspiration. As always, the challenge for retailers is to educate, remind and of course, provide consumers with the benefits of convenience and saving time and money. Some shoppers will embrace the tech, others will continue to shop how they have always done, wedded to their routines. Here at Touchstone Shoppercentric, we will continue to monitor how this evolves alongside other dynamics that nudge shopping and consumer behaviour.

Expert in Shopper – Consumer – FMCG - Leisure and Culture

Marie Screene & Rob Bates

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