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The Boston Globe had a story this week about a new technology start-up that has created a service called Zeer.com, which is designed to allow people shopping in the supermarket to have access to user-generated reviews to help choose products in a wide variety of categories. The Globe reports that Zeer.com “is part food search engine, part community website. Users can look up food by name or by specifying criteria such as gluten-free or calorie count. They can also read about and review products, create shopping lists, make profiles, and join communities of like-minded eaters.”

The service is about to be made available via mobile web browsers, which means that it will be very simple for a person on aisle six in a specific store to query other shoppers about the quality of this or that product. It means that diabetics or people allergic to gluten will be able to turn to each other for advice about what kinds of foods they can eat. It means that parents trying to figure out how to get their kids to eat vegetables can use the Internet to access ideas and suggestions while they are in the store…which is precisely when they are thinking about shopping.

The Globe suggested that the supermarket may not be the best place for such social interactions over products that on the face of it seem fairly simple to understand. But I think that underestimates the complexity of the food shopping experience.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, he average store has 45,000 items. I wonder how many of those items customers actually “know” – and by “know,” I mean they maybe know the cost, something about the nutritional value, and maybe something about the taste. Do you think they know one percent of the items in the average supermarket, which would be 450 items? Little high? How about one-half of one percent, which would be 225 items? Still too high? How about one-tenth of one percent, which would be 45 items? Am I getting closer?

In one way, the lack of familiarity that most customers have with products in the supermarket is one of the best arguments for limited assortment stores, whether they be called Trader Joe’s, Aldi, Stew Leonard’s, or Fresh & Easy. In another way, this lack of knowledge about merchandise carried by most supermarkets is a great argument for why technologies like Zeer make sense, especially for a younger generation of consumers that finds the grocery store an increasingly foreign land, and who are comfortable with technologies that make it easier to navigate and understand.

Zeer, and other, similar technologies that are likely to emerge in coming months and years, can be the supermarket’s enemy, or they can be the supermarket’s friend. If they turn into the retailer’s enemy, however, it will because the business was unwilling or unable to understand why they must embrace such possibilities.

The world of Zeer and the young people who will gravitate to such technologies is the world we all have to figure out how to live in. Denial or hostility aren’t an option, at least not a legitimate one. We all have to figure out how to adopt such technologies and use them to build our business, engender loyalty, and create a new and sustainable business model that works.

For MorningNewsBeat Radio, I’m Kevin Coupe.

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