The Digital First Future

The accelerating pace of technology driven change continues to heighten consumer expectations. In our on-demand economy, services like UberX, Amazon Prime and Starbucks Order Ahead, have redefined what "convenience" means to shoppers. The next five years will see the pace of technology driven change intensify with two major trends impacting the retail and grocery sectors. These trends will unfold in waves, with the first impacting the market over the next one to two years followed by the second impacting the market in the three to five year time frame.

Automating the moment of inspiration is the first of these trends. "The moment of inspiration," is that instant when a consumer realizes they are out of milk, cereal or toilet paper and need to replenish on their next store visit. Unfortunately, we so often forget to jot it down or note it into our phones, only to realize we still don't have those items when we return home from the store.

Until recently, capturing this moment has been an out-of-reach opportunity for retailers. But that began to change in 2014 when Amazon launched the Amazon Dash Wand, a fridge magnet with a barcode scanner and voice recognition technology. With a single click of the device, shoppers can scan a product or dictate an item, and the product or spoken word instantly ends up on their Amazon shopping list. Amazon rightfully identified that shoppers and their purchases could be lured through an easier, more convenient experience. And as a side benefit, this would allow Amazon to know their shoppers' purchase intents, track conversion, and communicate accordingly.

Amazon didn't stop there. Rather, this was the start of a new "convenience" movement. They subsequently released the Amazon Echo — a hands-free, voice-controlled speaker, with the ability to capture that moment of inspiration in the simplest possible way — through a spoken sentence: "Alexa, add toilet paper to my shopping list".

Voice assistants like Alexa, Google Home and the rumored future response from Apple are designed to connect with 3rd party devices and services like a digital thermostat, a smartlock or Uber account to serve as a personal assistant that can automate almost every aspect of a consumer's life. Soon, everything will only be a request away. The next digital frontier beyond the mobile phone is not the watch — it's a natural conversation.

Thanks to new machine learning technologies, retailers will be able to create their own voice-based "bots" that will connect with these devices and provide services to shoppers. In the grocery sector, a consumer could ask about products on sale at their local supermarket and be met with a reply, "yes, brand X is on sale for $2.99; shall I add it to your shopping list?"

In the slightly longer, three to five year time frame, we will see a phenomenon called "mixed reality." MR is the merging of real and virtual worlds, whereby digital objects are overlaid onto the physical world via glasses (and one day, contact lenses!) in order to create a new combined experience.

Major tech titans including Microsoft, Facebook and Google are investing in this space. Microsoft is building their HoloLens to transform the entire living room into a gaming space, while Google was a lead investor in Magic Leap, one of the most heavily funded startups of all time with more than $1 billion raised.

Retailers are beginning to test out the possibilities of MR via their mobile apps. Lowe's is using MR technology to enhance the in-store experience with Lowe's Vision, their app that guides customers through the store by overlaying a yellow pathway onto the real world store to help customers find items faster.

For grocery, MR will provide the shopper with a deeper, more helpful experience that keeps them connected across the entire path to purchase — from shopping, to purchasing, to consumption. Some in store examples include, providing a heads-up display of the shopping list and guiding shoppers through aisles based on listed items, overlaying products on shelves with personalized dietary information or coupons or helping shoppers identify which products are needed for a recipe. At home, the possibilities of MR include looking heads up displays which show product reviews, recipes and cooking instructions.

There is a wealth of opportunity and change lying in the years ahead for the grocery industry, thanks to technologies including voice assistants, chatbots and mixed reality. To set yourself up for success, keep an eye on the horizon while ensuring that you are building a solid technology foundation, as the shopping experience of tomorrow will be digital-first.

Chris Bryson is CEO of Toronto-based Unata, a company he founded in 2011 to transform grocery shopping by streamlining in-store and online experience.