A grocery store 'lab' points to future trends in how you buy food

At the University of Guelph, there's a laboratory made to look like a grocery store. The Food Retail Lab is run by Mike von Massow, a food economist and professor at the University of Guelph. He explains some of the tech being used in grocery stores, and how we can expect that tech to affect us.

Mock grocery store tracks your shopping habits

Lab examines how consumers make shopping choices by tracking them. (Adam Killick/CBC)

This story was originally published on March 29, 2019.

Imagine going into a grocery store where those who ran it could see everything you looked at, much less, bought.

Creepy? Yes. Effective in researching consumer behaviour? You bet.

So it's a good thing that (for now, at least) the University of Guelph's Food Retail Lab is just a pretend grocery store.

Mike von Massow is a food economist there, and he explained to Spark host Nora Young how it works.
Mike von Massow (@mikevonmassow/Twitter)

So what is the food retail lab?

It's a small, mock grocery store that allows us to explore how people behave in a grocery store without actually having them in a grocery store. It's sort of halfway between a real grocery store and doing a survey to understand behaviour. But it is a place where we can modify all sorts of things.

What kinds of things are you trying to learn about?

When we opened the lab, we had some very specific ideas, and what's become obvious as we've moved forward is the research we can do is limited only by our imaginations. The process that people go through when they shop really is, to a food geek like me, kind of interesting. So we look at how packaging changes behaviour. We look at how positions change behaviour. We're exploring how we present information to people. We anticipate doing things like electronic pricing to see how that affects people's perceptions. We have the ability to track what they look at and evaluate not only the sequence with which they look at it, but what they look at, how long they look at it, and how that affects the choice.

So as an example, if somebody is buying cereal, we can look at what they compare, how many different products they look at, what they look at on the box they are choosing, and then what they pick. So we can get a really nuanced understanding of their perceptions and their decision-making process.

Data collection of course is a huge part of online businesses: it's what allows the kind of targeted marketing that companies like Facebook and Google depend on. So is the grocery sector starting to do something similar, in terms of data collection?

I think grocery stores are increasingly—particularly with things like loyalty programs—getting a better understanding of what it is we buy, when we buy it, how much of our purchases are habitual and how much of our purchases are impulse, and that allows grocery stores on your app to give you a targeted promotion that is relevant to something that they believe that you're interested in.

The technology exists that if you are walking down a specific aisle in a store, they can pop up an ad and tell you, 'Well, you should think about this.'

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click the listen button above to hear the full conversation.


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