Minneapolis-based discount retailer Target is perhaps most noted for its splashy short- and long-term collaborations: Michael Graves, Isaac Mizrahi, Marimekko, Alexander McQueen and site-crashing Missoni just to name a few.
Oh, and add the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the list.
Late last year, Target partnered with the MIT Media Lab and global design firm IDEO to launch Food + Future coLAB, a boundary-pushing, innovation-embracing initiative launched in part to “reinvent food.” Yep, Target wants to reinvent food.
As Food + Future coLAB puts it:
By leveraging Target’s scale for good and collaborating with great partners to create radical transparency across the industry, we believe we can drive permanent positive change in how the world looks at food.
Keep in mind, this is coming from a big box behemoth. Still, a majority of Target stores — 1,500 of the retailer's nearly 1,800 U.S. locations per the Huffington Post — now have a grocery section sporting a decent amount of fresh produce: bananas, apples, shrink-wrapped iceberg, bagged carrots, leafy greens sold in bulky plastic containers. (My local store in Brooklyn is not one of them. On a recent visit, I overheard a European tourist ask an employee which aisle the fresh vegetables were in. The polite but taken aback where do you think you are? expression on the employee’s face was classic.)
These fruit and veg-hawking Target outposts may not always boast the widest selection compared to traditional grocery stores and greenmarkets. Furthermore, they’re also likely not a top destination for discerning produce shoppers. Still, it’s nice to have the option of picking up a bag of grapes and a pound of organic peaches while you shop for shower curtain liners, sensible underpants and printer paper.
And starting next year, select Target stores won’t just sell produce — they’ll also grow it via advanced in-house vertical farming systems.
As reported by Business Insider, the Food + Future coLAB-developed vertical farms will be unrolled in “a few” Target locations. In a nice twist, the farms won’t be hidden away out of sight and out of mind in secure, climate-controlled areas. Instead, they’ll be out on full display (but still appropriately climatized) so that Target shoppers can really, truly see where their food comes from — and potentially harvest the produce with their own two hands. Or shoppers can just watch Target employees pick the super-fresh leafy greens while they wait for the their prescription to be filled. What a world.
“Down the road, it's something where potentially part of our food supply that we have on our shelves is stuff that we've grown ourselves,” Casey Carl, chief strategy and innovation officer with Target, tells Business Insider.
Vertically grown leafy greens will be a shoo-in when the in-store farms eventually launch. Other types of veg — potatoes, zucchini, peppers, beetroot and even tomatoes — could potentially follow as Food + Future coLAB’s hydroponic growing technology — less resource-intensive, pesticide-free and not subject to the oft-devastating weather and temperature swings — is further developed. The success of the farms also depends largely, of course, on how customers react to it. Will they embrace it? Or will they be weirded out by incredibly fresh produce that hasn't already been sheathed in extraneous packaging?
“The idea is that by next spring, we’ll have in-store growing environments,” adds Greg Shewmaker, Food + Future coLAB’s founder and Target entrepreneur-in-residence.
In addition to the in-store vertical farm pilot project, Food + Future coLAB recently unveiled an "X-ray for fresh food." Translation: a scanner that detects a fruit of vegetable's nutritional value in real time. (Photo: Target)
Just one of several areas of focus for Food + Future coLAB, the in-store vertical farming pilot scheme is certainly one of the flashiest — heck, it was unveiled at the White House as part of SXSW spin-off, SXSL (South by South Lawn). However, a real-time nutritional scanner for fruits and veggies also has the potential to be a true game-changer.
Target isn't growing up alone
Vertical on-site farming is also a trend that other major retailers have latched onto in recent years. Whole Foods Market is, not surprisingly, an industry leader in the realm of in-store produce production. As I reported back in 2013, the Austin, Texas-based specialty supermarket’s then-under-construction Brooklyn store is topped with 20,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse operated by Gotham Greens that features an innovative and highly efficient irrigation system.
IKEA, magical land of meatballs and MDF end tables, is also potentially entering the in-store farming game, although the produce grown at the sustainability-obsessed Swedish retailer’s stores wouldn’t be sold directly to shoppers. (Because that would be just weird.) Instead, the herbs and veggies would be incorporated into menu items served at IKEA’s hugely popular in-store cafes.
IKEA, like Target, has launched commendable, awareness-raising food campaigns in recent years with a large focus not just on nutrition but on the environmental impact of our food choices. Some of the retailer’s more ambitious, edible-related ideas have been explored in collaboration with Carla Cammilla Hjor’s urban innovation hub — excuse, “future-living lab” — Space10. I had the opportunity to visit Space10 HQ in Copenhagen this past summer and see an early prototype of IKEA’s theoretical in-store hydroponic system — hacked, naturally, from odds and ends actually sold by the retailer — up close and in action. (The parsley, by the way, was delicious.)
While there are no mini-farms at IKEA stores yet, the home furnishings heavyweight recently introduced a DIY hydroponic starter kit to its indoor gardening range this past summer.
So who knows ... just like self-check-out lanes and display cases with motion detector-driven lighting, pick-your-own vertical farms in grocery stores — and in the produce aisle of big box retailers like Target — might be a staple, not a novelty, faster than you know it.