The Future of Food (and other retailing) : No Advertising?

Technology and information will increasingly determine our consumer product choices and change the way food and other consumable goods are marketed, distributed, and sold

I spoke at the Techspo Conference (Dirt-Data-Droids) in Western Australia last week on the future of agriculture in 2027. In part that future is tied into the future of retailing of food and fibre. On the consumer side I proposed that we are on the verge of a complete disruption of the retailing of food around the world. This will be led by changes in the advertising and distribution model as well as other factors. (see: The Supermarkets Demise – A Scenario which is also linked to an earlier post ). This piece expands some of the thinking in those posts further.

These changes to food retailing will be part of a larger change in retailing. Technology will play a much larger part in determining our purchasing preferences.  There will be two parts to this story.

Firstly, we will move some of our purchasing decisions into the hands of technology in a similar way that Nespresso has influenced the purchasing of coffee. It will be far more sophisticated, and less subject to product substitution by the consumer than the Nespresso process. This will be because the systems will provide complete supply solutions in a way that makes our lives easier. The technology and purchasing will disappear into the background, and it will be too much effort to change them. This will solidify our habits

Secondly, technology developments at the consumer level will facilitate the use of information in a way that has not been possible to date. This will increase the value of influencers. Additionally, new technologies will provide more detailed, and continual information about the products we purchase.
The combination of these two changes will alter the advertising and distribution models for consumer goods.

Jeff Bezos has long been famous for stating that “your margin is my opportunity”.  One of the major margins in consumer goods is marketing and advertising. It is the reason why branded products can sell at much higher margins than home brands. What if Jeff Bezos (and others) can eliminate most of the advertising costs. Statista has estimated that global advertising costs in 2017 will be US$547.37 billion. That is a hell of a margin to take advantage of. Statista has also shown that advertising has been steadily growing. This is happening even while digital advertising takes over from more traditional methods. This means that I am bucking against that trend so let’s look at the logic of how it might happen.

Last week CNET published an article on a concept scanner from Bosch (pictured).


The X-Spect scanner is a combination of two optical scanners. Together they are able to determine which stains are on your clothes, and how they should be washed. It does this by uploading the data it creates from the scanner to the cloud. An algorithm then determines the result which is sent back to the scanner. You can then send the washing instructions to your washing machine. It is not a long leap from that process to Bosch having partnerships with laundry detergent companies. Bosch will recommend, direct order, and deliver three or four varieties of detergent to go with several wash settings. Possibly in partnership with Amazon as a logistics back end. The process of washing your clothes will be: scan, separate into piles, press this button and add this detergent for the first pile, and so on. It is not hard to then imagine that the detergent will come in pods like your Nespresso machine and pressing the wash type button will add the decided detergent. As soon as that detergent type is below a certain level in your machine it will be automatically ordered and delivered to you. You do not care about your detergent type, you care about getting clean clothes. Think about Nespresso advertising. Are they advertising the coffee or trying to get take up of the machines to lock you in?

How Stuff Works says that the average life of a new washing machine is 11 years. If the system as described above works, you will hand over your preference for washing detergent to Bosch for 11 years once you buy the system. You are no longer a viable prospect for advertising for laundry detergent on any media. This adds to the fragmentation of audience that is occurring as media choices widen. If less people in a group are valuable to advertise to then you either target them more specifically, or you come up with an alternative model.

This is an extension of the sort of work that Amazon has been doing on the Amazon Dash Button and the Amazon Wand.  Amazon has been making these products free for Prime Subscribers (around 85 million people) by giving subscribers a credit to the Amazon store of equal or greater value than the hardware price. They are doing this in the same way that printers, and Nespresso machines are subsidised. They are chasing the lifetime value of the customer rather than the hardware margin. This is the opposite of the Apple model where the business is designed around locking you into constant high margin hardware upgrades. In Amazon’s case the prize is much larger than printer supplies, or coffee pods. They attempting to capture most of consumers spending on consumables, and consumer goods.
This sort of change drives changes around the retail market:
  • Direct delivery is determined by the technology. The machine will automatically replace its consumables. The button or wand will deliver products to you at the touch of a button. There is no longer any need or desire to buy these products at a shop. This reduces retail volumes at physical shops.
  • The Wand technology is more complex in that it is seeking to create a wider ecosystem using recipe recommendations. This is because food involves more detailed purchasing decisions. If it is successful then the results are similar – your influences and decisions are tied to the Amazon system and their direct delivery.
  • If advertising spend is reduced then Amazon (and others) can use that margin to compete and/or subsidise delivery systems.
So in a world that looks like this what happens to advertising and discovery?
  • First of all the advertising margin for the consumables could be re-purposed to reducing the costs of the hardware. Just like ink or laser cartridge margins are used to subsidise printers. Imagine a washing machine that can do all the things described above but is cheaper than a current model that can’t.
  • Secondly they could be tied to a leasing arrangement where you agree to a forward contract for consumables. The reduced advertising spend reduces your lease commitments.
  • Alternatively more marketing dollars will be focused at the point of purchase of the hardware.
  • fouthly information and influencers may become more important in these decision points.


If we look at this third point then obviously our decisions on food products can occur without connections to the technology discussed above. But they will still be mediated by technology. The launch of the Apple iPhone X may represent a tipping point here. The new iPhones have been built with augmented reality experiences in mind. We are already seeing some interesting applications using the developer kit. However, the process of pointing your phone or tablet towards an object to use augmented reality is still somewhat clunky.
What we need to remember is that the iPhone is 10 years old this year. If you compare the technology difference between the new iPhone and the original iPhone the changes are stunning. If we extend out another 10 years to 2027 we are likely to see a similar level of technology differences. We may be in the early stages of technology that powers glasses or contact lenses that can perform augmented reality processes. If this comes true then we will see information attached to every object in the world.
So if we look at food and other consumable goods, easily accessed information changes buy decisions. We are not going to dive down into every piece of information that is available every time we buy something. Most of us are too lazy or hardwired into habits to do that. When we look at discovery and trial of new products or an alternative it does matter. In this area information and influencers will be very important. In a shopping ecosystem like Amazon search is vital for discovery rather than advertising. Jeff Bezos does not want people spending on advertising inside the Amazon store. What drives purchasing decisions is a great search capability, and the capacity to look at the views of people that you trust inside the review environment. What happens if you can access that system and that information any time you are thinking about buying stuff? That is what augmented reality in a more usable form can bring. That can displace advertising.
Which takes us back to my presentation on agriculture. My key message was that information was becoming more and more vital to farmers. In agriculture we are starting to enter an era where farmers will have more and more information. They will be able to see continual streams of data from their land,crops, and animals using systems like The Yield. They will be able to get frequent data from the air using drone systems. Farmers will use this information to reduce their operating costs. At the same time they will be able to communicate more to consumers about their product. That communication can be direct to the consumer for farmers that are value adding their own products. It will also be a requirement of supply chains into larger scale markets.
A lot of people are concerned that the advent of augmented reality in glasses/lens form will result in a polluted visual environment where we are continually bombarded with advertising related to our location and our personal data. Paradoxically this may drive people towards less advertising. The changes i have described here may assist that change.
If I am right then the nature of shopping changes, and along with it the nature of advertising. Along with business models that depend on advertising. It could be a very different world.
Paul Higgins





The Supermarkets Demise – A Scenario

Back in November I wrote a post entitled: Are The Two Major Supermarkets in Australia Doomed?

If you are at all involved in the retail food chain I suggest you go and read it in full. The short answer is yes, but it will be a slow train crash.

A story in MIT Technology Review last week illustrates one of the possible models that can replace the supermarket model of today:

Autonomous Grocery Vans Are Making Deliveries in London


Of course supermarkets will be trying to incorporate such systems into their business model as well but my view is that because of their underlying legacy systems they will find the transition close to impossible.

The story is about a quite limited trial but it points towards a possible future:

“On the back of the vehicle are eight pods, each with a crate that can hold three bags of groceries. The van is filled by human hands from a small distribution center—in this case, a larger Ocado van, which stores 80 of those crates—and sets off following a route to its drop-offs, which is broadly planned in the cloud but ultimately executed by the vehicle. When it arrives at an address, the customer is alerted via smartphone and must press a button on the vehicle to open a pod door and grab the groceries.”

In terms of the final use case:

“Clarke imagines vehicles like these being used to provide on-demand delivery of groceries from a small nearby distribution hub, so that instead of booking a delivery slot customers hail their groceries—when they arrive home from work, say, even if it’s late at night.”

This ties in with an interesting analysis of the IPO for Blue Apron, the food company which delivers meal recipes and the main ingredients for those meals to your door. In that analysis in the New York Times, chef Amanda Cohen theorised that the Blue Apron model may destroy itself. She describes the fact (which went against her initial view) that many people she has spoken to said that the Blue Apron process had given them the confidence to cook more. If she is correct then this means that Blue Apron is training its customers not to need it any more, not a great business model as it means lifetime value of a customer may be severely limited.

The combination of these stories may point to a completely different future. As Amanda Cohen says:

‘” In Hong Kong, many people swing by a “wet market” on their way home from work and pick up the vegetables, fish or beef they’re going to eat that night. Same thing in France, Latin America, South Korea or pretty much everywhere people don’t load up their giant S.U.V.s with giant quantities of groceries to store in their giant fridges once a week. The meal kit model of keeping some staples in the cupboard and getting the fresh stuff as you need it is the market way of doing things”

One of the major problems with food delivery systems and in particular with automated delivery systems is what do you do with the fresh stuff because timeliness and the refrigeration process really matters. This is exacerbated by the fact that people are home at different times of the day or night and cannot necessarily take delivery when the delivery system wants to deliver . Various ways of solving this have been proposed including smart delivery lockers in apartment buildings or the local post office, etc. I can see that models emerging where all of the non-fresh goods can be delivered by an automated delivery system from a small local storage facility where you request delivery when you are home, just like you do when requesting an Uber right now. There may even be discounts for people who take quick delivery so storage space is always available, or people who will take a shared delivery and therefore will wait longer.

If this is part of a wider adoption of driverless cars then it can be part of a larger change. Driverless cars do not need to park, or at least do not need to park in busy or congested areas. I am an advocate for a driverless car adoption model where government or privately owned fleets provide transport as a service and surpasses the personal vehicle ownership model that has dominated the last hundred years. Even if that does not come true individual owners can hire out their driverless car when they are not using it so it does not have to be parked in front of the house or the office, or at the train station.

I I imagine a changed urban environment where mass adoption of autonomous vehicles changes the urban landscape by freeing up parking areas on streets and parking facilities . The freed up space on streets creates the capacity for more foot traffic, and increases in safe bike lanes while, driverless vehicles increase the capacity for people to travel for short trips locally. The parking facilities can be repurposed for storage and/or specialty markets for fresh products.
In that changed local environment we could see a model where large scale supermarkets are no longer the norm, where specialty fresh food stores spring up everywhere within easy travel distance of people’s homes. These specialty stores would be powered by the back end logistics that Amazon creates for Whole Foods, or their competitors (go read Ben Thompson’s excellent post: AMAZON’S NEW CUSTOMER for more details on their strategy) You would pick up your fresh product and speciality items on your way home from work or by a short walk or bike ride, or driverless car ride to the local store. Automated vehicles would deliver the staples to your door on request using pre planned orders or automated ordering systems like the Amazon Dash Wand.

In many areas this could revive the concept of neighbourhoods that really work in urban environments.

There are many ways the supermarket model will be attacked in the future. This is just one possible scenario. Given the pace of driverless car adoption and capacity for the car industry to deliver the full model is still a fair way off. The automated delivery system is not so far off. It fits the four level of automated driving systems by being in a geofenced area (local delivery only from a small storage/transfer facility), and carried out at low speed to reduce the risk of accidents. Full level 5 driving automation where vehicles can go anywhere in all conditions and no driver actions required are a lot further off. That does not mean there will not be continuing experiments with automated food delivery systems.

As Ben Thompson states in his article groceries are about 20% of consumer spending (USA). That is a big prize and lots of people are going to be going after it. Long term an automated vehicle delivery system will be a part of that. How big a part, and in what form remains to be seen.


I am writing a book on the adoption of driverless cars with Chris Rice entitled Rise of the Autobots: How driverless vehicles will transform our societies and our economies. Follow me here or on Twitter for more updates as we write and publish.

Paul Higgins