The Internet and its offspring, the World Wide Web, has been called a transforming medium. By combining the storage of huge amounts of information and the ability to retrieve and view that information, and allowing for financial transactions, the Internet is leading to a revolution in our economics. A critical step in the process is for companies to make it easier for users to purchase online.
E-commerce is one of the fastest growing areas of the Internet experience. For example, during the past holiday shopping season, online retail sales topped $11 billion, according to the industry association Shop.org, which includes many Internet retailers. The successful holiday shopping season boosted the organization’s estimate of 1999 online sales to $38–$40 billion from a pre-season $36 billion. Beyond retail e-commerce, business-to-business e-commerce is expected to expected to be the biggest area of growth in 2000. The Boston Consulting Group is predicting that between 1998 and 2003, business-to-business e-commerce transactions will reach $2.8 trillion. A significant portion of these transactions will occur over the Web.
How does this revolution affect food technologists? Is the World Wide Web also playing a transforming role in the field of food science and technology and new food product development? This article will explore some of the current trends of the Web and the ways these trends are having an effect on the food industry.
Ways the Web Is Affecting Food Technology
There are several ways that the Web may be affecting or will affect how food technologists do research, formulate new products, and purchase ingredients and materials. This article focuses on IFT’s Web activities along with those of several other sites. This does not imply that there are not many sites out there that do an excellent job and have great content. Rather, we have the most experience with our own sites and are most qualified to speak about them. In addition, the mention of other sites in no way implies their endorsement by IFT.
Natural Language Searches. One of the headaches of using the Internet to do research is its lack of ability to screen, filter, and present information in an easily utilized format. Hence, the search for so-called “natural-language” search engines. These types of search engines allow the user to type in questions in everyday speech patterns and get an answer back in the same format. Will search engines one day be able to answer the question, “To be or not to be?” Probably not. However, will they one day be able to answer, “What is the recognized U.S. standard for degrees Brix in strawberry jam?” Yes. Some experts predict that the search engines of tomorrow will connect the user not just to static content but to experts, advisors, enthusiasts, and communities. IFT could serve a highly useful role in bringing together the communities of food technologists with questions and food technologists with answers. The role of the Web is to help create connections between people who have a question with people who have an answer, or, at least, create discussion opportunities for communities of individuals who have asked the same question and have attempted to answer it.
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Convergence and Connectivity. One idea occurring with some frequency during the past few years over the Internet has been convergence. Everything from desktops to phones to almost all other types of electronic equipment will have communication functions. It has been predicted that consumer-electronics manufacturers will focus on Internet enabling everything. Phones are an example of devices where the trend has started. New technologies are allowing for the replacement of the many proprietary cables that connect one device to another with one universal short-range radio link. For instance, the technology built into both the cellular telephone and the laptop computer would replace the cumbersome cable used today to connect a laptop to a cellular telephone. Printers, Personal Digital Assistants, desktops, fax machines, keyboards, joysticks, and virtually any other digital device can be part of these new systems. But beyond untethering devices by replacing the cables, radio technology provides a universal bridge to existing data networks, a peripheral interface, and a mechanism to form small private groupings of connected devices away from fixed network setups.
Qualified Information. The net is crowded with information. That’s part of the problem. Do food technologists need the latest Scary Spice gossip? One area of the Internet that is growing is portal areas set aside for particular areas of interest. Such areas allow users with focused interests a place to go with information that has been edited to match those interests.
An example of such an area is IFT’s Infosource portal. This portal serves as a comprehensive directory to food science and technology resources on the Internet. The site grew out of a charge of the IFT’s Information Systems Committee to create a qualified resource of all the food science and food technology information sites on the Web. Groupings on the site are broken down into academic institutions; food products; food cycle (such as food processing, food safety, and others); professional, trade, and government organizations; reference sources (such as patents, journals, technical abstracts, and others); and IFT Divisions. Although other Web sites index special areas, few offer the same food technology focus that the Infosource portal does.
Many food ingredient suppliers have Web sites that serve as a good source of information. Most have descriptions of products and specification sheets. Many of these sites are still exploring ways to be more interactive and useful for food formulators. One example of the many sites out there that have food ingredient information is the Dairy Management Institute’s “doitwithdairy” site. The site offers technical support, application information, product information, and an archive of research information with a log-in screen for registering.
International Focus. Many countries now have enough users to sustain their own Web services, and it is predicted that overseas sites and users will grow at much faster rates than American ones. English will remain the leading language on the Web, and Americans will still form the largest single concentration of Web users but will not be as dominant as in the past. All Web sites will need to pay closer attention to international usability: is the content understandable for non-native speakers of the language; does it need to be translated for large overseas customer groups; are icons and graphics acceptable for foreigners; do international users have difficulties interacting with the site? Many sites will be designed for targeted use in countries outside North America. It is certain that a growing number of local services will be established in every country, using the local language.
In January 2000, IFT launched a new international online magazine, International Food Technology, an electronic magazine for distributing information about food science and technology to the international community of food scientists and technologists. IFT and the International Union of Food Science and Technology (IUFoST) have joined together to start the new site. Because a sizable amount of IFT’s membership is international, we feel it is our duty to provide a combination of food technology related news with a focus on international aspects of the industry, as well as consumer trends and international regulatory and business information. With the new site, both IFT and IUFoST are intent on providing food technologists with recent, accurate, and reliable information from expert sources within the food science community.
To ensure that this electronic magazine has the ability to become a reliable international source, we are also inviting international experts in food science and technology to contribute. The site will be updated quarterly with new features and much more frequently with business and regulatory news. With its global reach, IUFoST is developing a network of reporters who will contribute accounts of food industry news and information from each region of the world.
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E-Commerce. E-commerce is a fairly broad term. It covers any interaction over the Web that involves a financial transaction. Business-to-business e-commerce firms are expected to be the fastest-growing sector on the Internet in the next few years. According to Internet World magazine, analysts are predicting the business-to-business e-commerce sector to grow from $56.8 billion in 1999 to $118 billion in 2000. Many businesses, especially electronics companies, have already moved certain processes to the Web. Common processes that have been moved to the Web include information requests and documents, order taking, and product configuration.
The Web offers a variety of bonds and links that are expected to grow even tighter between suppliers and customers in the areas of forecasting and product development. Such areas will be particularly useful for food product formulators. A lot of Web commerce sites attempt to replace the non-digital middleman. In addition, some analysts predict that the fastest economic growth area in coming years will be furnished by smaller, more specialized companies, because they will be able to take the greatest advantage of the automating of external business processes.
There are several sites that have chosen to cater to the food industry. World-FoodNet features free daily news stories, access to research and periodical abstract databases, an online “virtual trade show,” and other business tools designed to help food manufacturing professionals succeed. The site is a joint venture between IFT, International Association of Food Industry Suppliers (IAFIS), formerly DFISA), and Deutsche Landwirtschafts-Gesellschaft e.V.-DLG, the German Agricultural Society.
The site’s virtual trade show is a directory of food ingredients, packaging, processing equipment, laboratory supplies, and industry services suppliers. More than 3,000 companies from around the world are included in the database, which can be searched using keywords or company name. Once the potential suppliers have been identified, users may view descriptions of the companies and their products and contact the appropriate ones. The site also contains an online bookstore, event calendar, and information on new product launches. Online seminars, a job center, and discussion groups are in the works.
bMarco.com is a food industry auction and sourcing site. This service is designed to help users buy, sell, and trade food ingredients internationally. The user enters specifications for the needed material, and the request is put out, at which point competitive bids are placed for the item.
fobchemicals.com is an online procurement site for commercial chemical buyers. According to a recent press release, the site has signed 3,025 registered users and has access to 330,000 chemicals from more than 8,000 manufacturers.
Globalfoodexchange.com is an Internet marketplace for business-to-business food trade. It aims to bring the efficiency of e-commerce to food commodities markets while preserving and enhancing personal relationships. Founded in 1999, it connects buyers and sellers of seafood, produce, meat, poultry, specialty commodities, and ingredients. The site allows trading partners to directly interact, strengthening relationships and lowering transaction costs. The company generates revenue by taking a percentage of each transaction made on the site.
Verticalnet.com is a creator and operator of vertical trade communities in a variety of industries. In the food industry, it has branches in the bakery, food ingredients, food packaging, dairy, meat and poultry, and beverage areas. The site features news, articles, and marketplace areas.
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Customer/Service Interactions. Customer service is an area where the Web has an opportunity to shine, since customers are getting ever more dissatisfied with the service they get in the physical world: the American Customer Satisfaction Index for the retail sector has dropped from 76 in 1994 to 71 in 1998 (on a 1–100 scale). However, Web sites currently fail to give good customer service. It is often difficult to find the product you want on the Web, and it is often difficult to buy that item. Easy transactions and good followup are foreign concepts to most Web businesses. Web sites are poor at handling exceptions, even though exceptions are often the rule. The human side of interactions is becoming ever more critical. Electronics companies that are moving more of their selling operations online are finding that customers still call to confirm their orders. The Web provides the information, and an informed customer calls to confirm or bargain about price. Trust is still needed. In fact, it may be more important than ever. For example, a food manufacturer may place an order online and then still call the supplier to confirm that the order is on the way.
Food Technology on DSLs
With an estimated 200 million users worldwide and expected growth double that by 2003, the Internet is now part of our lives. What form will it take in coming years? The record deal in January between AOL and Time Warner may be an indication. The deal is aimed at combining AOL’s computer users with Time Warner’s content in a variety of media. It is expected that the coming broadband access of those users (such as Digital Subscriber Lines, DSLs) will make the Web be more like television or become interactive television.
One thing is sure: all our technologies are helping to make communication easier. It is becoming easier for those with something to say and those with something to sell to reach their audience. That change is affecting everyone, including those who work in the food industry.
• www.ift.org is the home page of the Institute of Food Technologists.
• www.infosource.ift.org is a portal site that serves as a comprehensive directory to food science and technology resources on the Internet.
• www.ift.org/international/ is a new international online magazine, International Food Technology, that distributes information about food science and technology to the international community of food scientists and technologists. IFT and the International Union of Food Science and Technology (IUFoST) have joined together to start the new site.
• www.worldfoodnet.com is an online “virtual trade show,” a joint venture between IFT, International Association of Food Industry Suppliers (IAFIS, formerly DFISA), and Deutsche Landwirtschafts-Gesellschaft e.V.-DLG, the German Agricultural Society.
• www.bMarco.com is a food industry auction and sourcing site.
• www.doitwithdairy.com is an food commodity information site sponsored by Dairy Management Inc.
• www.fobchemicals.com is an online procurement site for commercial chemical buyers.
• www.globalfoodexchange.com is an Internet marketplace for business-to-business food commodities trade.
• www.verticalnet.com is a grouping of vertical trade communities in a variety of industries, including the food industry.
LORI A. CONLEY AND JAMES GIESE
ASSISTANT INTERNET EDITOR AND INTERNET EDITOR, RESPECTIVELY