The following is an excerpt from the new book, “The Retail Revival: Reimagining Business For The New Age of Consumerism.”
Based on clues we can see all around us, it is my belief that retail, as we’ve known it for at least the last two millennia, is coming to an end. It won’t end tomorrow or next week. In fact, it will likely take at least a decade or two. But it’s very clear to me that we are coming to a tipping point and data, processing power and connectedness lie at the center of it all.
The reason is this…
Retail has fundamentally always been about destinations. The word retail itself is from the French retaillier, meaning to divide up and sell in small amounts across multiple locations. As consumers we have always been required to go somewhere to get things we need. Whether it was a market, store, mall, big-box or even the Internet, manufacturers and retailers controlled distribution. We as consumers had to make conscious trips to these destinations and do business on whatever terms were dictated.
And what’s interesting is that many of the groups I speak to are dying to know which of these destinations and formats are vanishing, which types of retailing are finished forever. Ironically, we’re not witnessing the absolute death of any particular retail destination, but rather the emergence of a completely new one—You! And not just you, but me, too. Every one of us is an individual destination for brands and retailers.
Here’s where we’re headed…
You’re on your way to a meeting in Chicago when your mobile device alerts you to the fact that your anniversary (which you forgot) is the day you return home from your meeting. “Damn,” you say, startling the cab driver. But not to worry, your digital assistant on your device offers up a list of gift suggestions that you could buy your spouse, knowing his or her preferences, your spending habits, what you’ve bought your spouse in the past and what your friends are talking about on social networks. She serves these options up for you in a fraction of a second.
Relieved, you choose one of the recommended gifts. She now scours the universe of potential online and offline options based on best price, in-stock availability, fastest shipping, nearest in proximity to your current location and the hotel you’re staying at, and available loyalty points for redemption as well as any coupons that can be applied. She uses all this data to almost instantly produce a tidy and simple hierarchy of choices and all this in an instant. She doesn’t need to ask about color choice because she already knows that from past gift purchases for your spouse.
Feeling great about having this gift looked after for you, you select one of the options. Your assistant now processes the transaction on your behalf, disclosing only the amount of information you have pre-authorized, while double-checking to ensure that no tracking or privacy violations have been encountered along the way. She returns with a confirmation that all is in order and wishes you a pleasant trip. And while you’re moving and shaking in Chicago, your digital assistant will be tracking the order’s progress. Life is good!
What I’ve just described will, by the year 2022, become a common method of buying a significant percentage of the things we need on a day-to-day basis. The days of consciously having to seek things out, evaluating alternatives with whatever information is available and making purchases based solely on the retailers terms are going to come to an end. Burying tracking cookies in shoppers’ browsers or in their devices will seem like something out of the Dark Ages.
The future will see consumers move between anywhere convenience and only-here experiences. Increasingly it will not be the consumer who travels to the store, but the products that travel to the consumer in a completely seamless, serendipitous and relevant way. Consumers will regulate their interests, control their privacy and dictate many of the terms of engagement. And if a brand doesn’t like it, consumers will simply move down the list until they find a one that does.
And where will all this stuff we’re buying on the fly be delivered? Well, players like Amazon and 7-Eleven are already testing drop boxes in select 7-Eleven locations, allowing for seven-day-a-week deliveries that consumers can pick up at their convenience. And UK’s ShopBox has developed lockable, refrigerated containers that are placed outside the home to hold deliveries of just about anything, including perishables.
This is not a shift from brick and mortar to e-commerce — it’s much broader than that. In fact, as we as consumers, gradually become the destination, we’ll stop discerning so much between online and offline retail. Channels of distribution won’t matter. Goods and services will simply come to us, or wherever it’s convenient. Or, when we are given the promise of a memorable, one-of-a-kind live experience, we’ll visit a store.
In time, there will be very few consumer decisions in our lives that our digital assistants won’t be able to help us navigate, and this navigation will not always lead us to a retail transaction in the classical sense.
Retail industry futurist Doug Stephens is the founder of Retail Prophet. Doug speaks, writes and consults for companies, trade associations and governments across North America and Europe about the evolution of retail and consumer markets.