The Role Of Technology In Retail Food Sustainability

Joerg Koesters

You know your business. You’re an expert in what to expect from your customers, marketing campaigns, supply chain logistics, and IT developments within your field. But there are a lot of new concepts and technologies out there that impact the retail market and food sustainability. Let’s take a quick look at how technology is shaping each of these areas.

Social media and the generation gap

Social media is a hot buzzword right now, but many people in business leadership fail to appreciate the role social media plays in building their brand and their business. We have social media marketing, but it can also be a tool for gathering intelligence on potential issues that arise due to a recall or disease outbreak. However, the data gathered still needs to be handled logically. Gone are the days when a business would hire a couple college kids to respond to queries on social media. Instead, having your social media profiles connected to analytics helps you more quickly determine when you’re dealing with business as usual versus a serious PR nightmare.

But beyond social media, the focus consumers have on food is changing as the generations pass the torch to the next generation. Though we’re often focused on Generation X consumers, due to their position at the top of their earning potential, Generation Z consumers have a radically different view of food retail. In Switzerland, the dairy industry that has remained unchanged for centuries is now facing digitalization, transparency and traceability, potentially to the point of which region, farm, or even cow from which the consumer’s milk comes.

Digital transformation

Another hot trend is digital transformation or digitization of businesses. From farmers in developing countries who use mobile devices to verify the weather conditions for the next few days to utilities that are able to better expand and invest in their infrastructure to power farms, digitization has the opportunity to revolutionize our world.

Imagine a supply chain that starts with a connected farmer in a developing country. Digitization allows for mobile device connectivity, so the farmer can determine what needs to be done about a pest in the field. Sensors allow a grain elevator to estimate what the season’s yield will be, allowing for better distribution of bulk food ingredients around the globe. A manufacturer can use analytics to determine points of peak demand, giving them flexibility with just-in-time supply chain management. A store can use connectivity to determine exactly where produce or meats have come from during a recall. Consumers know they’re getting the best food for their families.

Personalization and 3D printing

Another driving trend in food is personalization. Whether it’s food that meets a hot new diet or doesn’t have allergens that cause health problems for much of the developed world, today’s consumer wants their food their way. As the Internet is bringing people together from across the globe, families with children who face the challenges of ADHD, for example, spoke out and demanded equal food quality to that being developed in Europe. Many children with ADHD have problems with hyperactivity caused by artificial food dyes. In Europe, these dyes have fallen under strict regulation, requiring foods that contain the dyes to be labeled similar to how alcohol and tobacco is in the U.S. Upon learning this, U.S. families demanded through a petition that a particular candy manufacturer stop using artificial food dyes in its candy.

Another trend in personalization is the advent of the 3D printer. No longer a simple gimmick to experiment with, the 3D printer has become an essential shop-floor tool in large and small businesses worldwide. Why? Because it makes it much more feasible for the average customer to afford the exact specifications they want in their food. Imagine a supermarket where a customer can simply walk up to a kiosk, request a pound of gluten-free, garlic-parmesan flavored pasta that is fortified with vitamins and is available in a number of child-friendly shapes. Instead of having an entire row of pastas, the kiosk only takes up a few square feet while still delivering a wide range of options, from economical to gourmet.


You’ve probably heard plenty about sustainability over the past few years. As a hot new buzzword, it’s regularly thrown into conversations whether it’s really understood or not. You know that climate change is turning into a problem for your suppliers as the weather becomes increasingly unpredictable, making it difficult to forecast potential crop yields in the long term, but what about in the short term? With your customers’ access to and interest in sustainability initiatives, your company needs to provide the information they need on what you’re doing to keep our world running. But can sustainability be good for your business? The answer is a resounding yes!

Many retailers may be unaware of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. This initiative among member nations is focused on ending hunger, improving nutrition, improving food security, and promoting sustainable agriculture across the world. Currently, half a billion small farms provide 80% of the food for developing nations. Rural development will help increase the output of small farms to meet some of the world’s rising demand. It’s estimated that today, 795 million people are undernourished, and projections show that our world’s population will grow by another two billion by 2050. How will we feed everyone? Sustainability feeds not only today’s generation, but it ensures that the capability remains to feed tomorrow’s generations as well.

Adapting to the latest trends

Though many companies are currently holding their own, how much longer will that option be viable? Food delivery, better convenience store foods, and healthy fast-food chains are all gaining ground in the market. To remain competitive, you need to understand that these seemingly esoteric, theoretical concepts can and will make a tangible impact on how food is grown, transported, personalized, and delivered in the future.

For example, let’s look at online grocery shopping. This trend has been growing wildly in the past few years, with the percentage of U.S. households that have purchased groceries online increasing from 11% in 2013 to 21% in 2015. These households are also shopping differently online compared to in-store shopping, and busy households are increasingly shopping for specific products or setting up subscription-based shopping. How does a traditional grocery store keep customers coming to a brick-and-mortar store when faced with these competitors?

I know you’re busy running your business on a day to day basis, but you can see the additional levels of complexity in these topics that you need to understand to drive future revenue. To remain competitive, you need to improve your customers’ brand loyalty and grow your companys’ market share. By getting a better grip on these topics’ complexity, you’ll be able to address those concerns with a deeper understanding of the latest trends.

At SAP, we believe in helping our clients get the tools they need to stay ahead of the latest trends in their industries. Our upcoming SAP Future of Food Forum is an online series of virtual live discussions, with the first session on October 18. Among the topics we’ll cover during these discussions is the role being played by technology in terms of food sustainability.

To learn more about food sustainability and topics around the future of food, please join our virtual forum.


About Joerg Koesters

Joerg Koesters is the Head of Retail Marketing and Communication at SAP. He is a Technology Marketing executive with 20 years of experience in Marketing, Sales and Consulting, Joerg has deep knowledge in retail and consumer products having worked both in the industry and in the technology sector.