(37) Aesthetics, Food and Innovation

Dear Researchista friends, please welcome our first Special Guest from abroad (outside NL), Dr. Beatrice D’Ippolito! 

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This month Researchista has decided to focus on the food industry. As an evolutionary economist at root, when I think of an industry and the products or services offered, I start thinking of what drives change and innovation in the specific context. Last week’s contribution to ‘Research on Food (industry) month on Researchista’ started off with the following: “It is the experience which brings about development and innovation”. Today I would like to delve further into the concept of innovation in food retail, hardly considered as innovating, yet bearing a significant potential for growth and change.

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Source: “Learning about food design”, d’Ippolito (2015)

Ongoing debates within the academic and policy-making communities centre argue that less technology-intensive industries rely on services to build their innovation capacity. Which foundations does this belief build on?

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Recently I have been involved in a project which sought to explore how aesthetics, which often finds expression in design, can shape the innovation activities undertaken by food retailers. ‘Why aesthetics?’, you may wonder? And even, ‘How does it relate to food retail?

Aesthetics was a term coined by Baumgarten in Aesthetica (1750-58) to describe a philosophical discipline that examines the “lower” sensual aspects of human experience as opposed to the “higher” realm of logics. Research on the topic has evolved in many directions ever since and, for the sake of simplicity, I hereby refer to aesthetics as concerned with “the nature and appreciation of art, beauty, and good taste” (Oxford English Dictionary). Falling under the realm of axiology, that is, the study of values and value judgments, aesthetics is strongly connected with individual preferences. You may start connecting the dots here.

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Source: internet.

Retail industries are increasingly being subject to consumers demanding for more innovation. Interestingly, although a retailer’s success relies on the ability to predict market trends, retailers are usually the adopters of innovations produced by other manufacturing companies. Retail firms are rarely thought of as innovation pioneers, yet some of them seem to adopt existing technologies to either improve their selling practices or enhance the quality of their retail processes. In addition, most innovations offered by retailers, though incremental, can generate meaningful impact on firms’ performance if sustained in the long run.

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Source: “Emerging trends in food retail”, http://www.supermarketnews.com (Oct’16)

Further, I would like to discuss more about these aspects by illustrating how food retailers can innovate their offering by leveraging on the design element of their products and services. To do so, I draw on the case of Eataly (www.eataly.net), a food retailer that entered the Italian food market in 2007 with a first establishment in Turin, and additional ones later on, both in Italy and abroad.

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Source: internet.

The founder of Eataly believed in a world in which consumers are aware of healthier eating habits and the importance of consuming organic and seasonal products. These values have been inspired by Slow Food, a global organisation founded in Italy in 1989 to counteract fast food and a fast life on the one hand, and the disappearance of local food traditions and ethical modes of food production and consumption on the other. In seeking to protect this cultural heritage, Slow Food has effectively become a ‘clearing house’ for knowledge of local foods, initially in Italy, then globally.

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Source: “One of Eataly’s mottos” from field visit to Eataly Store in Milan (Teatro Smeraldo, 2015), D’Ippolito & Timpano (2016). Translation: “Life is too short to eat and drink bad”

How does aesthetics manifest itself in the offering and activities of Eataly? The company originates from a series of stimuli rooted in both the territory in which the first store was set up, Turin, and the professional background of the founder, Oscar Farinetti. Eataly became the place where consumers could go and enjoy their food with family and friends (a restaurant), buy locally produced ingredients (a supermarket), and learn how to cook traditional recipes (a locus of learning).

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Oscar Farinetii, Founder of Eataly. Source: here

Still, where is aesthetics? Eataly is an excellent case to explore how design as embedding and expressing aesthetics can foster innovation in service industries like food retailing. This is the case for various reasons. First, Eataly sought to grow and build reputation by locating their branches in sites that have a meaning for the local community. As Farinetti puts it, “Each ‘Eataly in the world’ focuses on one value: harmony for Turin, audacity for Genoa, doubt for New York. For Rome, we have chosen beauty”. For instance, the branch in Turin is located within the old premises of Carpano, an Italian winery and distillery that first established in Turin in 1786 and later moved to Milan. The store also benefits from the flourishing surroundings, that is, one of the country’s largest areas for food production and relevant events such as Terra Madre and The Salone del Gusto. The logic behind this approach is that of attracting the attention of those consumers who are familiar and emotionally attached to the site they live in and increase their awareness about its cultural heritage. Second, whilst the architecture of the various retail stores tries to recall the big factories (e.g., visible pipes on the ceiling, metallic furniture), Eataly still wishes to establish a reputation for the store as being central to the city rather than peripheral like many shopping malls.

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Source: Eataly Story in Rome (taken during one of my field visits, April, 2014)

Third, elements of aesthetics have been built into different aspects of the firm’s organisation. A highly visible dimension regards the layout and logistics of the store. The first store, Eataly Turin, counts more than 6,000 m2 dedicated to the supermarket area, the restaurant, and exhibition (e.g., fair trade coffee) of their products. The store logistic has been set out with the aim of making the consumer ‘travel’ through theme-specific corridors almost by forgetting that the store is of a much bigger size. Product and restaurant points are arranged to induce purchase and offer a unique experience – “…products are shelved so closely that you cannot just avoid them, you feel the impulse of taking one back home with you” (field notes from the researcher’s visits to Eataly Rome). A series of mono-theme restaurants are dedicated to the product types such as ready-made bread or fresh meat, and besides each of them, a learning corner has been set up to deliver cooking training programs to candidate chefs, for example about meat cutting or bread making techniques.

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Translation: “If I don’t go to Eataly, I die! I have fallen in love from the first moment I saw it. This is why I wanted to bring it in my city: New York. It is liked like crazy, even by my dog”, Joe Bastianichi. Source: internet

The architect’s brief for Eataly’s first store has been framed and exhibited in the Rome store (see figure below): here one can really see Eataly’s intent to recall consumer attention to the company’s roots and how these have informed their organisational values.Still, where is aesthetics?

Eataly is an excellent case to explore how design as embedding and expressing aesthetics can foster innovation in service industries like food retailing. This is the case for various reasons. First, Eataly sought to grow and build reputation by locating their branches in sites that have a meaning for the local community. As Farinetti puts it, “Each ‘Eataly in the world’ focuses on one value: harmony for Turin, audacity for Genoa, doubt for New York. For Rome, we have chosen beauty”. For instance, the branch in Turin is located within the old premises of Carpano, an Italian winery and distillery that first established in Turin in 1786 and later moved to Milan. The store also benefits from the flourishing surroundings, that is, one of the country’s largest areas for food production and relevant events such as Terra Madre and The Salone del Gusto. The logic behind this approach is that of attracting the attention of those consumers who are familiar and emotionally attached to the site they live in and increase their awareness about its cultural heritage. Second, whilst the architecture of the various retail stores tries to recall the big factories (e.g., visible pipes on the ceiling, metallic furniture), Eataly still wishes to establish a reputation for the store as being central to the city rather than peripheral like many shopping malls.

Last but not least, aesthetics is also embedded with how products are “placed on the shelves and introduced to consumers” (interview with the Communications Director). Most products, though manufactured by small farmers, are packaged in light-coloured packaging, in white more often than not, to introduce fresh, healthy, and tasty products. Shelves are painted in white; advertising wallpapers or flyers have a white background; and shopping assistants’ aprons are white to recreate a similarly freshening atmosphere. As the Communications Director stated, “it is important to present the product without overwhelming it”.

Eataly represents an example of how, through the entrepreneurial initiatives driven by passion, tradition, and ethical behaviour (e.g., promotion of locally sourced products, shorter product life cycles, and new restaurant models), a small firm can be innovative and contribute to driving change. The case points indeed to the importance of local communities, local brands, and intensified relationships with customers’ suppliers that will not only generate a positive impact for the company, but also the local economy.

Post written by Dr. Beatrice D’IppolitoLecturer in Strategic Management, University of York, UK

Note to the post:

The current piece draws from a research collaboration between Dr D’Ippolito and Prof. Timpano (Universitàa Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Piacenza, Italy). Results from this project can be further consulted at the following sources:

With love for Research,

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