As children, we were told never to play with our food. Then, as we grew up, we learned to suppress many other of our playful urges - mostly for good reason.However, long-dormant tendencies towards play could unlock some valuable brand potential and huge benefits for the grocery sector.

Some might say that UK supermarkets lack a sense of fun. The shopping experience is built purely around maximising efficiencies. As commercial decisions tend to drive the in-store experience, it’s no wonder the main grocers feel so similar to one another.

What our biggest retailers can forget is that a sense of fun creates significant business value, especially in light of a major shift towards online and the new breed of competitors that drive it. The concept of ‘play’ is a crucial area for brands to explore, as it creates an immersive and personal connection with the retailer that transcends the shopping experience.

The emphasis on valuable in-store experiences presents a competitive proposition to rival lean e-commerce pricing structures. Google’s recent (tentative) foray into physical stores demonstrates the potential of retail spaces even to the digital giants. Those who already have a brick and mortar presence are therefore in a strong position to leverage it.

To create an engaging, playful environment, brands must drive unique and personal interactions with people. This invariably involves a collaborative approach to communication. Brands must create an experience with their audience that is the product of ‘what can we do with you?’ rather than ‘what can we do for you?’

UK grocers have some catching up to do. We could do well to look at some examples from North America. The best examples of ‘playful experience’ within the sector are from smaller regional players and have gained an almost cult following. Connecticut’s Stew Leonard’s has been dubbed the ‘Disneyland of Dairy Stores’. Animatronic food characters dance in the aisles, an automated milk factory pumps produce into cartons, and the café features a petting zoo. Unsurprisingly, the stores draw customers from a wide r geographic area than normal supermarkets because people are happy to travel for the experience. Stew Leonard’s claims to have achieved the greatest sales per unit area of any single food store in the US.

Over on the West Coast, supermarket chain Trader Joe’s specialises in a less comprehensive range of products than competitors Walmart and 7-11, but with an original and ever-changing range of stock - and rotating store designs to match - the experience is more akin to a treasure hunt in a farmers’ market than your average grocery shop. Fun descriptions are over-detailed and longwinded, but the effect is to slow you down, encourage browsing, and, more importantly, provide a lighthearted, playful take on a chore. The store’s emphasis on staff interaction fosters a quirky and inherently personable brand.

Closer to home, Aldi and Lidl are pushing a playful approach. By consistently positioning own-label products next to best-in-class brands, the self-evident price benefit removes the need to push price messages. Instead, they communicate the quality of their growing list of awardwinning products in a self-assured, fun, goofy discounter tone. They’re cheeky chaps and you’re compelled to root for them!

Today, play is a serious business for retailers. For grocers, bringing your brand to life represents the chance to escape the race to the bottom line by growing an engaged and loyal customer base.

Play with your food again - it’s for your own good!

Nathan Watts