For decades, the size and scope of the supermarket perimeter have grown by leaps and bounds. Much of that growth wouldn't have been possible without groundbreaking technological innovations —both in the aisles and behind the counters. 

From both the retailer’s and the consumer’s vantage points, perimeter technology has made huge strides, said Rick Stein, vice president of fresh for Arlington, Va.-based FMI – The Food Industry Association.

That growth has been especially strong in the past few years, he said. Take inventory control, which is crucial for anything involving fresh foods whose clock is ticking even before they hit the store.

“So much work has been done to manage inventory to make sure that only the freshest product is being sold,” Stein said. “When I look on my career, 45 years ago it was done manually —and even 10 years ago it was still done manually.”

Now, with Artificial Intelligence and other technologies, retailers can monitor exactly what’s sold, when. And with the right algorithms, they can keep just enough product on hand to both meet consumer demand and keep foods from going bad and becoming unsellable.

With labor shortages such a concern for most retailers these days, that’s more important than ever, Stein said.

“The perimeter is coming out of the stone age, becoming like what center-store is.”

That’s also true from the shopper’s point of view, Stein said. It wasn’t that long ago that consumers had to rely exclusively on instore signage and print circulars to learn about the products they were interested in buying. Now, with QR codes, learning which foods are local, organic or pesticide-free, or learning how to prep and cook them, is just a click away.

The impetus to create and apply those technologies ramped up exponentially during COVID, Stein said, where countless converts were made on the digital side, using ecommerce to buy their fresh foods, using augmented reality to figure out what to do with them once they purchased them and many other applications.

“It’s not unusual now for consumers to shop with their cell phones, and the day of the QR code has really come into its own,” Stein said.

But ecommerce and also applications of technology aren’t just alternatives to the instore experience. They’re also making that experience much more engaging, Stein said.

“One thing I think retailers will really put a lot of effort into is creating better experiences for consumers in brick and mortar. Think of all the real estate they own. One area that really allows them to create more experiences is the perimeter.”

Point A to Point B —faster

One of the biggest technology-related changes that has helped the grocery perimeter become what it is today is the revolution in transportation efficiencies.

For much of the grocery store’s history, produce and other fresh offerings were limited by seasonality, given how difficult it was to get products to market before they went bad, said Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator for the Madison, Wis.-based International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA).

That all changed with advancements in refrigeration technology, logistics and other factors that benefited from higher-tech upgrades.

“Now we can enjoy products from all over the country and world because of logistics and supply chain advancements,” Richard said.

Today, blockchain and other technologies continue to refine those supply chain-related advances even more, he added. Particularly when it comes to preventing, or at least containing and minimizing, food safety-related outbreaks, these technologies are playing a crucial role.

Looking at specific perimeter departments in particular, instore bakeries have benefited tremendously in the fairly recent past from oven innovations, Richard said. 

He remembers being asked to help out in the instore bakery of the grocery store he worked at as a teenager in New Jersey in the 1990s. The difference between the baking technology then and now is like “night and day,” he said, and led to a lot of trepidation about his youthful efforts.

“Being able to bake high-quality products in the instore bakery has a lot do with equipment innovations,” he said. “It certainly would have helped me have a lot more confidence that the bread I was trying to bake would come out perfect. Having the right oven at the right temperature with the right settings, that are easy to program and calculate —that’s especially important when training the next generation of bakers.”

The equipment innovations have made it much easier for instore bakeries to bring new workers on board, he added, a fact that could not be more important in today’s tight-labor environment.

Instore delis have similarly benefited from technological upgrades of ovens and other equipment in recent decades, Richard said. Stovetop ovens, for instance, have transformed the deli from a department that as recently as the 90s was known mainly for deli meats and cheeses and sides to one that now rivals many restaurants for the quality of its retail foodservice offerings.

“In order to prepare all those foods you have to have the right equipment,” Richard said.

Creating experiences

There’s a fine line between helping consumers via technology and giving them too much, but Stein is confident that retailers will continue to find the right balance. A shopper who has downloaded their retailer’s app will start to get messages as soon as they enter their store, and they can use that information to guide them to exactly the kinds of things they’re likely to purchase.

“That becomes an experience — they don’t look it as being inundated with technology, they like it. It may help them find not only the exact ingredients they want for the meal they’re cooking that night, but also how to use their leftovers to avoid food waste.”

In FMI’s latest round of Speaks industry surveys, retailers told the association that they plan on expanding their retail foodservice operations, and that technology will be a key to helping them do so. And it’s not just about dinner anymore, Stein said —consumers are also looking for breakfast and lunch options. 

For decades, grocery stores didn’t have the same incentives as other industries to embrace technology, Stein said. That was because supermarkets always enjoyed a strong labor market. They didn’t need to automate like the garment, automobile industries did. 

Those days are over. 

“Everything converged at once to motivate our retailers think of technology as a fundamental underpinning, and now we’re seeing a lot of advancement. And when the supermarket industry puts its mind to doing something, it gets it done, and done better than most other industries. I think of technology as a fundamental foundation that runs through all of our business. The business is going to advance, new technologies are going to come, and supermarkets are poised to embrace more than they ever have in the past.”

The very floor plans of instore departments have also benefited from technological upgrades, Richard said. For one thing, they’re easy to maneuver in given the advent of smaller, more efficient cases that come in a variety of sizes to fit the appropriate spaces. 

“In the past, when you had giant bulky cases to walk around, it made it difficult to browse,” he said. “And the lighting in the cases has improved so much. It used to be you had no idea what you were looking at, it was so dark inside.”

The ease and convenience of grab-and-go and other self-serve cases has helped transform the instore deli into the multifaceted, consumer-friendly place it is today.

Equipment innovations

Developments in meat slicers and other equipment used in the perimeter have played a crucial role in the rapid expansion of many value-added deli and prepared foods offerings, said Carolyn Bilger, marketing director for Troy, Ohio-based Hobart Food Equipment Group.

“Deli-made meals are being chosen more and more by shoppers to replace going to restaurants or to save time in their home kitchens,” Bilger said. “Along with those meal options, the grab and go area of retail began its growth before COVID-19 and has increased exponentially since the pandemic.”

More and more people are picking up deli meats and cheeses in the perimeter of the deli rather than lining up at the counter, she added.

Customers now have more options in fresh meal prep than ever before. The grab and go deli meat and cheese selections now include premium options as well as the store brand, and today’s shoppers, Bilger said, like how the convenience of choosing freshly sliced items without waiting in line at the counter matches with their hectic lifestyles.

Hobart has met the call for this surging demand with products like its recently launched Portion Scale Slicer, which incorporates the weighing equipment into the slicer, thereby increasing the efficiency of grab-and-go prep.

“The user can program the weight needed and the automatic slicer will slice the desired amount and pause to allow for removal,” Bilger said. “Following the pause, it will again slice the programmed amount or meat or cheese.”

The slicer’s built-in scale keeps the user from having to separately weigh the packaged amount, increasing the efficiency of the overall process. Hobart studies show that up to 40% of an operator’s prep time for a 10-pound chub can be saved by using the Portion Scale Slicer.

Growth in fresh perimeter departments shows no signs of slowing, Bilger said, especially with more consumers seeking options to aid in home meal creation. Hobart reps love to spend time in retail delis around the country, she added, learning from its users and understanding what their pain points are.

“Our goal in product development is to continuously improve our equipment and find solutions to increase efficiency and satisfaction for the deli associates. This allows them more time to provide meal and deli solutions in the perimeter.”

Putting it all together

Over the past several decades, the perimeter of the grocery store has evolved the most as food retailers battle to gain and retain shopper loyalty by providing fresh and healthy options, said Marjorie Proctor, design and marketing specialist for Conyers, Ga.-based Dover Food Retail, whose products range from Hillphoenix brand refrigeration systems, power systems and display cases to Anthony brand doors.

Grocers, who are always on the cutting edge of industry technologies to give them a competitive advantage, partner with manufacturers like Hillphoenix to transform the perimeter by exploring new instore designs and technologies, she said.

That includes lighting, departmental programs, merchandising displays, maintaining product integrity, and energy efficiency — all of which have helped the grocery industry get to where it is today.

For Hillphoenix, that journey began 30 years ago, when Phoenix Refrigeration, a refrigeration manufacturer, saw the need to acquire a display case company to invest a forward-thinking approach to refrigeration as a whole.

Phoenix’s subsequent collaboration with Hill Refrigeration resulted in the creation of Hillphoenix. Since then, several Hillphoenix innovations have helped perimeter departments evolve and prosper.

One standout has been Coolgenix display case technology. A secondary coolant conduction design that enables significant increases in product shelf life and dramatically reduces product shrinkage in fresh meat and seafood service display cases, Coolgenix was a radical departure from convection cooling that was traditionally used to refrigerate the entire case interior versus concentrating the cooling directly on the product.

Hillphoenix has also made significant innovations in natural refrigerant technology. Two decades ago, the company installed the first test store utilizing CO2 as a secondary fluid.

“As refrigerants are phased out, natural refrigerants like CO2 and hydrocarbons such as R-290 are more important than ever as environmental concerns are at the forefront as sustainable refrigerants transition into the overall grocery sustainability plan,” Proctor said. “They have zero impact on the environment and are more efficient and more economical.”

Let there be light

Advancements in lighting technologies have also made big changes in perimeter departments in the past three decades, particularly the past 15 years, Proctor said.

That period has seen the introduction of LEDs, reduced lamp diameters, changing color temperatures and focusing light more directly on product to increase contrast.

“Gone are the days of just providing light all over inside a store,” Proctor said. “For a perimeter to be successful today, it’s important for stores to use lighting to tell their story.”

In 2009 Hillphoenix introduced the Clearvoyant LED light system, designed for the company’s refrigerated display cases. Compared to T8 fluorescent lighting, Clearvoyant is 69% more energy-efficient. Grocers also appreciate the ability to direct light from angles of 0 to 30°, the low profile of the light rod design, and the various color temperatures available based on the type of food being merchandised, Proctor said.

As important as lighting is, it just sets the stage — merchandising is the star.

“Over the decades we’ve seen merchandising become more three-dimensional in terms of bump out displays, water-falling product, and going vertical,” Proctor said. “Today, cases have much more vertical heights in most areas versus 20 or 30 years ago. This is where the total refrigeration and store package comes in.”

Case and refrigeration systems have to be designed to work with all of the various merchandising displays so they not only look good but they do their main job — keeping product fresh.

Another technology that has enjoyed tremendous growth in recent decades, particularly the past 10 years, is refrigerated doorcases, Proctor said.

In the past, it was commonly believed that sales would be compromised as soon as product was put behind doors. But today, thanks to improvements in door designs and doorcase lighting, sales can actually be gained by merchandising behind glass doors.

“Not only does it save a great amount of energy, it increases the time that customers spend in the department purchasing products as the result of warmer aisles and broader merchandising schemes.”

As Sosland Publishing Company, publisher of Supermarket Perimeter, gears up to celebrate 100 years of providing food industry professionals timely information, news and commentary, we will be publishing a series of articles across all our titles to celebrate the past, present and future of the people and industry that feeds the world.