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The Challenge of Fresh

Matt Schwartz \\ 03.28.2021

Sustainability

The Challenge of Fresh

Every day, people grow more conscious about the effects of their choices on their health and on the health of our environment. We want to eat better and waste less; we want healthier, more affordable fresh food that nourishes our bodies and lasts long enough in our refrigerators to enjoy. We want the valuable time and money we spend in our grocery stores to yield the tastiest, most nutritious food possible. Often taken for granted, grocers work insanely hard to deliver on all of these desires.

But for decades, the fresh business within grocery has been underserved by technology. Most retail technology companies make solutions for packaged goods, electronics, apparel and other general merchandise--not for fresh food. This non-fresh technology in turn fails to address the many complexities and nuances of stocking fresh food. And that’s a big problem. Because what grocers have understood since the first self-service market launched in 1916, is that fresh food is hard. It’s hard to stock, it’s hard to sustain, and it’s hard to profit from — it always has been. Unfortunately, these non-fresh systems that have been sold to grocers as a solution to their fresh food challenges have, in reality, only made their jobs harder, applying one-size-fits-all solutions to departments that require tailor-made support. 

Grocers know each time they project next week’s strawberry order, versus next week’s cereal order that all food is not created equal—and the technology that manages it shouldn’t be either. If every item sold inside a grocery store were like Cheerios, then a grocer’s job would be much simpler. Cheerios are manufactured inside factories that have full control over how many identical boxes they send out to grocery stores every day. Cheerios can last well over eight months on the shelf without ever needing to be refrigerated, ripened, or cooked. They’re conveniently packaged inside a box that is always the exact same size and weight, and that box is armed with a barcode that makes inventorying Cheerios as simple as clicking a button.  

But the foods that many shoppers desire most from their grocery stores are not like Cheerios at all. In 2018, fresh foods made up for over half of supermarkets’ total sales, and access to quality meats and produce is consistently the highest driving determinant of why shoppers choose their grocery stores, just behind geographic location. While the non-perishable foods that are stocked in center store are easiest to supply, fresh foods on the store’s perimeter are what’s most in demand. Also, with the rise of Amazon and online shopping, fresh food is what sets brick & mortar stores apart from the online competition. But supplying fresh foods is easier said than done.

Consider that a strawberry, and other fresh produce like it, is dying from the moment it’s picked. Its “expiration date” depends on growing conditions, consistency of cold chain refrigeration, crop varietal, season, speed of delivery, delicacy in its handling, and more. Unlike those Cheerios, not only is a strawberry’s shelf life unknown, it is numbered in days, not months. Instead of one company producing boxes of mass-marketed Cheerios, there are many farmers and shippers all over the country, each growing strawberries in different shapes, sizes, and tastes. One poorly timed rain before picking can deplete a strawberry’s shelf life, and one poorly timed snowstorm can delay an eighteen-wheeler from getting to your local store by days.

This is the challenge of fresh. Non-perishable and perishable foods are not produced the same way, they’re not sold the same way, and they shouldn’t have to be forecasted, ordered, or inventoried the same way. Clearly, there is a breakdown between the food that shoppers want to buy, and the food that has been optimized to sell them.

Despite fresh foods’ vitality to both human and planetary health, food tech has yet to focus its research and innovation into optimizing the fresh food perimeter. As a result, grocers have had to work around the technology that’s supposed to be working for them, managing their fresh inventories with legacy systems that were built for uncomplicated center store stocks. That’s like trying to fix a leak with duct tape; it may be doing a job, but it’s not doing the job.

Left with no options but to rely on tools that will inevitably fail them in fresh, grocers often resort to using pen-and-paper records and making vital decisions on gut instinct alone. Under these outdated resources, fresh food departments still yield far too much waste and far too little profit for grocery stores.

The good news, however, is that at this very moment, the technology finally exists to solve the unique set of variables presented by fresh. Advances in artificial intelligence, data proliferation, and user-friendly interfaces are all coming together to address the complexities of fresh food, and create a healthier future for grocers and their shoppers. Afresh’s intuitive platform has been developed from the ground up specifically to optimize the fresh food experience. Our system’s adaptability, in-store tooling, and cutting edge AI are designed to solve every challenge fresh food might face during its journey from farm to fork.

Fresh food is hard, but we know that it’s not impossible. Creating more accessible, sustainable, and profitable fresh food starts with giving grocers the tools they need. Seasonality, perishability, sudden weather changes, shortages in supply, excess demand — Afresh’s technology enables grocers to account for these nuances at scale for every item, in every store, every single day of the year.

Grocers work so very hard to feed us all. Afresh is building tools to support them, so that they in turn can more sustainably deliver fresh, nutrient-dense food to all. 


Matt Schwartz, Afresh

Matt Schwartz is the CEO of Afresh. His passion in life is to improve human and environmental health by solving problems in the food supply chain. Before Afresh, this passion led him to launch Statfoods, work in foodtech at The Production Board, manage operations at Simple Mills, and be a vegetarian buzzkill at dinner parties. Matt holds an MBA from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.