Do consumers want to know how long a piece of fruit has been sitting in the store? And would they be willing to buy raspberries that have been sitting around for a week if they paid less for them?
Minneapolis-based Target Corp. is testing that idea and a handful of other experiments aimed at providing more transparency about the food it sells at the SuperTarget store in Edina this weekend.
In the produce department, a small research team has put up handwritten signs above strawberries and raspberries, noting which arrived in the store that day and which arrived a week ago. There’s a 50-cent price difference between the two.
Nearby are two “smart scales,” on which customers can place a piece of fruit and answer questions on a screen about features they would be most interested in learning about — such as whether it is organic, how many calories it has and how it was produced.
One day those scales could potentially scan the produce to provide such details to customers, but for now Target is using them to gauge what kinds of information is most important to consumers.
Farther back in the packaged food aisles, Target is testing a new brand called Good & Gather. Ingredients on that brand’s products — everything from peanut butter to trail mix to cheese balls — are prominently depicted on the front of the package rather than buried in small print on the back.
The mini-trials are part of the retailer’s “Food + Future coLAB” in Cambridge, Mass., a collaboration with MIT and design firm Ideo. Target also recently brought on chipmaker Intel Corp. as a partner to add some technological expertise.
The lab full of graduate students, scientists and entrepreneurs is working to come up with solutions to bring greater access, understanding and trust around food, which is nearly a $20 billion business for Target, or about one-fourth of its sales.
“We know less about our food we eat today than at any other time in our history period,” said Greg Shewmaker, an entrepreneur in residence whom Target hired last year.
The tests being done in Edina this weekend will be tweaked and adjusted in stores in Minnetonka and Boston next weekend, followed by a trial in San Francisco about a week later.
At the SuperTarget in Edina on Friday, a number of customers did double takes at the signs in the produce department. Angela Holland examined them, picked up a carton of strawberries and looked at the bottom of it.
She had bought strawberries the day before, but she loved the idea of being able to pay less for produce, as long as she knew it needed to be used right away.
Monique Scheel opted to pay 50 cents more for a carton of strawberries that had arrived in the store that day since she wasn’t sure if she would be able to finish them this weekend.
“I don’t want to risk it getting moldy,” she said.
At the same time, she wondered about the usefulness of such signs. She said she expects fruit sold by Target not to spoil quickly.
That’s part of the point of the tests, too — to figure out what consumers actually care about.
“Everyone says transparency is important, but are they displaying that [when making purchases] in the store?” Shewmaker asked.
In recent weeks, Target has also begun using technology called spectroscopy to scan hundreds of thousands of food items in two of its warehouses, one in Lake City, Fla., and the other in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
The idea is to develop what Shewmaker calls the “world’s first food fingerprint database” that provides information about how freshness, nutritional value, and other qualities change over time in food.
“There’s no scientific baseline to say here’s what an apple at two weeks of life should look like,” he said.
Instead, workers in Target’s warehouses often have to rely on things like the feel and taste of items to determine freshness.
How exactly Target will end up using the database is still unclear, but executives see a lot of possible applications, including making sure items don’t spoil in warehouses as well as putting such scanners in stores for customers to use on their own.
It’s also still to be determined whether Target might launch Good & Gather as a brand in all of its stores or simply incorporate ideas from its packaging into its existing in-house brands.
Either way, the process has been instructive for Target, which is working hard to move faster and to more quickly vet and test ideas. The idea for Good & Gather went from the drawing board to being tested in stores in the span of seven weeks, an “unprecedented” pace for what would usually take months, said Casey Carl, Target’s chief innovation officer.
“You can get to market fast and start learning,” Carl said. “Far better off to be doing that than to wait a year or two and strive for perfection and then realizing, oh maybe we should have asked some different questions.”