Let’s say you go grocery shopping in the future. 

You visit a small store, close to home, probably after making a reservation. In the back half of the building, a network of robots builds your online order of packaged goods while you browse for fresh bread, fruit and a cut of mahi-mahi for the grill. You pay for the entire thing through a phone app and just walk out. No more checkout lines or lonely walks down an entire condiment aisle just to select your favorite mayonnaise.

Phil Lempert, an author and food industry expert dubbed the Supermarket Guru, will deliver the keynote address at this year’s virtual Washington State Tree Fruit Association Annual Meeting. (Courtesy Phil Lempert)
Phil Lempert, an author and food industry expert dubbed the Supermarket Guru, will deliver the keynote address at this year’s virtual Washington State Tree Fruit Association Annual Meeting. (Courtesy Phil Lempert)

That’s how food marketing analyst Phil Lempert envisions the future of grocery shopping in as few as three years.

“It’s a faster shopping trip,” said Lempert, aka the Supermarket Guru. “It’s a much more exciting shopping trip.”

Barring any more societal upheaval — it is 2020 after all — Lempert plans to share that prophecy and more when he delivers the keynote address at the online Washington State Tree Fruit Association Annual Meeting scheduled Dec. 7–9. His presentation is slated for Dec. 7 at 10:15 a.m. PST.

Lempert, an author and speaker based in Santa Monica, California, has been a consumer behavior analyst for more than 25 years and is a frequent source for national news networks. For more than 20 years, he has worked as food trends editor and a correspondent for NBC’s “Today” show. He produces an online newsletter, “The Supermarket Guru;” videos called “The Lempert Report;” and two podcasts: “Lost in the Supermarket” and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance’s “Farm, Food, Facts.”

Lempert didn’t coin the nickname Supermarket Guru. ABC’s Peter Jennings dubbed him that unofficially in a 1980s interview. Lempert and his team liked it so much they trademarked it.

Lempert is known for recognizing and predicting trends in the food industry. Some he plans to share with the tree fruit industry include:

—To shore up supply-chain cracks exposed by the coronavirus pandemic, more retailers will begin seeking long-term contracts directly from growers. Some of them will want exclusive access to varieties. Wegmans, for example, has already done that with some tomatoes.

—Curbside pickup will continue to increase; grocery delivery will not. The nation does not have enough gig workers willing to drive.

—Shoppers will return to buying in-season fruits and vegetables, no longer seeking fresh everything all year. A few year-round staples will be exceptions; apples likely will be among them.

—Stores will reduce their number of SKUs, including those of fresh produce, focusing on local, in-season items.

—Technology will play a bigger role in everyday life, not just on the farm. Household refrigerators will scan an apple as a snacker removes it, automatically updating the owner’s online shopping cart. Homes will even use 3D printers to make their own pizza and cake. Really.

All these trends were already on their way in 2019 and earlier. This year’s coronavirus pandemic has only sped them up. That vision of the half-robot grocery store? He was pegging that for five years out, pre-COVID.

In fact, this marriage of high-tech and fresh food is already happening. In August this year, Amazon opened its first Amazon Fresh grocery store in Woodland Hills, California, and in early October, the online giant made a deal with SpartanNash for the right to purchase up to 15 percent of the Grand Rapids, Michigan, grocer’s company. 

Such fact-based predictions are what attracted Gary Snyder, co-owner of C&O Nursery of Wenatchee and chairman of this year’s annual meeting planning committee, to Lempert’s message. 

“He’s a visionary-type person,” Snyder said. “Not that visionaries are always right.”

Snyder has been reading and listening to Lempert for several years and has heard Lempert knowledgeably discuss fruit industry trends such as bags, clamshells and new varieties, not to mention the broad shift toward online shopping and curbside pickup that the coronavirus kicked into high gear.

Now that the virus has been around for several months, Lempert should be able to extrapolate some overarching lessons for the industry, Snyder said. He also appreciates Lempert’s “passion” for paying such close attention to the needs and wants of individual consumers.

Lempert is not a total stranger to the production side of the industry, either. In one of his podcasts, he interviewed Stemilt company officials about all the scientific and marketing steps a company must take before introducing a new branded apple to the world. However, shoppers are what he understands best, and he plans to stick with that when speaking to the growers at the annual meeting.

“My job is not to tell them about how to grow apples …,” he said. “My job is to make them think differently about grocery stores than they do now.” 

by Ross Courtney


For more on keynote speaker Phil Lempert, visit his website at supermarketguru.com.

For more information about the WSTFA Annual Meeting, go to wstfa.org/annual-meeting.

Highlights of this year’s WSTFA Annual Meeting

Monday, Dec. 7:

—The morning session, starting at 8 a.m. PST, will focus on state-of-the-industry talks on the theme “Agriculture is Essential for a Fruitful Future,” including talks from WSTFA President Jon DeVaney; US Apple President Jim Bair; retail expert Phil Lempert, also known as the Supermarket Guru; Washington State University leadership; and WSU economics professor Eric Jessup, who will speak about the impacts of the pandemic on transportation systems.

—The industry will honor leadership and service during a celebration session at 1 p.m.

—At 2 p.m., DeVaney will lead a conversation on communication during a crisis.

—The annual research flash session, including short updates from scientists working on industry priority projects, will run from 3 to 5 p.m.

Tuesday, Dec. 8:

—The morning session, from 8 to 10 a.m., will focus on emerging diseases and invasive pests — including little cherry disease, brown marmorated stink bugs, the Asian giant hornet and others.

—A Spanish-language session from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. will feature talks on worker protection standards, innovation, little cherry disease and heat safety.

—An afternoon session on technology, from 1 to 2:30 p.m., includes labor tracking applications and an update on the smart orchard pilot project from the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, WSU, Innov8 Ag and Columbia Reach Orchards. 

—A session on pears will run from 3 to 5 p.m.

Wednesday, Dec. 9:

—A Spanish-language session from 8:30 to 10 a.m. will feature COVID-19 management, navigating tree vigor and yield, preventing sexual harassment, managing irrigation and nutrition, and the presentation of the Latino Leadership Award.

—A pest management session from 10 a.m. to noon will focus on techniques that bridge the gap between conventional and organic production, including codling moth, pear psylla, fire blight and natural enemies of key insect pests. 

—At 1 p.m., a session will focus on keeping essential workers safe and will feature researchers and an industry panel. 

—At 2 p.m., attendees will have a chance to earn pesticide credits at a session that includes compliance updates, the latest on pesticide drift and preparing for a compliance investigation, all from the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Content on demand:

—The virtual meeting platform will also have a library of prerecorded presentations available for attendees to watch on their own schedule. Topics include labor tracking tools, orchard automation advances, organic pest control and soil science.