The distinction between retailers, consumers and brands is being blurred as technology revolutionises the way people buy their groceries.
Consumers are becoming ever more empowered by technology, according to two new reports that present a fascinating insight into the way shopping behaviour is set to change over the next decade. Yet, far from being worried about surrendering more power to consumers, brands and retailers are actively enfranchising them, suggest the TNS and IBM reports.
According to TNS, which polled nearly 5,000 primary household shoppers in the UK and seven other countries around the world, three quarters of consumers expect to be actively involved in developing new products and brands by 2015.
In the UK alone, 78% of shoppers questioned predict that within the next generation, brands will create collaborative product development websites that will blur the line between manufacturer and consumer.And 73% of UK consumers, believe group buying online will be widespread by 2015.
Online groups of Asian shoppers are already using social networking sites to buy goods in bulk, at discount, directly from manufacturers, according to TNS. "Group buying via social networking may sound far-fetched, but it is already happening elsewhere in the world on a grand scale," says Mary Brett Whitfield, vice president at TNS Retail Forward. "In retail markets where the distribution channels are less mature than in the UK and US, it makes sense for consumers and manufacturers."
Collaborative buying could take off in Western markets as well, she says, and according to the TNS data, consumers certainly seem to be on side. It's not just the consumer who's calling the shots. Retailers are working around the clock to ensure they don't lose out to online grocers by making the in-store environment even more relevant to their customers.
Both reports point, for example, to the emergence of the 'smart cart' in the next few years - a shopping trolley equipped with sat-nav and more. In its 'Next 5 in 5' report, IBM says its retail clients are working on fitting computers to trolleys that provide nutritional, provenance and carbon footprint information about items placed in them. The computers will know where the shopper is in the store and therefore be able to help shoppers locate products on shelf and check prices, says Chris Osborne, business transformation consultant at IBM.
Another initiative could see mobile phones replace plastic loyalty cards, according to IBM. Consumers would be able to receive tailored promotions through their phones, and be able to place orders and arrange delivery from remote locations. Stores will also send texts to mobiles warning shoppers when a purchased product has been recalled. The store will automatically credit shoppers' accounts for the cost of the product.
"Retailers are working with manufacturers to provide a richer shopping experience for consumers," says Osborne. "They are aiming for targeted and meaningful promotions."
IBM's research found 72% of consumers wanted to know more about their food. To that end retailers and manufacturers are collaborating on digital "passports" for food.
These would take the form of RFID tags attached either to pallets or individual items that would be able to provide information on the exact location and environment the food is produced in, the air quality and temperatures of the shipping containers and what impact the production of the item has on the environment, enabling shoppers to make more eco-friendly decisions.
The research also predicts greater use of biometric payment systems, which allow a shopper to make purchases by touching a fingerprint sensor, which links to the shopper's bank account.
Of course, if consumers want more control of their shopping experience, they will have to pay a price. "What retailers are eventually able to bring to market is directly related to how much personal information consumers are prepared to divulge," says Osborne. "Most of what is being developed is based on what retailers know about each customer. This means the various schemes have to work on an opt-in basis. Consumers must be happy to give up the personal information in the first place."
If they are happy to make this sacrifice, shoppers will soon have more power than ever over the way they buy groceries. The question is: will it change not just the way they shop, but what they buy? n