As consumers live increasingly demanding work and personal lives, the simple act of putting food on the table can often be a significant challenge. Fortunately, the rapidly spreading universe of e-commerce has now expanded to bring the convenience and speed of online ordering and delivery services to the world of food. Delivering everything from fresh, chilled and frozen food products to meal preparation kits and fully-prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner selections, food delivery services now provide consumers access to a wide range of food products and prepared foods with a simple tap of their smart phone.
Ultimately, however, ongoing consumer acceptance of individual food delivery service options depends on their satisfaction with the quality of the delivered food products and the efficiency of the delivery services. Problems such as extended delivery times, food products that are spoiled or meals that are delivered at sub-optimal temperatures reflect poorly on the delivery service. Consumers may then choose to use competing services with higher consumer ratings on delivery service websites or social media. But how can food delivery services objectively assess the quality of their services and the foods they deliver?
This article will discuss the challenges facing food delivery services, and suggest several steps that delivery service companies can take to help ensure the quality of their food offerings.
Market opportunities for food delivery services
The food delivery service business actually consists of a variety of different food industry players. It includes food retailers, supermarkets and restaurants that independently coordinate their own food delivery services. It also includes online food delivery service platforms that offer restaurants order-taking and delivery services. These platforms provide consumers with a single source to explore food choices from a variety of restaurant options, while giving restaurants increased online visibility and potential access to new customers.
Despite relatively modest overall growth in the food industry, revenue directly related to food delivery services is exploding. Worldwide, revenues derived from food delivery services are projected to increase by an average of 32 percent a year through 2021, with 40 percent of that growth originating in the Americas. In the U.S., estimated revenues from either online food delivery service platforms or restaurants are expected to double in the next five years, from about $15 billion (USD) in 2017 to more than $32 billion by the year 2021.
These growth projections are being driven in part by the growing awareness of food delivery to the home or the workplace as a viable option to food shopping or going out to a restaurant. Although the use of food delivery services is not unique to any particular age group, younger consumers such as millennials appear to be a disproportionate force behind much of the growth. Their familiarity and comfort with the convenience of shopping and delivery services available online or through smart phone apps easily extends to food products and meals.
Key quality and safety factors associated with food delivery services
Often, consumers accustomed to the online shopping experience expect a level of service equal to or better than what they receive at physical retail outlets. This expectation alone can place significant demands on food retailers, for whom face-to-face interactions with customers have represented the only way of doing business for centuries.
But, unlike books or apparel products that can withstand the rigors of transportation and are generally not affected by unanticipated shipping delays, food products are far more fragile. At a minimum, good food safety practices require that food products be held in controlled temperature environments. Cooked foods that cool off have an increased risk of spore generation. Additionally, food packaging increases humidity and contributes to the formation of bacteria and general spoilage, while also shortening shelf-life. And chilled and frozen foods must be maintained at consistent temperatures to help ensure their quality and safety.
Further, all foods are susceptible to contamination and must be appropriately packaged to prevent infiltration from potentially harmful bacteria. These rigid parameters can be hard to control under the best conditions, but can present real challenges for operators handling localized door-to-door deliveries.
In the case of food products and meals from restaurants and food retailers that have been prepared for immediate consumption, there are further challenges. Consumers expect that the quality of cooked food orders will be consistent with what they receive in a restaurant. Lengthy delivery times or unexpected delivery delays can comprise the quality and appeal of cooked or prepared food, leading consumers to seek other alternatives.
Quality issues can also impact consumer perceptions of food and food products delivered from supermarkets and retailers. Under- or over-ripe fruit or vegetables, eggs and other fragile food products that arrive broken or which are otherwise unusable, and food products with expired “best use by” or shelf-life dates can contribute to consumer dissatisfaction with a given food retailer or delivery service.
Steps to help ensure the quality and safety of delivered food
To address these and other challenges, many experienced food delivery service operators are developing systems and procedures to track delivery service activities and other variables affecting food quality and safety. These actions can go a long way to help ensure that critical aspects of the food products delivered to consumers and the delivery process are consistent with the specifications of the delivery service, as well as meeting or exceeding the expectations of consumers.
Some of the specific steps that food producers, retailers and delivery service providers can take include:
- Crowd testing — Crowd testing is used to objectively assess the overall food delivery experience from the consumer’s perspective, as well as to evaluate specific aspects of the delivery process and food quality. Crowd testers are specifically trained to assess each aspect of the food delivery service experience, and to provide written reports to the testing organizer for further review and analysis.
- Sensorial testing — Sensorial testing involves evaluating the taste and other sensory experiences that come from eating delivered foods. Such testing measures tasters’ reactions to identified food properties and parameters that are specific to the type of food being delivered, and compares them with the reactions of other tasters. Tasters participating in sensorial testing can consist of various populations, from ordinary consumers to food tasters trained in sensory analysis.
- Microbiological analysis — A microbiological analysis by an accredited laboratory evaluates the hygienic condition of delivered foods in accordance with established standards and scientific methods. Microbiological analysis is critical in identifying the presence of potentially harmful bacteria that may develop as a direct or indirect result of delivery activities, and is essential in determining the overall health and safety of delivered foods.
- Temperature/humidity monitoring — Using temperature sensors, loggers, time-temperature indicators (TTIs) and humidity monitors, food retailers are able to measure and optimize how various aspects of the delivery process impact the quality and safety of their food products upon delivery. Such monitoring can also help to increase transparency with consumers, who can directly view the results of such tracking.
- Simulation testing — Simulation testing is used to evaluate alternative food packaging and packaging materials that can be used to mitigate or eliminate the effects of temperature variations or other environmental factors that impact the quality of foods during transport. Various packaging and material alternatives can be evaluated and tested to identify the optimal solutions for different types of food and different delivery scenarios. Simulation testing can also be used to evaluate various types of cooling boxes and coolant materials.
- Delivery tracking — Delivery tracking includes monitoring the total amount of time required for food delivery, from initial preparation and packaging to receipt by the consumer, and correlating this data with product quality and customer satisfaction metrics. GPS trackers and acceleration sensors can provide helpful real-time data and additional information on preferred delivery routes. More detailed examples of delivery tracking include the temperature/humidity monitoring tools and techniques previously noted, data from which can be used to modify delivery routes, food packaging, etc.
These and other tests and assessments can be used by food retailers and delivery service providers to identify potential vulnerabilities in the quality of their delivery service offerings, and guide them in finding solutions that can help to meet their customers’ expectations.
How TÜV SÜD can support the efforts of food retailers and delivery service operators
TÜV SÜD’s food delivery process validation services have been expressly developed to address the challenges facing food retailers, restaurants and independent operators involved in the delivery of all types of food products. Our services involve both qualitative and quantitative assessments of every aspect of the food delivery process, and identify specific aspects of the delivery service operations that can be targeted for improvement.
Subject to prior approval, clients of our validation services are also eligible to apply TÜV SÜD-specific branding to their services. This branding provides food delivery service partners and consumers with assurances regarding the quality and safety of their operations. And TÜV SÜD’s validation services can be extended to include delivery service suppliers, thereby helping to ensure quality and safety throughout the entire supply chain.