Supporting smarter shopping experiences with technology

Scanning grocery store products


By Mya Kidson

Our fast-paced lifestyles have sparked significant changes in almost all consumer, family and technology experiences in the past 30 years – except shopping for food at grocery stores. University of Guelph researchers are at the forefront of determining how the food retail experience can be rethought to accommodate modern needs.

Prof. Simon Somogyi, School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management, and his research team are looking at the effectiveness of various smart retail technologies that carry out automatic transaction and track the amount of sales per product.

They’re specifically interested in radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, and how it could debut in grocery and convenience stores across Canada.

“We are in the generation of dual income families and everyone is busy trying to meet the needs of their families says Somogyi. “Our research is meant to help families obtain food more conveniently to accommodate their busy schedules.”

Somogyi is working with Stora Enso, an innovative food company that recently launched an intelligent packaging system that uses RFID tags on its products. These identification tags can be scanned by smartphones, which enables customers to instantly pay for the product when they scan it.

RFID tagged products can be stored in a smart fridge or cabinet which provides the same features — the customer scans and unlocks the fridge with their smartphone payment app. A receipt is sent to the customer through the app while the fridge tracks what items are taken and reorders said items before they are all sold.

Not only would smart retail create shorter checkout lines for consumers, it would also be beneficial for the food industry. RFID tags enable industries to track foods that are sold quicker. With this information, companies can refine their stocking methods to purchase less of what isn’t selling well and vice versa. This also maintains freshness of products better, providing higher quality food to consumers.

Somogyi wants to find out how feasible this intelligent technology can be for the future of retail. To conduct his research, this “smart” fridge will make an appearance in the innovative Longo’s food retail lab on campus — a lab that replicates an actual grocery store, shelved with real food products.

Unstaffed retail technology hasn’t caught on in North America. It made its debut in North America in the 1990s when people were able to scan and bag their own groceries. It enabled the installation of more checkout lanes to increase flow at grocery stores and paved the way for many more smart retail opportunities – but still, it makes up only about two per cent of retail experiences here (compared to half, in Asia). With a consumer push for more convenience, this percentage is expected to rise in coming years.

This research has been funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance.

Simon Somogyi is the Arrell Chair in the Business of Food and Director of the Longo’s Food Retail Laboratory in the School of Hospitality, Food & Tourism Management in the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics. Somogyi’s research team includes post-doctoral fellow Kimberly Thomas-Francois, PhD student Andrew Nixon, MSc students Pari Afzali, Dao Nguyen and Michael Yu, MA student Connor Fullerton and BComm student Emily Robinson.