A study carried out by researchers at Newcastle University and the University of Kent suggests shoppers want to use mobile technology to make better eating choices
With national guidelines recommending UK consumers eat more fruit and vegetables and mobile technology becoming increasingly ubiquitous, Produce Business UK asked Professor Diogo Souza Monteiro, a senior lecturer in Agribusiness Management at the School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development at Newcastle University, whether the advent of mobile technology could really help both retailers to promote healthy eating and consumers to make better purchasing decisions.
What types of mobile technology can retailers and consumers use today?
Diogo Souza: There are QR codes, hand-held scanners, social media and apps on both Apple and Android. QR codes can record a lot more information than a traditional barcode, and they have taken off more recently. The codes offer retailers the opportunity to have another form of communication with the consumer and to add value. Hand-held scanning devices are used already by retailers in the UK and France to track the expense of a shop. But they can also be used to count calories or select specific foods. Social media, meanwhile, allows retailers to interact with consumers before and after they shop, to help build communities. Apps are also exploding in popularity. There is a new app related to food launched every day in terms of where to shop and eat or how to count calories.
How can mobile technology guide retail and consumer decisions?
DS: These innovations have the potential to create value for consumers by providing additional information on products, tracking their expenses in store and comparing prices of similar products in store and online.
For retailers, the advantage of mobile technology is that you can track consumers, improve your understanding of shopper behaviour, monitor consumer reactions to products via social media, personalise messages to individual consumers, use the technology to adjust your offer and match online services, as well as to create intimacy and increase loyalty. The beauty is that you can also integrate all of these technologies.
Retailers can also learn a lot more about consumer behaviour by tracking their comments via social media. By monitoring what consumers think about your products, you gain very rational information for sorting products and merchandising.
The latest is beacon technology which emits low frequency bluetooth waves that can activate dormant apps on your smartphone or talk to consumers about certain products. You can send personal messages to your consumer, even in store, through beacon technology. That would really add value.
There is great potential to really create more intimacy with your consumers, some of whom would like a more personal relationship with their shops. It’s similar to farmers’ markets where consumers can interact with those that sell or grow their products. These technologies allow retailers to scale that and talk to a lot more people.
Increasing use of mobile technology sounds hugely advantageous. Is there a catch?
DS: We’re not entirely sure about consumer preferences for different technology devices and their different attributes. More importantly, consumers are concerned about their privacy and security of data. The usefulness of technology is highly dependent on the availability of data online too. While mobile technologies generate a lot of information on consumers, not all firms, such as small to medium enterprises, have the capacity to use it. Also, developers of technology don’t necessarily understand food consumers.
Could mobile technology help consumers to address serious food-related health issues, such as obesity?
DS: The rise of obesity and food-related diseases has put the food industry in the spotlight. Public health expense in food-related diseases is growing faster than industry profits. The produce industry is actually well placed since it is seen as part of the solution to these issues.
Nutrition labels provide information on the key nutrients within food. Therefore, they may facilitate healthier food choices.
The evidence is not saying that they are effective because labels allow consumers to compare two products, whereas most of us buy a set of products, so it’s hard to compare calories, fat or sugar content across that many products. So, how can we provide information on a range of products? Yes, technology might be able to help. But, then there are further questions – which mobile devices do shoppers prefer to use? Are consumers willing to pay for customised nutritional information? What type of information do they want and need? How do we convey that information? And how do we accommodate the different demographics?
Which devices do you think will become prevalent in the future? And, how do we know what information consumers really want?
DS: We envisage a QR code that’s read by a hand-held scanner to display a set of information about products. To explore that option, I have carried out two studies in collaboration with Ben Lowe and Iain Fraser at the University of Kent.
The first study aimed to find out what information consumers wanted by assessing their preferences for different features of a technology that facilitates the provision of nutritional information. Our instrument also contained questions to determine each respondent’s psychographic and socio-demographic profiles. The data was collected from a convenience sample of University of Kent staff and students.
We identified three segments: the information hungry innovators (who represented 52% of participants); the active label readers (12%); and the onlookers (37%).
• The information hungry liked technology and were indifferent to whether information was presented individually or as a basket. They were interested in nutrition, they preferred guideline daily amounts (GDA) and diet alerts, plus they were more likely to have a food related condition. The group was younger, less likely to have children and had a higher willingness to pay for technology.
• The active label readers didn’t like technology. They were more sceptical and preferred labels. They liked the traffic light system (TLS) over GDA but had no preference for diet alerts. This group was likely to have children and a food-related condition, plus a lower willingness to pay [higher prices].
• The onlookers liked technology and were indifferent to whether information was presented individually or as a basket. They preferred TLS to GDA and preferred diet alerts. This group was less likely to have a food related condition.
The conclusion was that there is potential to create value because there is some interest and demand in using technology to assess food nutrition profiles. But there are also questions surrounding what information is really required to make this work.
This study focused on the type of information presented and how to present it, rather than the type of technology.
To simplify the experiment we used one type of technology – the hand-held scanner. We presented TLS nutrition labels versus a hybrid of information and offered allergy alerts and diet alerts. We took a national sample of the UK.
We found a willingness among two thirds of respondents to pay for mobile technology that provides diet and health information in a retail environment. Surprisingly, they didn’t want summarised information. They valued customised diet and health information. They wanted nutritional information but they really valued the allergy and diet alerts more than nutrition. They were willing to pay for that.
What findings did you ultimately draw from your research into mobile technology?
DS: UK consumers seem to value the use of technology for information, especially allergy and dietary information but not so much for nutrition. They will pay for information but only the information that they want. It might improve their choices but will it make consumers healthier? Maybe we need a device that counts calories to make people put more healthy foods in their baskets.
Our research suggests that consumers want to use these technologies, and we can’t avoid mobile technology because it’s increasingly ubiquitous. So, we should use them but there are still concerns among consumers about privacy and data security. And it’s yet to be determined whether mobile technology will actually change consumer behaviour. So, it’s not clear if mobile technology will be a retailer’s friend or foe. However, I believe it will be more of a friend if used properly.