After stocking up: from safe shopping to robot shopping?

Fiera Milano, Rho


After stocking up: from safe shopping to robot shopping?

Between two and three-figure growth and doubts regarding the future, a smart home will increasingly become the hub of consumption.  The sector will have to respond with new products, hi-tech solutions and fast but precise communication.

Is it true that all that glitters is not gold? The agri-food sector is one of those least affected by the emergency but, nevertheless, the lockdown has created some difficulties here too. According to data published by ISTAT, in March, considering the same dates, production decreased by 6.5% compared to the same month in 2019. Fears mainly concern exports: from 2008 to the present day, the figure had practically doubled (+98%), accounting for roughly a quarter of total turnover, 40 billion euro out of 140. It is now estimated that 30% of this value may be at risk.




Between stocks, homemade and e-commerce


Can domestic consumption at least partially offset this drop? The regular surveys carried out by the Observatory, used to prepare the now traditional report, are a good indicator. Between 24 February and 15 March, total sales recorded +14.6%. In the first three weeks (from 24 February to 15 March) the anxiety that forced people to stock up on food sent sales of vegetables (+65%), pasta (+53%), rice (+48%) and oil (+35%) rocketing skywards. Suitability for long conservation has brought products that had long been absent from supermarket trolleys for a long time back to popularity, such as canned meat (+62%) and powdered soups (+37%).


As it became clear that the lockdown was going to continue but that this was not going to pose a problem in terms of availability of food, the increase returned to a more moderate figure, settling over a period of eight weeks (from 24 February to 19 April) at +5.6%. Again, according to Coop, packaged food is the main driver of sales (accounting for +10.3% throughout the entire lockdown), while fresh and very fresh produce, which started out in double figures, lost some of its momentum in the transition from phase one to phase two, settling at the end of the period at +6.9%.


Data from Nielsen reveal the channels that Italians are preferring. Between 17 February and 3 May, from the first signs of the epidemic in Italy and the start of the reopening phase, supermarket sales recorded growth of +4.2%. The increase was driven mainly by Superettes (+26.9%), confirming a return by consumers to medium-sized neighbourhood stores, followed by Supermarkets (+12.9%) and Discount stores (+7.9%). Reductions were seen in Drugstores (-10.6%) and Hypermarkets (-9.8%). Like the other analysts, Nielsen confirms triple figure growth for the e-commerce channel: the trend in sales of fast moving products during the same period was +144.6%, with a peak in growth in the fourth week of April, equating to +304.6%.




A look at the near and not-so-near future


What scenarios can we expect in the second half of the year? Which of these trends look likely to be consolidated?


In an extensive survey of consumer behaviour, the Havas Commerce Observatory asked consumers which factors they will take into greatest consideration when the emergency is over. Two moods emerge strongly: substantial prudence and greater awareness. The vast majority of those interviewed (85.3%) say that they will pay particular attention to the price of food, while 80.3% will pay particular attention to food safety, specifically the absence of antibiotics and pesticides, It is, however, interesting to note that joint third place goes to local production chains (75.0%) and respect for employees and those involved in the production process (75.7%). Next, and once again jointly, come products made with respect for animal welfare (71.5%) and products originating from ethical production chains (71.2%). The relative majority of consumers (46%) think that their economic situation at the end of the lockdown will be worse than it was before the emergency, with 35% thinking it will be the same. It comes as no surprise, then, that 64% of consumers say that they will pay more attention to their spending, even if this means going without products that make them happy.


In the mid-term, Euromonitor has looked at how the emergency has altered the course of trends for 2020. The international analyst expects many consumers to choose at least partial self-isolation even after restrictions are lifted. Beyond Human, meaning the use of automated technologies, is concentrating on contactless payments and delivery services using drones and self-drive vehicles. The home will continue to be the hub of consumption and many products will have to adapt to a multifunctional model that bridges the gap between work and leisure. Living in a hyper-connected home will increase privacy concerns and companies will have to be more cautious about their data collection requests. Trends that have been confirmed include increasing customisation, not only in terms of product but also of availability of proximity services, and increasingly fast communication which, in a sea of hyper-information, aims to capture the customer within seconds. But which will increasingly incorporate values into its narrative.


And further ahead? Perhaps sooner than expected, like in the recent TV series Upload, we will find a robot arm at the supermarket checkout. According to another international analyst, Kantar, the use of grocery robots is already growing in supermarkets in the US. This has two aims: to ensure social distancing and to reduce running costs. For the time being, they are used mainly for cleaning, home delivery and repetitive operations, in the warehouse for example. But, who knows, we might soon find ourselves interacting with an AI on a touchscreen at the checkout.