The Future Supermarket

How digital operations will enable a winning customer experience, at much lower cost

The move to online shopping has dominated retail trends for many years. Lately, successful e-commerce merchants – from Amazon in the United States to in China – are increasingly opening or buying physical supermarkets. However, online retailers want to transfer some of their digital efficiency to their new brick-and-mortar stores, so they are experimenting with new forms of automation.

That raises an important question for supermarkets: How many people will be needed to operate the stores of the future? At the Amazon Go concept store, shoppers first register and can then remove items from shelves and leave without going through a checkout process; the payment is automatically deducted via smartphone. Checkout is not the only store operation that can be automated, though. Overall, a high degree of digitization could reduce the labor hours needed to run a future supermarket by around 40 percent.


As shopping migrates online, brickand- mortar stores will need to respond, in particular by turning shopping from a transaction into a pleasurable lifestyle activity. Our publication “Retail’s Revolution” shows how physical stores will play an important role even in a world of rapidly growing online sales. However, given the convenience of online shopping, if physical stores are to survive – let alone thrive – they will need to give customers new reasons to visit them. 

Exhibit 1: Stores have a clear role to play in retail’s future…

...but successful store will need to play more specialized roles than they do today

Source: Oliver Wyman analysis

We think that people are likely to remain an essential feature of stores because of their role in creating social engagement and an enjoyable experience. Well-trained, knowledgeable service staff members are the best way for grocers to connect with their customers and give them a memorable and differentiated experience.


The supermarket of the future will need to inspire customers and improve their overall experience. Upgrades could include superior fresh-food offerings, food courts, gastronomic areas, and cooking classes. Each of these features will need to be combined with expert advice; this will be labor-intensive and, therefore, expensive. To fund this investment, stores will need to deploy modern automation technologies that free up staff from routine operations. These freed up hours can then be invested in activities that add greater value for the customer.

While the most visible changes to supermarkets will be these new customerfacing features, digital tools will transform operations in less obvious ways. Before customers arrive in a store, they will have assembled their shopping lists using online apps informed by artificial intelligence, which could recognize their consumption patterns. As they sample products in-store, they will flip through recipes on a tablet or smartphone and make online orders for home delivery or for picking up as they leave the store.


Some stores have already introduced automatically updated electronic price tags for display shelves, saving the bother of swapping paper tags. The electronic tags can also facilitate dynamic pricing, to discount overstocked products or those about to reach expiry date, for example. In the future, customers’ smartphones may display personalized prices. This would allow supermarkets to make tailor-made offers that take into account a customer’s profile, shopping history, and current location in the store. Interaction with customers will become highly individual, both in stores and online.


Floor space for the new features can be freed up by shrinking the space currently allocated to canned and packaged products. Detergent, washing-up liquid, and paper towels form part of “chore” shopping and provide little to attract consumers to a store. 

Supermarkets could create a virtual version of the center store, where customers scan items on a wall of barcodes to add to their virtual baskets. They would then pick up the items later or have them delivered. The products themselves will mostly remain in the backroom storage areas, simplifying the picking process.

To smooth the flow of goods through their stock rooms, stores will need more effective picking systems. Depending on lead times and customers’ use of digital shopping lists, some orders will be picked in centralized warehouses in different locations. These items will then be combined with products that shoppers add in the supermarket, providing a seamless experience across every shopping channel.

Stores’ forecasting and ordering decisions will be fully automated, using machine- learning algorithms and realtime out-of-stock alerts. Smart tools and algorithms will help to plan just the right level of convenience food production. At the food court, employees will use standardized meal kits to maintain high levels of product consistency and operational efficiency. aims to launch one million stores across China over the next five years. Alibaba aims to turn six million convenience stores into smart service centers.


Automation is already changing the supermarket checkout process. In the future, customers will expect no lines, no transaction time, and one-click cashless payments. Amazon Go uses a combination of digital technologies to check which items each customer has taken from the store’s shelves. This kind of system will be too expensive for most supermarkets, at least for now. However, scan-and-go systems that greatly simplify the checkout process are gaining popularity among shoppers. Many retailers offer selfcheckout terminals, a number of which can be overseen by a single member of staff.


A number of these store upgrades will be costly, but technology presents huge opportunities to save money by simplifying basic tasks, while also providing a better customer experience. We think retailers could free up 20 percent of their labor using existing technology and by systematically optimizing and simplifying day-to-day processes.

By adding the cost savings from massive automation and the transformation of supermarket sections, such as the center store, the future store will be able to operate with labor hours reduced by 40 percent from their levels today. (See Exhibit 2.) 

Highly efficient digital operations will thus enable supermarkets to create a superior customer environment that will be well placed to compete against online stores.


The growing share of online grocery continues to draw much attention from both the retail industry itself and broader coverage by the press and the analyst community. Even as that share grows, physical grocery stores are undergoing a quiet revolution of their own. Brick and mortar stores will continue to meet most of the demand for food for the foreseeable future. Retailers who invest in the future supermarket now will find their stores likely to continue to thrive as an important part of the omnichannel future.

Exhibit 3: O2O business contribution in majory grocery retailers

1. Not all stores operate O2O
2. The online order # only accounts for c.5% in Yonghui Bravo Luban Rd. Store in Shanghai
3. A new format store located in Yangpu, Shanghai
Source: Primary research, store visits, desktop research, Oliver Wyman analysis

The Future Supermarket