Harvard Hero Moment #39: Getting smarter at the supermarket

Ben Clayton

27 Jul 2020

Those that know me are probably asking why on earth my hero moment is essentially a barcode reader – a technology that’s been around since the 70s. But other than Strava, which was Hero Moment #37, the Sainsbury’s Smartshop app has actually been a lockdown game-changer, so hear me out. When the pandemic struck, consumer brands were quick to reassure customers that they’re here to help – and rightly so. Supermarkets in particular were arguably the most important part of the high street as the UK entered lockdown, and TV adverts reflected this. But now we’re stepping out of the initial shock of the pandemic, consumers are increasingly seeking practical support and help in their day-to-day lives. You only need to look at businesses that have seen growth during the current situation – Amazon, Zoom, and Bloom & Wild to name a few. This is what led me to consider this app as my hero moment. The Sainsbury’s Smartshop app has quite literally saved me hours queuing at the checkout, which is not only longer than ever before, but more dangerous due to greater human interaction. The retail sector is often ahead of the curve when it comes to technology. We’ve seen virtual reality (VR) used to design kitchens for year. IKEA has Place so you can see how items will look in your home. And if we think about online services, Amazon Prime means we can get almost anything delivered within a few days, if not hours. But this technology has sometimes been to the detriment of the high-street, with consumers often using physical stores as a place to browse before ultimately making their purchase online. So the SmartShop app is more than just a guilt-free way to put extra bottles of wine through the checkout. It’s a lifeline to the high street. A happy medium between the convenience of online shopping and the experience of being in-store. Similar apps are being rolled out across different areas of retail. IKEA is now working with German start-up Snabble so shoppers can purchase flat-pack furniture and Daim Bars without queuing. It’s a win-win for retailers too. There’s been a shift to self-service tills over the past few years and this is another step in that direction. It allows retailers to optimise floor space and use staff in other areas. That’s before you even get into the marketing opportunities that it opens up. We’re now moving beyond offers that are emailed on a weekly basis or coupons sent through the post. Getting consumers to firstly download an app and secondly share location data was never going to be easy, but the self-service apps such as Smart Shop and Place have prompted customers to willingly take that step. It’s only a matter of time before we start seeing another layer of push notifications and features to better guide us through traditional bricks and mortar stores. A high-street saviour, a germ-free way of shopping, and a marketing triumph. That’s what I call a supermarket sweep.