The #1 way AI is transforming grocery shopping

Technology companies are trying to make shopping easier for consumers. There could be an unexpected benefit for the planet.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

The days of walking into a giant grocery store with an empty cart and browsing through tens of thousands of items will soon be a routine of the past. With artificial intelligence, technology startups are hoping to change the grocery shopping experience.

"It's pretty overwhelming to get your food right each week," says Alex Weinstein, Chief Digital Officer of Hungryroot an AI grocery company. "Customers tell us all the time - it takes many hours each week to plan, shop for, and finally cook meals for their households. And yet, each wants to eat healthy. We've made it our mission to make healthy eating easy - instead of overwhelming."

That logic coincides with trends in consumer behavior toward contactless shopping and fast delivery. And interestingly this could be a huge boon to a major problem: Food wastage.  An astounding 40% of food produced in the US goes to waste. That's a mind-boggling statistic. The reason has to do with customer habits. 

"According to the USDA, 21% of food consumers bring to their home ends up wasted," Weinstein tells me. "We find that heartbreaking - it's awful for the wallet and awful for the planet. A lot of food waste comes from a simple issue: buying groceries that "look great" without a concrete plan on what to do with them i.e. a recipe."

AI's predictive and suggestion capabilities can help solve that. Hungryroot's AI-powered grocery suggestion algorithm, for example, reduces food wastage by predicting how much of each kind of food to buy before sourcing it. Since customer preferences are known, it's easier to forecast demand and manage inventory. Substitutions can also be made throughout the process, such as at the warehouse and based on customer preferences.

Part of the secret sauce is making it dead simple for customers to use the food they order. Based on ingredients ordered, AI technology can do a better job than Google searches and Pinterest at dialing in specific recipe suggestions. 

"Our business is built around the concept of recipes and of knowing our customers better than any other store or service," says Weinstein. "We know the foods each customer likes and we know their purchasing patterns per their previous deliveries. This data creates a natural ability to build recommendations based on top of what you already have in your pantry. Some of this is already in the product, some of it is in the works - but we know how much consumers care about maximizing value today, so this is very much at the top of our product roadmaps."

At the root of this is the idea that grocery stores are one of the root causes of food waste in America. The USDA estimates in-store food losses at 43 billion pounds, equivalent to 10% of the total retail food supply annually. A company like Hungryroot has driven down the percentage of undeliverable food to around 2%, and it donates the majority of that to local food banks. 

Overall, this coincides with a moment of incredible upheaval and uncertainty for the grocery sector. 

"We've already seen the migration to online accelerate during COVID; this trend will surely continue, however one thing we believe has been quietly happening in parallel is a qualitative increase in consumer expectations," says Weinstein. "Sure, it's easier to virtually shop than to walk around a crowded store, but today's consumer has come to expect more from the etailer of their choice. They want to spend less time on meal planning, they want their grocery store to make their experience better with each visit, and they want their grocer to understand their food preferences."

As grocery delivery skyrockets, AI may also play a key role in reducing food waste dramatically.

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