Online grocery shopping in the UK is underwhelming. It’s the same old process (write a list and locate the items) with a few tweaks (favourites and search).
It doesn’t take much to imagine big improvements:
- Find a recipe online and click a link to get the ingredients
- Jump from wine review to buying a bottle (or case) in one click
- Buy a chef’s cookbook with QR codes throughout to fill your basket
- Email all the necessary supplies to that friend who loved your last meal
- Open a government PDF linked to ingredients for a week of healthy eating
- And my personal favourite - enter number of party guests, pick your party food and then watch the website spit out a mathematically-precise party hamper.
All you need is a robust system so that anyone – food blogger, publishing house, civil service mandarin, software developer – can populate a shopping basket with items via a simple weblink. The internet will do the rest.
The first supermarket to introduce a great API will reap the benefits. (An API lets websites talk to each other – in this case, any website would be able to create and fill up a basket on the supermarket’s website, ready to order).
Normal people benefit because transcribing and hunting down ingredients for recipes becomes a thing of the past. You can find a recipe on your favourite site and order the ingredients direct from the supermarket.
People using the API get income, like book reviewers do from Amazon. Food bloggers might make enough to buy white truffles. Larger sites could reduce their display advertising (yay!). Government could even get kickbacks from supermarkets through encouraging people to eat more healthily!
Supermarkets benefit most. An API drives customers from new sources, not just existing store visitors. Profitable third party apps give you great design without investment risk (think Twitter and Tweetdeck). Hundreds of niche uses open up, so the mass-market supermarket becomes a powerhouse of differentiation.
Groceries are not books…
Of course it’s not as simple as creating an Amazon for food. Grocery products are fast moving consumer goods and they come with their own challenges:
- The sheer volume of products make it hard to build good affiliate bundles.
- Products are launched and discontinued at a bewildering rate. The same product, same quantity, same manufacturer, can change from month to month.
- There are stock issues. A popular recipe exhausts a rare-but-perishable delicacy. Items like Brussels sprouts are seasonal. Stock levels are so volatile that delays between basket generation and ordering cause problems for users.
…but the hard part’s been done already
Although these are big problems, we’re talking about giants. Tesco is the fourth largest retailer in the world. And whereas Amazon has spent a decade building their stock infrastructure, the Big Four supermarkets already have it in place.
The challenges are about design, not infrastructure. A great microformat for ingredients so the API could make appropriate substitutions (make it open and the world will thank you). A beautiful front-end to help normal people put together baskets for their own links. Interaction design that deals elegantly with stock issues. Service design with real humans doing real quality checks.
The future will have a better connection between the internet and our groceries. The only question is, who’s going to get there first?
OK, I know Tesco has an API, but I’ve can’t find any examples of the uses I want to see. Let me know what I’ve missed on @myddelton. And thanks to Leisa Reichelt’s workshop in January for the inspiration…