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Technology case study: data analysis

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Big data is big business, and data analysis has set its sights on the food industry as its next big conquest.

The Whole Foods/Amazon merger was driven by data analysis and was predicated on the ability of sophisticated technology to predict consumer trends, customer preferences, and reveal new methods of keeping up with competitors.

Kroger’s use of historic data analysis allowed the chain to cut its average wait time at checkout stations from four minutes to less than 30 seconds.

Brick Meets Click was founded in 2011 and brings its team of analysts, subject matter experts, and thought leaders to bear on new digital opportunities in the produce industry’s retail space.

As the divide between brick-and-mortar stores and digital marketplaces continues to blur, the company helps its clients navigate the new technology frontier by pointing out opportunities they might not realize exist.

To further understand the way data analysis can impact produce businesses, we spoke with the company’s chief architect, Bill Bishop, who founded Willard Bishop Consulting LLC and has overseen his share of grocery industry disruption.

Change is coming, Bishop warns, and it’s coming fast.

“There are many changes that need to be made as a result of the digital revolution in retail,” he said. “The digital transformation increased integration in supply chains up and down the food system, and all players need to be prepared for the technical and business integration enabled by this technology.”

Consolidation has only accelerated the process, making the need for solid data analytics even more indispensable.

Produce, Bishop notes, is still a very decentralized business, where many of the major players are family businesses that may not be as inclined to adopt new technologies as younger companies or may not have the capital to fully invest in them.

“With these businesses, it can often be about the people and not the process. What will drive change in this area is consolidation. You’re going to see an increase in packaged produce and a lot of work being done outside of the store; it becomes much more of a production method, depending on suppliers. Automation and online commerce are going to push in this direction.”

Even where technologies are adopted within the industry, they aren’t always applied properly or their results understood.

Many data analytics used today by growers and producers, for example, were originally developed by organic farmers to measure out fertilizer and water, measure growth, and calculate peak harvest times.

“What’s ironic is that when you talk to these growers, the tracking only goes backwards, so the data goes back to the growers but doesn’t go forward through the system to shippers and wholesalers,” Bishop said. “Someone’s going to turn on the data flow to the distribution system, and that will change the whole way business is done.”

While integrating cutting-edge technologies into an industry that’s as old as eating can be daunting, Bishop sees innumerable opportunities for the companies willing to take up the challenge.

“The produce sector has really been outside much of the modernization in technology that’s taking place in the rest of the food chain, but it will be brought into the fold,” he said.

“We tend to think of all the things that make produce different—the way it’s handled, the way it’s displayed in a manner that’s more artful than mechanical. And it will never walk away from these things—but you’re going to see technology make a big difference. You’ll see shrink drop dramatically in this environment.”

One of the more exciting opportunities Bishop sees is in the area of product differentiation; new data analysis tools will change the marketing of produce in a much more focused way, with consumers buying grapes, for example, by flavor profile the way they buy wine.

“Marketing will be fundamentally changed, and much more effective. People will be selecting produce not just by names or varieties, but by individual producers who will be able to brand their products based on flavor, health claims, and benefits.”