Canadians have mixed feelings on AI in grocery: Survey

More than half of consumers don't know how they feel about purchasing groceries from retailers that use AI.
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Artificial intelligence is coming to dinner, but Canadians don’t quite know what to make of this curious new guest. 

A new study by the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, in partnership with Caddle, surveyed 5,525 Canadians on their awareness and concerns about AI in the food industry. The study points to many opportunities AI presents: It allows companies to gain valuable insights into consumer behaviour, predict preferences and even anticipate changes in dietary choices. 

When it comes to consumer awareness, nearly 38% of Canadians have never heard of AI being used in the food industry. A total of 29% are aware but don’t understand how AI is being used. A further 18.8% believe they have a good understanding of AI and are aware of how it is used in the food sector.

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“When I look at the results, I feel that Canadians just don’t know what to think of AI [in the food sector],” says Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab. “I think there’s more confusion than anything, but those who aren’t confused about AI certainly have an opinion.”  

When asked if they’re worried about the use of AI in either the grocery or foodservice sector, more than half (26.5%) said they are worried about the potential negative impact on jobs, and 21.8% are concerned about privacy. Only 16.3% believe it’s a good idea. An additional 35.4% said they’re not sure how they feel about AI. 

Trust is a big issue: 40.3% of respondents expressed a lack of trust in food companies’ ethical use of AI. That’s almost double the number of Canadians who do trust food companies ethical use of AI (21.9%). 

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“Right now, the way AI is being sold to the world is that it’s not necessarily trustworthy – and that’s not necessarily the food industry’s fault,” says Charlebois. “The discussion goes way beyond the realm of the food industry… but certainly some computer scientists are sounding the alarm [about AI] and a lot of people are listening.” 

When asked if they are willing to shop at a grocery store knowing the company uses AI, just over 30% are comfortable with the concept, while more than half (50.2%) don’t know how they feel about it. 

Many Canadians do see how AI can improve grocery shopping and restaurant experiences. Nearly half (47.7%) believe AI can offer faster checkout times at the grocery store, 28.5% believe AI can offer a more personalized experience, and 28% believe AI can provide better product or dish recommendations. 

But that doesn’t mean consumers are clamouring for these services. When asked about the use of AI for personalized recommendations for groceries or restaurant menu items, only 23.4% think it’s a good idea. Other Canadians either think it is not necessary (31.6%), aren’t sure how they feel about it (28.5%) or are worried about privacy (16.5%). 

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Consumer hesitation or not, Charlebois expects we’ll see more AI applications in the food sector. “AI has been a reality in farming for a very long time and the rest of the supply chain will be catching up,” he says. “My guess is that companies will have no other choice but to look into AI at some point, to improve efficiencies, reduce waste, increase customer service capacity and predict food safety risks and recalls.” 

His main recommendation to grocers and food companies is to be transparent. “I think it’s important for companies to look into how AI can better their business, but at the same time, they need to be transparent about it because trust seems to be hanging in the balance.”

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