Whole Foods’ tech play might lure me back as a customer

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I’ve done some IT strategy work for the retail groceries in the past, so I’ve been obsessed by all these articles out in the last couple days about a new smart cart that Whole Foods is piloting. I’m excited as a customer and intrigued as an IT strategist. And I’d pay to be a fly on the wall in the meetings at Whole Foods’ headquarters where they are discussing the “business case” for this investment.

Here’s a link with an overview of what they are up to, but the short of it is that they are piloting some in-cart technology that will track your grocery list, locate items in the store, tell you when you picked the wrong item, check you out without having to go through a line and even follow you around the store. Fun! But what’s the play?

I’ll get back to that. First, a story to let you know where I’m coming from here. A few years ago, I was helping a mid-sized grocery store with their IT strategy. As part of that effort, I presented some investment ideas to the CFO and the executive team. The CFO was completely locked into getting their IT spend below 1.5% of revenue (which he argued was the appropriate retail grocery benchmark, even though it is significantly below other industry averages). Benchmarks aside, I thought there were some really interesting plays for them with technology, but he was insistent that all capital spending needed to go towards opening more stores – that’s where they’d make their money. It was a fair argument.

So back to this cart. I can’t help but think about all the possibilities… What if I could email or text my account with items to add to my shopping list throughout the week? What if I could see an item on special while in the store and immediate look up recipes with user feedback … and then automatically add ingredients to my list? What if I could enter something general on my list like “appetizer” or “desert” and the cart could suggest items on special, based on my pre-set preferences of things I like (avocado, things on sale) and don’t (gluten)? Meanwhile, what if I could see my running grocery bill so I don’t blow my life savings through this process?

I’m actually getting excited about grocery shopping again. At Whole Foods! I used to shop there all the time. Then I got married. To a financial planner. And I feed the two of us, a kid and a nanny. I now shop at several stores, clip coupons and wash my own lettuce. The wonderful Whole Foods $40 pre-made meals for two are a relic of my past. But I still do miss it… and this technology could get me back there.

If others are like me, I can’t help but think about all the benefits for Whole Foods of a technology like this:

  1. They’d attract me and others back to the store, driving up total customers and overall revenues
  2. Using intelligent suggestion, they’d increase my overall purchase price beyond what I’d planned to buy
  3. They’d have tons of valuable information about me through my loyalty card – and I’d be willing to share much more with them than other places for the customization of the experience
  4. They’d retain me as a customer, locking in more and more of my grocery store spend, especially if I could track my grocery bill as I go
  5. They could promote certain products to certain customers to unload extra inventory

I’m eager to watch this one unfold. If nothing else, the novelty will get me back in a Whole Foods soon!

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