In 1955, photographer Elliott Erwitt snapped a photo of a bereted Frenchman riding his bicycle down a tree-lined road with a child and a pair of baguettes strapped to the rear. It’s easy to imagine the trip the man is returning from, during which he probably visited not only the boulangerie for his bread but also the fromagerie, the pâtisserie, and the charcuterie.
The notion of making daily trips to four different specialty shops to keep the larder stocked is hardly imaginable in the age of 100,000-square-foot superstores, but today’s grocery shoppers are starting to take a cue from the romantic era when the distance from the wheat field to the baker’s oven could be covered by bicycle.
While the next generation of grocery stores will make use of technology that would have once been unfathomable, many of those innovations will be used to close information gaps and shorten supply chains, making it possible once again for a shopper to see the face of the baker who made his bread, if only on the screen of his handheld device.
Dara O’Rourke founded the website and mobile app GoodGuide to lift the marketing veil from consumer products and give shoppers better information about the impacts of what they buy. “Soon almost everyone will have Internet-enabled supercomputers in their pockets,” O’Rourke says, “You’ll be able to go into a store, scan a bar code, and pull up anything you’d want to know. There’s going to be greater transparency about what’s in products and where they came from. I’d be surprised if in five years we had a product recall and couldn’t find out where the contamination originated.”
Sam Mogannam started working at his family’s small San Francisco grocery store when he was six years old. Some 30 years later, he has turned Bi-Rite into a thriving urban market and community hub where locally sourced products are a priority. Recently he
established a farm north of San Francisco to create a direct source for Bi-Rite. In the future, Mogannam predicts, “big corporate chains will experiment with smaller formats,” making it easier to maintain inventories of fresh, local food. “Our food supply is being manipulated to meet the demand of big chains. People don’t need 400 cereals. It’s all the same crap in different boxes.”
Cristian Campos, author of the book New Supermarket Design, has done extensive research into trends in grocery store design. “The evolution of supermarkets will come at the hand of digitization more than by the hand of ‘pure’ design,” he says, predicting that software will soon “plan the placement of products according to the routes of consumers inside a store, time spent in each aisle, and the best-selling products in that store.” But don’t be fooled: These “digital improvements” will be hidden behind a more natural, low-tech aesthetic that speaks to heightened interest in healthy and ecological food. “Graphics and designs will imitate public markets with natural light, warm colors, lots of wood, softer lines, and higher prices.”
Catherine Conway opened Unpackaged after testing the idea in a London market stall. The small shop sells bulk cleaning products, dry goods, and produce and encourages shoppers to bring their own refillable containers in which to take their purchases home. “We have loyal customers who are willing to change the way they do things. Now producers are getting in touch to see if they can sell products to us without packaging,” she says. “It saves the manufacturer and the consumer money.”
Martí Guixé uses food as a medium for questioning social behavior and mass consumption. From designing edible ingredients to working with packaging and restaurant design, Guixé regards food as an object and a material for creative manipulation, rather than simply a source of flavor and energy. While graphics and messaging on packages can change consumer behavior to a point, rethinking the contents inside, Guixé argues, can go even farther. “Food design, if properly done, should eliminate superfluous packaging.”
Ted Selker, the former head of MIT’s Context-Aware Computing Group, has developed numerous smart systems for the kitchen, including his prototype of the Living Food Green Storage refrigerator. “We asked, What if you take vegetables from an ordinary grocery store and, instead of putting them in a cold, dry refrigerator, give them light and warmth—–treat them like flowers? Instead of embalmed, shocked veggies, we have living ones.” Not all foods require uniform storage conditions. His concept provides compartments of various temperatures, light levels, and degrees of humidity.
Clive van Heerden leads innovation research for Philips Design. The company’s recent Food Probes looked at how design can support changes in the way we eat and source food. The Home Farming Unit—–one of three Food Probe concepts—–is a small biosphere that contains live seafood and grows vegetables. It’s a tool for self- sufficiency and energy conservation. “You would consume only what you need at a given time, reducing the need for refrigeration,” explains van Heerden. “Supermarkets would adapt their storage and displays to sell live, growing produce, which would cut down substantially on packaging.”