Yesterday, Kroger announced a partnership with the University of Cincinnati to launch an “innovation lab” at the university’s 1819 Innovation Hub.
As its name suggests, the 1819 Innovation Hub is a coworking space that houses classrooms, tools (think 3D printers and laser cutters), and other multipurpose areas meant to connect students, UC faculty, and companies from all types of industries. When UC announced the facility in August of last year, it called the Innovation Hub “University of Cincinnati’s new front door to the community.”
So it makes sense that Kroger, who’s headquartered in Cincinnati, would get involved in a big way. According to the press release, Kroger Technology will staff the Innovation Hub with R&D engineers and software developers, who will reportedly work with UC faculty as well as students.
As UC President Neville G. Pinto said in the release, “This is the kind of partnership that allows our students and faculty to work on real-world challenges in a cross-disciplinary way, while offering our corporate partners added value with access to talent, expertise, research, creativity, and specialized equipment and technology.”
Pretty much every major grocery retailer is proclaiming innovation as one of their top priorities — and then funneling millions of dollars into creating it. That means there’s a rush to hire newer, younger talent that big-box grocers can nurture in-house, hence the influx of incubators and labs popping up.
One of the largest and most high profile is Walmart’s Store No. 8, a startup incubator that launched in late 2017. Different from Walmart Labs, which hones in on short-term ideas and solutions, Store No. 8 specifically nurtures companies playing the long game — that is, the ones creating the future of retail through technologies like AI and machine learning. Since launch, Store No. 8 has also created a personal shopping service and has plans for a physical store without checkout lines, in what’s clearly a play to keep pace with Amazon.
Albertsons, meanwhile, just partnered with Greycroft Ventures on a $50 million fund to invest in emerging companies. The move will, as The Spoon’s Chris Albrecht points out, give Albertsons access to cutting-edge technologies before they hit mainstream.
CPG companies are also getting onboard. FoodDive pointed to Italian chocolate maker Ferrero’s innovation center, which it started at Cornell University and uses to help recruit students. Other large CPGs, from General Mills to Nestle, are also working with young companies and universities in an effort to gain newer technologies and, eventually, a larger share of the grocery market.
Retailers and CPG companies can dabble in new technologies up and down the stack, but that’s only one step in the dance here. They’re called “accelerators” for a reason: moving a new technology from idea to having any real impact is a long, slow process riddled with trial and error. That makes them less about the tech itself and more about developing ways to advance it in ways that the everyman will be able to relate to. Love or hate Amazon, but one of the reasons they’re a threat to these grocery retailers is that, for Bezos and Co., tech plays second fiddle to a far more powerful accelerator: human behavior and how it can change. To compete, Kroger and the others will have to use these so-called innovation labs to do the same.