The future of retail: You ain’t seen nothing yet

For some time retail has been “omnichannel” and then “mobile first”. But mobile is moving into the maturity phase.  As one S-curve of adoption slackens off, the next one picks up. So what’s next?

Rather than a single answer to that question, there are a set of related technologies coming within the five-to-10 year timeframe: they include the internet of things, virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, robotics and automation, and autonomous vehicles.

It’s hard to imagine how the how the world will change, again. It’s like being at the launch of the Apple iPhone ten years ago where we still speculated what it might actually be used for. But let’s have a go.

Predicting the future

There will be multiple new interfaces — or perhaps better to say no interfaces. We already see this, with Amazon Echo in every room, Apple earpods, and virtual assistants listening out for when and how they can help.

The smartphone is going to die, the way pagers and fax machines have done. We’re at least 5 and maybe 10 years away, but when it does the idea of holding in your hand the window to an online world will seem quaint. There will be no distinction between the real and virtual worlds. In your connected home, in your car, through your glasses or lenses, through wearables, robots and hundreds of connected devices, the internet will just be part of your world.

Then search is going to die, and be replaced with contextual suggest and assist. In fact the internet, in the sense of a place to be searched, is going to disappear. Tomorrow’s Siri will know you and integrate you with the internet of things. Facebook Messenger already recognises when users are conversing about payments or taxis for example and steps in with assistance. So online shopping will no longer be something that we “do”, it will be something that just “is”.

Brands will change, and maybe advertising will die. When your washing machine can reorder its own detergent, in effect you subscribe to the product. When you shout at Amazon Echo “hey we need more toothpaste”, then the brand is locked in, as is your channel. This is why brands are trying to escape indirect distribution and reach consumers directly.

Today internet retailing is good at shopping, at “find me this book”. It is bad at browsing, at inspiration, at “I need a new outfit”. This is where physical stores have kept a role. But when artificial intelligence has looked at every page of Elle and Vogue, and then at every image of you on Facebook and then at every Instagram photo or video of people with similar profiles to you, then it might be quite good at making curated recommendations, and doing so at automated scale.

A new reality

With virtual reality, online experiences are going to be better than store experiences. You may meet with a virtual designer world who will excite you with bespoke clothes fitted to your unique size. We will buy from experiences, not from online stores.

If autonomous cars solve congestion and remove parking, what will cities look like, will out of town retailing get reborn, or will the high street? Where are you willing to live and travel if an on-demand ride costs almost nothing and you don’t have to park?

What does this all mean for retailing? For those who think the S-curve of ecommerce is flattening out, and online penetration might start to slow, I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet. Get ready for the model of retail to change completely, again.

This article appeared in Retail Week, 17th November 2017

This entry was posted in Future, Multichannel, Online retailing, Retail, Strategy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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