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E-Commerce and product information in the foodservice industry

5 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

As the next generation of chefs and restaurateurs embrace technology, they are changing the way people think of food, how they eat, and where they go to eat. As a result of the ever-changing needs of the consumer, foodservice operators, distributors, and manufacturers have to be poised to react or they risk becoming irrelevant. So what’s the next big thing for foodservice? E-commerce.

The stage is already set. E-tailers like Amazon and Zappos have proven that consumers want the ease and convenience of online shopping. In fact, online sales have grown at a rate of 10% annually and could reach more than $370 billion by 2017, according to Forrester Research. Foodservice is already trickling into this space through sites like GrubHub and Peapod that have made it possible to place a to-go order at your favorite local restaurant or to have groceries delivered right to your door. The appetite for being able to log in, click around and find the right products is stronger than ever.

Now that people are perusing menus online, they’re looking for certain things. As restaurant-goers lean toward healthier and more sustainable options, these are key differentiators when choosing where to chow down. In the National Restaurant Association’s 2013 Nutrition Initiatives Report, the ‘What’s Hot’ Survey lists top trends that include locally-sourced meats and produce, healthful kids’ menus, environmental sustainability, gluten-free cuisine and whole grain items. “Growing awareness by consumers about what is on their plates has been fascinating,” NRA’s Vice President of Industry Affairs Joan McGlockton says in the report. Furthermore, menu-labeling laws are requiring restaurants to post standardized nutritional information about their dishes, and regardless, consumers are demanding this information.

These changing dynamics are forcing chefs and kitchen managers to constantly be on the look-out for products to fit the dietary needs of their customers (gluten-free, etc.). Restaurants, healthcare facilities, and hotels still depend on their purveyors to get these products into their kitchens, but the days of picking up the phone to ask a sales rep for what’s handy are quickly fading away. Sure, some broadliners have the ability for customers to place an order online, but can they really shop? Whether chefs are shopping for shoes or placing a meat and produce order for their restaurants, they want to reach into their pocket and do so on their phones, or sit down with a tablet. And, when placing orders online, chefs, managers and restaurant purchasing directors need to know everything about a product before they even consider buying it. Is the product trans-fat free? Does it contain peanuts? Can I look at a picture of the product?

The accuracy of this information — as it’s translated to menus — will drive consumer confidence. Imagine if a restaurant were to purchase a gluten-free product for a gluten-free menu only to find that wheat is listed in the ingredients. Inaccuracies like that can quickly damage a reputation. Not only do distributors and manufacturers need to make sure that the customer-facing technology is available, they also need to ensure that the user experience and content will be up to snuff alongside those other online retail giants that already have accurate, standardized information about products.

This need to communicate product information in a streamlined and consistent way is precisely what has brought industry leaders together to launch the Foodservice GS1 US Standards Initiative.  By driving industry adoption of GS1 Standards for identifying products in the supply chain and sharing information about these products, GS1 US is helping foodservice companies strengthen the supply chain and support their customers’ needs.

For the everyday consumer, GS1 US is a company that many have probably never heard of, but they interact with GS1 Standards almost every day as the global organization that governs barcodes and product information standards for everything from a can of beans to healthcare supplies. In response to this industry-wide need for accurate, standardized food product data, GS1 US has been leading efforts to enable companies to exchange information such as images, nutrition, and allergen information through a common network called the Global Data Synchronization Network (GDSN). This is important for foodservice companies because standardization of product information will play a key role in satisfying the demand for an enhanced E-commerce platform. 

Distributors are already engaging with their manufacturers to capture this information. US Foods, for example, is actively working with over 1500 of its vendors to collect data through the GDSN. Also, at the end of 2013, US Foods and Reinhardt Foodservice were involved in a pilot to begin receiving nutritional and other foodservice product information from the Independent Purchasing CooperativeSubway’s supply chain management company and one of the first operators to engage in that effort.

Building out the technology for E-commerce is a monumental effort that requires design, innovation and collaboration. Making that technology come to life with quality content is even more difficult because in E-commerce, content is king. Information that is in constant flux, such as nutritional and allergen data, needs to be exchanged in real-time to build trust and ensure the right products are being presented. Images, relevant marketing descriptions, and whether or not the product is eco-friendly or organic are attributes that are critical to the sale. The foodservice companies that embrace technology and leverage standards are the ones that will most successfully appeal to today’s generation of foodservice customers and consumers.                   

Jason Gunn is a manager of the Product Information Management (PIM) team at US Foods. His team is responsible for all electronic product catalog content at US Foods as well as maintaining the data sync efforts between US Foods, the supplier community, and FSEnet+, a GDSN Certified Data Pool. Currently he serves as co-chair for the Foodservice GS1 US Standards Initiative’s marketing committee as well as for th GS1US Community Advisory Board.