Driving Digital Strategy: The future shape of the supermarket industry

This entry has been born out of reading the book; Driving Digital Strategy, by Sunil Gupta. It has made me realise just how under-served we are by the supermarket industry. Most of us would agree that we spend much too much time buying groceries, it’s tedious, and with today’s technology, it’s not necessary…


First off, some notes on the book itself. I found it quite effective at making me see things from different angles, notably from the eyes of the customer. It touches a lot on ‘marketing myopia’, something everyone should be aware of; the nature of your business is not what you supply (e.g. groceries), it is what customer needs that you solve (e.g feeding a family) It also inspired me to write the previous blog article below. So it really is the book that keeps on giving:

Digital transformation in the aerospace industry… Really??

What has also inspired this article is a case study and strategy assignment that our class completed for M&S Simply Food. This got me onto the train of thought described below. Hopefully, from me writing this down, it will actually happen; and grocery shoppers will live happily ever after.


If you consider the average supermarket, and the average grocery shopper, you could be forgiven to think that the consumer has it quite easy. The supermarket advertising slogans would certainly have you believe that this is the case: ‘Every little helps’, ‘Live well for less’, ‘save money, live better’. In truth however, I am yet to meet someone who looks forward to their local shopping trip, or wrestling their shopping all the way home from the supermarket. Of course, there is online shopping, this is a step in the right direction, but not enough.


Most shopping trips, or online shopping sprees, start with an inventory check, then a mental note of the household’s upcoming schedule, followed by some sort of meal planning, before any shopping can start. All of this is unnecessary. It is certainly not beyond today’s technology that a supermarket can offer you a service whereby purchases are recorded in a personalized inventory profile. Then, as you use items for cooking, a quick scan of you phone onto the bar-code could allow you to update your stock levels. If you add to this a facility where you can store your favourite recipes, rather than shopping per item, you can update your shopping list automatically from what you intend to cook. Going another step further, what is stopping recipe books from having bar codes against their recipes, so that you can scan these and add these to your shopping list?

download (1)

Once we have this level of service, the supermarket chains can really start living up to their promises. A family on a budget? A simple algorithm can take your current home food stocks, and suggest meals that will require the minimum spend in order to make up meals. Alternatively the same algorithm can take your shopping list made from the meals you have selected, and offer savings from suggesting similar but cheaper alternatives. Have children? Special diet needs? Perhaps you are training for a marathon, or need a high protein diet? Once again why can’t you tell your online shopping platform these requirements so that it can offer you improvements to your manual shopping list. Netflix and Amazon have been suggesting films considering our viewing patterns for years, so supermarkets should be able to offer alternative meals similar to those that we regularly cook, but cheaper and / or more healthy.

asda slogan

The above covers the bare necessities, now how about living up to the promise of helping us to ‘live better’? Having a sales channel online is all very well, but considering that food makes up such a big part of our everyday lives, the supermarkets really are missing a trick by not offering us much more than this.

For instance, cookery programs are one of the most popular genres on television, following in Amazon’s footsteps, supermarkets could quite easily offer cookery programs that are matched with shopping list options on line. These could be viewed live in the evenings, offering interactive content where viewers can send in pictures and feedback of their experiences while following the celebrity chef. Or they can be streamed at your convenience at a later date. Do you have children? Why not tune in to a special children’s show that encourages children to help you cook the evening meal? Thus getting them used to cooking and embracing a healthy lifestyle. Also, why not let shoppers suggest meals to be cooked by celebrity chefs, offering an interactive relationship between the customer and the supermarket.


Alternatively, why not have a quiet night in with your partner where you both get stuck in to a live cookery show? Supermarkets could go even further here, offering live Master Chef style competitions, where customers can apply and compete in live cookery competitions. Us at home can try and emanate their recipes while we watch the shows, and perhaps the competition winners can get a regular slot on one of the cooking channels? Customers could also write in to suggest meals that they would like to see cooked by celebrity chefs.

postman pat

With Amazon having a JV with Morrison’s and purchasing both Whole Foods and Deliveroo, and Ocado soon to offer delivery times of one hour, it looks like one trend will be to offer grocery shopping at late notice. This will certainly help add a little variety and flexibility to our lives, if we can receive a healthy and quick to cook food option, as an alternative to a sloppy takeaway, then I for one will be happy. However, these delivery facilities should also be utilised to deliver parcels and other online shopping to your door. Online shopping does offer you delivery time flexibility that you can’t get else where, you are often able to fix the delivery to a one hour time slot. If you could get all of your parcels delivered at the same time as your shopping, meaning you avoid the frustrating ‘we couldn’t deliver your parcel because your were out’ note pushed through your letterbox. Wouldn’t this be great?

happy shopper

These are just some of the many improvements that supermarkets can offer to their customers. However, I’m sure you get the idea. As for supermarkets themselves, there must be a first mover advantage for implementing stuff like this. Will it come from Amazon; the customer obsessed behemoth? Or will the incumbents come to their senses and get there first? Only time will tell, but I know who I would place my bets on…


A problem shared is a problem solved when utilising the adjacent possible

Want to solve a problem? Well you had better talk to someone about it!: My insights taken from the book: Where Good Ideas Come From, written by Steven Johnson…

Where Good Ideas Come From

I was strongly recommended this book by a successful entrepreneur, and I’m glad I took the time to read it as it has had a profound impact upon how I approach problem solving. It certainly isn’t a self help book, and it might not give you the magic formula needed invent the next big thing, but it does give a good blend of historical and behavioral analysis on what things tend to help cultivate ideas.

There are several good summaries of this book online, one of which that I particularly like, written by Phil Gyford, is linked here.

ligh bulb


The Adjacent Possible: The idea creation aspect that really struck me, and for me feels like the most useful tool to engineer yourself a solution, is the idea of utilising the adjacent possible. This explains the rationale that inventions and innovation can only happen one step at a time, and on reflection it is very true. Google couldn’t have been created until the internet was created. Facebook’s success depended not only on the internet, but also on the creation of the digital camera, and it really started its rapid rise to prominence with the invention of the smart phone.


For me, making use of the adjacent possible is exploring the use of current new innovative ideas in alternative domains to what they were created for. An example given in the book is the use of old car tyres to create soles for sandals. This concept can be used for applications in all walks of life. For instance, Deliveroo is a very successful start up that has disrupted the fast food industry, could this delivery service model be used for other purposes? Some ideas that spring to mind are delivery of parcels and special delivery mail from logistics companies. Riders could collect from the delivery depot, and deliver on demand when you are at home, within 30 minutes. Will people pay the extra delivery fee to have their parcels delivered out of hours (something many logistics companies can’t do)? Not everyone will, but depending upon the urgency of a parcel, I’m pretty sure some people will.M&S

Keeping on this train of thought, M&S are in the process of entering into a Joint Venture with Ocado. A deal that will be very intriguing to see how it plays out. Ocado are fantastic at delivering people’s weekly shopping, and they are looking at offering a ‘delivery within the hour’ service. However, no matter how brilliant new service, it will once again be focused on weekly shopping. Shopping that involves pre-planning from looking at the full week ahead.

M&S over the last couple of years have had a focused drive to open many convenience sized stores, and these stores very much focus on very fine quality, pre-prepared meals. Meals that are cooked at home with the little time or fuss, made from fresh ingredients, that everyone trusts. Could M&S successfully collaborate with Deliveroo, offering a ‘heat at home’ food delivery service? I wouldn’t bet against it..

The adjacent possible is like shuffling cards, until eventually you get two cards that pair up to offer an innovative idea that hasn’t yet been implemented. Simple!


A problem shared is a problem solved: The other key insight the book gave me was the environment in which most ideas are created, and most problems are solved. A profound discovery was made in the early 20th Century when a stop-motion study was performed in a research laboratory.  The discovery was; that most ideas did not come from Eureka moments by individuals, but when one researcher spent time discussing their problems with another. Their fresh perspective often resulted in fruitful discussions and even more fruitful idea creations.

The effect of collaboration is all the more visible when you look at the history of innovation. In shear quantities, there have been many more key inventions to come from organisations that are not driven by financial incentives. Why is this? Surely inventors will be more keen to see their ideas realised if it will result in life changing financial fortunes? Of course it will, but where there are financial incentives, there are often patents, intellectual property, and closely guarded secrets. This process is not wrong, inventors need to be able to gain from their ideas and hard work. But it does show that collaboration is (far) more effective in creating ideas than financial incentives for individuals.

light bulb moment

This was a bit of a revelation for me, previously if I had a problem that I was working on, I had a tendency to hatch down and go into individual problem solving mode. What I should be doing more of is talking to as many people about my problem as possible. This will give me new perspectives, and might introduce me to people who have similar problems (or even better; solutions).

This new mantra has led to the creation of a new blog category: ‘innovative problems‘, in which I will share a perspective upon my own and other peoples’ problems. As the reader, you may be able to empathise with these problems from an adjacent domain. Even better, they may inspire a brand new solution to a problem that you were previously unaware of. My first post of this type was created a few weeks ago: Digital transformation in the aerospace industry… Really?? and has resulted in several follow on discussions with people of how this concept can be developed. Without this post, these discussions would never have happened.


So in summary, shuffle the cards of possibility, and share your findings with all and sundry. Who knows, there might be an Einstein or Newton inside you somewhere…





Review of Coursera.org, online management and energy courses

This is my first of many intended posts that will cover my reviews of courses and other educational content that I have used or read. This particular post covers several of the online courses provided by coursera.org that I have completed. Reflecting my aspirations beyond Sloan, these have been a combination of management and energy courses. 



Managing the Company of the Future. Created by LBS | Julian Birkinshaw.

managing the company of the future

This course was fresh and insightful while being light enough to easily digest. It covers the different organisational structures used by modern companies, ideals used to motivate staff, and common problems encountered by businesses due to inappropriate organisational structures and processes. It is worth saying here that Julian is a very highly regarded professor as well as the deputy dean of London Business School, so considering that this course is free I would strongly recommend it.


The Manager’s Toolkit. Created by Birbeck University of London.

managers toolkit

This course for me was not so crisp, there were some useful areas covered, such as conducting interviews, giving feedback, and facilitating meetings, however the content seemed a little tired and dated. I would strongly recommend the Managing the Company of the Future course ahead of this., as they are both free.


Global Energy and Climate Policy. Created by SOAS University of London.


This course was fairly decent, it offered a lot of reading material around the subject, and went into some detail as to how energy policy is changing around the world, and what structural changes are necessary in order to ensure transition to a sustainable society. My only gripe is that because it is political in nature, the content is fairly high level and conceptual in nature, although that said there are some quote insightful interviews etc so if you are interested in this subject I would recommend you having a look.

Our Energy Future. Created by the University of California San Diego.

our energy future

I have saved the best until last here, I really, really enjoyed this course and found the content incredibly informative. I would recommend everyone at least watch the opening two videos on the first module, these were superb. The only downside to this course was it was quite time consuming – I think it may have taken around 15 hours of my time by the time I finished, and this is without considering any of the written essays (if you opt to take them – you can just opt to watch the video content).

Key take homes for me were:

  • The world’s population increase over the last century or so is due to a dramatic increase in agriculture productivity, which in turn is due to harnessing the power of fossil fuels. Without these fuels or alternatives we will not even come close to sustaining the world’s current population, let alone future forecasts.
  • Fossil fuels (especially oil) are so energy dense and cheap to process into a usable substance, that it is incredibly challenging to create alternative energy sources that are viable alternatives. For instance, modern batteries contain several times less storage capacity as the same weight and volume equivalent of oil. This is why fossil fuels are so popular and hard to remove from everyday life.
  • Several bio fuels are being developed that will extract CO2 from the atmosphere, meaning that there use will actively reduce CO2 in the atmosphere over their total lifespan. These products can be used with existing oil refinery infrastructure. Considering this, we may find more cars move across to this type of fuel rather than moving to completely electric.
  • Approximately 40% of today’s global warming is due to ‘black carbon’ which is released into the air when burning wood and other materials used for cooking in the developing world. Black carbon only stays in the atmosphere for approximately 2 weeks, so if we could provide alternative cooking methods to the developing world, we could dramatically reduce global warming. Now there;s food for thought…