Crunch Network Contributor
Sophie invests in consumer products at Collaborative Fund in New York.
What innovations are you most excited about right now?
My guess is that when you’re scrolling through tech blogs or Product Hunt, you’re probably clicking on the most buzzworthy technology or trendiest social media app before a new consumer product.
And that’s understandable: How do you get excited about a new snack food or laundry detergent when virtual reality, artificial intelligence and autonomous cars dominate the news? It’s easy: Because consumer goods impact every facet of our lives, from our personal health and comfort to how we socialize with each other and care for our environment.
Americans may spend a staggering 50 minutes per day checking Facebook, but we interact with consumer products even more frequently than social media. Every day, we each spend more than two hours preparing and eating food, seven hours sleeping on a mattress and nearly 24 hours wearing clothes (well, most of us anyway).
And incredible things are happening across all these categories. You just have to pay attention.
Foodtech is revolutionizing ingredients
Food is undergoing such a transformation that many product labels bear little resemblance to their predecessors of decades past. Whether lab-grown, like Ava’s wine or Impossible Foods‘ meat patties, produced from plants, like Hampton Creek’s mayonnaise or Ripple’s milk, or made from insect flour, like Exo’s protein bars, ingredients are definitely not what they used to be.
And that’s a huge improvement for our bodies, our environment and our wallets. Reducing animal-based ingredients and using protein-rich alternatives isn’t just more sustainable, it’s a lot cheaper and healthier.
The customer experience is getting personal
Does Gillette know your name? Probably not, even if you’ve purchased hundreds of their razors from your local pharmacy over the years.
But you can bet Dollar Shave Club does. As commerce shifts from wholesale to a direct-to-consumer model, companies are using their relationship with you to create a superior customer experience at a lower cost. By actually getting to know you, startups can build truly bespoke experiences and products, such as The Black Tux’s tailored tuxedos or Julep’s skin-specific beauty boxes.
Consumers who have come to expect near-instant gratification and thoughtful UX design from tech products like Uber and Snapchat are now getting that same level of convenience and personalization from their consumer products.
Urban farming is bringing you real food
Like most next-gen consumers, urbanites are clamoring for fresh, local food. Historically, they’ve resorted to highly processed, low-nutrient industrial products shipped from distant farms, but now vertical farming — a technique that grows food in vertical stacks — is making it easy to get fresh produce to everyone.
Last month, Square Roots launched an urban farming accelerator to encourage the next generation of “real food” entrepreneurs. Farming is suddenly becoming “cool” again, and the rising number of agricultural scientists are already finding inventive new ways to feed our growing cities as the population continues to shift from rural to urban areas.
Products aren’t just for old white guys anymore
More than 90 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are white men. Is it any wonder, then, that consumer products have historically been geared to that same demographic? Fortunately, times are changing — albeit slowly — and more diverse founders are democratizing the goods their companies produce.
The success of startups like Walker & Company, which makes health and beauty products for African-Americans, has proven that goods geared toward minorities are in high demand. Similarly, feminine hygiene products didn’t evolve for decades until female founders finally got access to capital and disrupted the category. Now THINX and LOLA are providing convenience, comfort and cost efficiency to half the world’s population.
Lower prices = more money to spend
While your grandmother might be shocked that you’re willing to pay $5.99 for a gallon of organic milk, the costs of many consumer staples have actually been falling for the past few decades. The inflation-adjusted price of milk, for example, is 50 percent lower today than it was 40 years ago.
Price might not be the sexiest topic — particularly when stacked against cars that can literally drive themselves — but it can have a big impact on our day-to-day lives. Just 30 years ago, Americans were spending nearly 30 percent of their income on consumer products. Now, that number is only 19 percent.
And yes, some of that change is because we’re making different choices (25-35-year-olds now spend more on data plans than personal services), but it’s also because many staples are just relatively less expensive than they used to be. Ongoing innovations, like the aforementioned foodtech revolution and the shift toward a direct-to-consumer model, increasingly free up more of your paycheck — so you might actually be able to afford that autonomous car some day.
The “Internet of Things” is fusing technology and products
If that’s not enough to inspire you — if you’re still more excited about tech than consumer goods, then I have good news: before long, the two categories will be virtually indistinguishable. In the words of Marc Andreessen, software is eating the world.
Is the Apple Watch a software device or a consumer product? What about an electric oven controlled by a mobile app? If a startup makes sneakers with built-in step trackers, are they an apparel manufacturer or a tech company? Software is no longer limited to cell phones and computers; it’s improving even centuries-old products.
It’s time to get excited
Technology is inherently exciting. It inspires the hopeful, science fiction-loving futurist in all of us. But you spend all day, every day interacting with consumer products. Even marginal changes to those products can have an outsized impact on your quality of life. And the changes we’re seeing aren’t marginal. Products are changing so dramatically that you won’t even recognize your closet or pantry in another five to ten years. And that’s definitely something to get excited about.
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