By: Natalie Martinaitis ’25
English major and Creative Writing, Journalism Publishing and Editing minors
Brief Description: The food industry has evolved over time through the process of design thinking and with the convenience of customers in mind. But at what cost? New service models, some containing artificial intelligence, now risk the future of small businesses and jobs.
The following was written for Escape from Disaster: Design Thinking and Innovation (FYS 101-34).
The food industry has evolved over time. Barbara Rostkowski lived in Baltimore, Maryland in the mid-1960s, but previously worked on a farm in Brok, Poland. Rostkowski described her food shopping experience as the following: “Every Friday, grandma and I took the carriage and went to Broadway Market to buy the food… and every Friday afternoon, my [husband] would get different kinds of meats, and one day a week we went grocery shopping…and we [shopped] at the bakery for bread” (B. Rostkowski, personal communication, November 3, 2021). This meant shopping at multiple stores a week, just for different types of food items. Today, the food industry is much more streamlined due to the innovation of big box stores. Supermarkets (modern grocery stores) are not the only division of this industry affected by convenience. Restaurants were and are impacted by a need for convenience, with the introduction of the fast-food model and the idea of future technology, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), adjusting the service model of these businesses. Innovations in the food industry created more convenient and time-efficient systems for customers that radically changed human life. However, in exchange for convenience, new innovations disrupted areas of the industry by causing small businesses to close, resulting in a loss of jobs.
Supermarkets are one of the most revolutionary innovations to be introduced to the food industry. In 1916, Piggly Wiggly, the first American supermarket, opened in Memphis, Tennessee (Ross, 2016). This was the first “self-service” grocery store, meaning that instead of customers asking a clerk for certain items when entering the store, they retrieved the items from the shelves themselves. Before the invention of supermarkets, consumers needed to “store hop” to get their necessary groceries for the week. Shoppers needed to go to separate stores, called specialty stores, for different goods. Consumers needed to go to one place for meat (which was usually the local butcher), another place for bread (which was usually the local bakery), and yet another place for groceries like fresh fruit and vegetables (which was usually some kind of farmer’s market or grocery store). This “store hopping” could take several hours a week to complete and was not the most convenient way to shop for food items. There was a certain appeal to it—each of these different stores knew their customers well, and the customer would always know exactly what they were getting (B. Rostkowski, personal communication, November 3, 2021)—but it certainly took time, and time is a precious resource. Design thinking, or the process of putting “human needs at the forefront,” focuses on the need for a speedier shopping process (Godin & Pridmore, 2019). Supermarkets allowed consumers to buy all of their goods in one place using the aisle system, which placed goods of similar use together, and these good were arranged to “appeal to how customers shopped” (Ross, 2016). The aisle system was a life-changing innovation because it meant that many types of goods could be sold in one store and organized for the convenience of the shopper.
Convenience was also the main concern addressed when other innovations, such as the shopping cart, were introduced to this kind of shopping model. Shopping carts soon were built not only to hold groceries, but to seat small children (Ross, 2016). This method of design thinking appealed to parents, as they could suddenly bring their children into stores and safely keep an eye on them. With further design thinking, the supermarkets, and furthermore, the food industry, thought more deeply into making shopping more centered around the family unit, and tried to appeal to this set group, once again with convenience in mind. With the supermarket model, the food industry began what is called “process innovation,” or “a new way of doing something” (“Innovation,” 2018). Not only were shopping carts designed with children in mind, but the way aisles were laid out focused more on what children could see (Ross, 2016). This would mean that the more “desirable” goods for young children were placed at their eye level at the bottom of the shelves in the aisle, and the more “helpful” goods for adults were placed near the top. Originally, this feature allowed the shopping experience be more convenient for all, but the shopping model would soon be adopted for other purposes.
After the innovation of supermarkets, grocery items including meat, breads, milk, fruits, vegetables, and other goods began to appear in stores that did not sell groceries exclusively. These “big box” stores, such as Target and Walmart, as well as more modern grocery stores, such as Giant and Aldi, posed a serious threat to small businesses, such as local butchers and bakeries. As stated by Julia Conley (2020) in the news article “Common Dreams”: “as big box Stores thrive, 1 in 5 small businesses expect to close in next 6 months.” Big box stores not only posed a threat to small businesses, but also to supermarkets. They created an entirely new market that disrupted the food industry as a whole because they sold so many goods to appeal to a much wider set of human needs. In Targets and Walmarts across the U.S., there are a much wider range of products then just food items, and this offers a different kind of convenience to shoppers.
Food industry businesses such as supermarkets and small businesses were not the only aspects of the industry affected by this change. Jobs within these businesses were also severely affected by new innovations, particularly those that sought to replace the human-to-human experience. Just as convenience affected the way stores were organized, so too did it affect how employees were assembled. Because supermarkets no longer were considered specialty stores, anyone could be taught to do any job. More employees could be hired for less pay, and the productivity of these stores severely increased (Bouma, 1955). In 1992, a new kind of innovation was brought into supermarkets and stores everywhere: the self-checkout machine (NCR, n.d.). Suddenly, a machine could do the jobs of humans, and thus AI made its way into the food industry. Self-checkout machines took away the jobs of checkout staff. Self-checkout also posed a number of other issues, including increased customer frustration (Fawaz, 2017). Staff-checkout had “a stronger positive impact on the overall store quality, satisfaction and loyalty, than the quality of self-checkout” (Sharma et al., 2021). In an experience with a self-checkout machine, Christine Martinaitis, a Quality Manager for Bellmore Labs who has frequent contact with the Food and Drug Administration said, “It would have been faster to have human help to begin with, with the number of times I had to use the machine” (C. Martinaitis, personal communication, November 3, 2021). Martinaitis also added that “people are too impatient and want to check out. [It is] way too stressful” (Martinaitis).What first started as design thinking for convenience soon became the opposite with the introduction of AI and other related software that replaced humans, especially in the food industry.
Restaurants, a related branch of the food industry, were also impacted by the need for convenience and the use of AI. Restaurants used to rely on people sitting down to eat a meal and thrived on being able to provide customer service to then acquire tips. With the introduction of the fast-food model, which once again focused on convenience for the consumer, restaurants were suddenly in deep competition. The innovation of fast-food severely disrupted the existing restaurant market. But the future for restaurants, and furthermore, the fast-food industry, will come from the common practice of AI. The innovation of automatons in restaurants will make restaurant experiences in the future much different. The “smart ordering system” may be the new normal in restaurants, meaning that robots might soon be taking orders and delivering food in restaurants (Mishra, 2018). This also means that there is a potential for a major job loss in restaurants, which could severely impact the food industry.
Overall, the food industry’s design thinking process to make convenience a priority in its two major divisions, supermarkets and restaurants, caused severe disruption to the existing market of small businesses and took away jobs from those working within the industry. The innovation of AI continues to evolve throughout the industry and the future of the food industry will see significant change with further implementation. Jobs will continue to be affected by new software, whether it be self-checkout machines or robotic food deliverers. The future holds many new advancements for the food industry that could severely impact everyday life, just as the first supermarket did back in 1916.
Bouma, J. C. (1955). Methods of Increasing Productivity in Modern Grocery Warehouses (No. 94). US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service.
Conley, J. (2020, August 25). As big box stores thrive, 1 in 5 small businesses expect to close in next 6 months without urgent federal aid. Common Dreams. Retrieved November 11, 2021, from https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/08/25/big-box-stores-thrive-1-5-small-businesses-expect-close-next-6-months-without-urgent.
Fawaz, S. (2017, March 2). Three reasons why self-checkout machines are bad for everyone. Labor 411. Retrieved November 12, 2021, from https://labor411.org/411-blog/1457-three-reasons-why-self-checkout-machines-are-bad-for-everyone/#:~:text=Using%20self-checkout%20machines%20reduces%20the%20number%20of%20jobs%2C,pool%20increases.%202.%20Self-checkout%20machines%20don%E2%80%99t%20pay%20taxes.
Godin, J. J., & Pridmore, J. (2019). Using design thinking strategies and virtual reality in Global Virtual Teams. Issues In Information Systems, 20(4), 104–106. https://doi.org/10.48009/4_iis_2019_104-106
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Ross, A. (2016, September 9). America’s first supermarket at 100: How it changed the world. Time. Retrieved November 8, 2021, from https://time.com/4480303/supermarkets-history/.
Sharma, P., Ueno, A., & Kingshott, R. (2021). Self-service technology in supermarkets – do frontline staff still matter? Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 59, 102356. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jretconser.2020.102356