We use website cookies to ensure that you receive the best experience. If you’re happy and would like to carry on browsing, click ‘Accept’, or find out more about our Cookie Policy

Retail – What’s The Future?

Written by

452,000 Tweets. 900,000 Facebook log-ins. 990,000 Tinder swipes. 1.8m  Snapchat Snaps created. Over 70,000 hours watched on Netflix. 3.5m Google search queries. 4.1m YouTube videos viewed. 75 Amazon Echo voice-first devices shipped. And over £750k spent online. So what?

Well, all of the above have happened in the internet minute it’s taken you to read it here. And they’ll keep on happening, just faster and faster; more and more. That’s astonishing in its own right. Now consider the fact that none of the channels and brands I’ve detailed in that opening para existed at the start of this century just 17 years ago. And that’s without mentioning the likes of Instagram, the Cloud, Uber, Skype, AirBnB, Deliveroo, JustEat, Tesla, Google Earth, NFC, the Human Genome Project, the seedless watermelon – the list goes on.

The point I’m making is that predicting the future has never been easy – just ask Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, the writers of Back to the Future. And, if the speed of change is truly exponential, then predicting the future will only ever get harder to achieve

Oh well, nothing like taking a jump out  of today’s frying pan and into the fire of the future…

What follows is a brief journey covering just four developments that I believe will impact the world of retail and the way we’ll go about buying and shopping (they’re fundamentally different but more of that later). It’s not a definitive list. How could it be without reference to the rise of a cashless society, the inevitable growth of personalisation, curation and customisation and the replacement of Millennials with so-called Gen Z as the predominant retail buying force of the future?

We’ll save those for next time. Instead, this looks briefly at:

  • Smart will only get smarter
  • A newconomy of collaboration
  • The importance of now
  • The search for a soul

Smart will only get smarter

Firstly, the world will get smarter, digitally. Machines will increasingly be at our service. They’ve already evolved from passive objects that require being told what to do, to digital assistants that  know our needs before we do. Thanks to analytics and big data, machines are already increasingly able to develop a very good idea of what the shopper wants, bringing us one step closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s all-seeing, all-knowing HAL 9000.

Predictive service will help consumers to navigate the sea of content they’re presented with, whilst AI, VR and IoT all offer the opportunity to better anticipate shoppers’ next purchases.

Automation of cars, homes and work tasks will continue to lighten our load to allow time to focus on our lives. We’ve created robotic tools that can perform tasks large and small, cumbersome or  repetitive, more precisely and efficiently than we ever can. Whoever knew that, somewhat frighteningly, 24% of all global tweets are created by… bots.

What is smart retail?

In Hong Kong, convenience store chain Lawson and Panasonic are working together to test a staff-less checkout. Meet Reji Robo. At the checkout, shoppers place their basket in a designated area of the cashier table. A 5-way barcode reader scans every product’s barcode and almost immediately displays the total cost of the purchases. Following payment, the basket slides down through a hole in the cashier table and the machine packs the purchased items in a bag automatically, all of which is designed to help alleviate staff shortages and reduce peak-time congestion.

Research published by WorldPay in June suggests that biometrics will inevitably play a big part in tomorrow’s retail world with nearly half (49%) of shoppers saying they would like to pay for purchases in the future using fingerprint, palm, iris or facial scanners. And, if further proof were needed, Alibaba – the fastest growing business within the world’s most valuable companies (Forbes 2017) – have just committed to investing £12bn in their DAMO Academy (or ‘Discovery, Adventure, Momentum & Outlook) and, in particular, in the creation of six R&D labs around the world over the next three years. The scope of research to be conducted in these facilities is broad, focusing on both “foundational and disruptive technology”. This will include areas like the IoT and data analysis, as well as artificial intelligence, machine learning, security technologies and even quantum computing. And, just in case anyone was in any doubt as to the scale of Alibaba’s ambitions, this research will be key for the company in reaching its goal of serving 2bn customers and creating 100 million new jobs – yes, 100 million new jobs  – by 2036.

But, not everyone welcomes a smarter shopping world. Sure, just under 60% of US consumers indicated a positive attitude towards the idea of having their grocer suggest a shopping list for their approval based on their purchase history, social and environmental data. But, for those thinking a smarter shopping world is a slam dunk, it’s worth pointing out that just over half of those same respondents felt that having a grocer automatically charge and ship items based on that data would be invasive. No-one said you can always have your cake and eat it.

The retail world will also get smarter, physically. With consumers now expecting a seamless shopping experience across an increasing range of connected devices and outlets in which immediacy and convenience are table stakes, we’ll see the traditional UK high street condense, converge and shrink. Take Habitat, for instance. Going back just five years, who would have thought that they’d co-exist with, and become an occupant within, of all things, Sainsburys’ stores?

In a world of crashing vertical sectors, desire for in-store experiences and destinations, the old rules are broken, and new rules are being created at an unrivalled pace. The adoption of in-store AR and online catalogues for extended aisles are already blooming phenomena. Online retailers such as Made.com, Amazon Books and The Idle Man are popping up on the high street to offer “experience” and “try before you buy”. Brands such as Made by Google are delivering “experiences” in shopping centres and on the high street – it’s becoming much more about blending digital and physical experiences into one and delivering omni-channel experiences at every opportunity and point of brand experience. 

The world of retail will move from an online vs. physical distinction to one that’s determined by the distinction between experience and fulfilment, between the digital buying experience (let’s face it, no-one ever said that shopping on Amazon was a truly memorable and emotionally captivating experience) and the shopping experience that can be fulfilled by harnessing the senses in the physical world. It’s the so-called bifurcation of retail. We’re in a world that’s becoming increasingly phygital where only those brands that recognise the importance of embracing this bifurcation and seamlessly connecting both worlds will flourish.

A newconomy of collaboration

Retailers are, and will continue, to form business partnerships that support better shopper experience, by combining services that can leverage strengths to deliver more value and fulfil more of their shoppers’ needs. Companies may be able to deliver optimal experience to shoppers on their own, but they’ll find that they can play even better with others.

These partnerships will contribute to building a larger service ecosystem in which businesses team up with players from across the consumer journey to create a truly flexible network able to serve both B2C and B2B markets. It might even be a way to spark innovation. A collaborative economy is a trend that will continue to take over the market, creating a newconomy of collaboration through peer-based systems.

How does working in partnership benefit service users?

By combining services that may seem distinct, but which are somehow connected to form a larger system, shoppers and consumers will get to benefit from added value without having to go to multiple sources. In the US, Under Armour has partnered with Residence Inn to create custom, two-mile runs at each of its locations across the globe. And in the UK, the days of standing in line to get your hands on your favourite burger and fries appear to be numbered with McDonalds having just recently partnered with UberEats to bring its own new home delivery service – aka the cunningly named McDelivery – to London, Leeds & Nottingham.

By creating an entirely new level of convenience and ease to perfectly reflect Millennial desires, Airbnb and Uber allow incredibly specific transactions focusing on arbitrary goods and services, and allow consumers to double as suppliers. Still White allows brides worldwide to pass on their dress they wore on their big day to soon-to-be brides-to-be. The same applies to B2B. As an example, Cargomatic is connecting shippers in the US with licensed carriers to revolutionise local trucking.

Sharing, rather than owning, is key in that it creates a collaborative economy that empowers consumers to take control. Tomorrow’s good services will be verbs whilst the bad services will be nouns. The most compelling retailers will become a ’way’ for consumers to buy instead of merely provide a destination for them to buy from.

The importance of now

We no longer function within the constraints of time and space. Shoppers can now get (and expect to be able to get) what they want, when and how they want it. The shopper’s experience is no longer a linear narrative happening at specific touchpoints but a flexible journey, offering freedom and customisation. Value is now placed in buying time, rather than goods.

Make time for your family? How about buying time for your family? The proliferation of on-demand services has brought the immediacy of now to the customers’ experiences. Mastering space and time allows customers to choose what they want… and forget about the rest.

How does quick service impact the customer?

According to Euromonitor, 70% of affluent Indians aged 18-35 agree that luxury is related to how much free time one enjoyed, rather than an individual’s purchasing power. Millennials’ demand for instant gratification is driving/being driven by a ‘one click, swipe or poke mentality’. Even when ordering online, they crave immediacy. Millennials are twice as likely to pick up online groceries on the same day as purchase, whilst almost half of them will pay higher for same day delivery.

As the concept of waiting becomes a distant memory, attention spans will deteriorate. So, from a commercial perspective, goods and services will increasingly need to be instantly available.  We’ve moved from 5-day to 3 to 1 to same-day delivery, from charged to free. How could free, same-day delivery be improved upon? What might lie ahead?

Perhaps not for the first (or last time), it looks like it’ll be Amazon that gets to that answer first. According to Future Laboratory’s Victoria Buchanan: “The idea of pre-emptive retail is gaining traction and Amazon is already planning for this. Anticipatory shopping using data and analytics could send something to you before you’ve ordered it – if they crack it, you could get your product before you knew you needed it.” And that’s not all. If you don’t need what they think you need, you’ll be able to send it straight back (probably by return drone) and Amazon will then credit you with an online cash reward as their way of saying sorry for the inconvenience and, well, having got it wrong. The connected shopper will shape the future of retail.

The search for a soul

People don’t buy what brands make; they buy what brands make happen for them and, increasingly for Millennials, what brands make happen around them. As a result, the rules of the marketing ‘beauty pageant’ have changed. Today, brands can no longer rely on good looks alone; they need depth and soul too. Above all, they’re influenced by a higher order ‘purpose’ that engages their hearts, as well as their heads.

Too many brands mistake novelty and distraction for differentiation. It’s an approach that’s very difficult to sustain. Sure, it may bring in the first sale, but novelty quickly wears off, and the brand must resort to increasingly impressive spectacle to keep people interested. There’s an easy way around this though: by focusing on how your brand makes people’s lives better, or how it makes the world a better place, you stand a much greater chance of keeping people coming back for more.

What makes a brand sustainable?

According to Unilever’s CEO, Paul Polman: “Our ‘Sustainable Living’ brands are becoming increasingly important to our business, with these brands growing more than 50% faster than the rest of the business and accounting for 60% of growth in 2016.” Brands will increasingly need to enable. The success of brands like Toms, Method, Deliciously Ella, Thinx, Rubies and Bakeys and of retailers such as Warby Parker and Original Unipack shows that the opportunity to weave local, social or environmental purpose into the fabric of a brand – sometimes quite literally – holds huge appeal. As does the ability to bring people together through common goals. Companies will increasingly become enabling platforms for groups of people dedicated to good causes. Because doing good feels good.

So, to conclude (at last, I hear you say), I believe that for those brands wishing to flourish in the future, they’ll need to:

  • Rethink the customer journey
  • Set the machines in motion
  • Innovate along the value chain
  • Collaborate
  • Explore a new definition of currency
  • Mobilise everything
  • Make better things – and make things better
  • Get phygitcal (seamlessly connect their digital and physical worlds)

In the words of Nina Simone, ‘It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day’. But only those brands that recognize the value of, and that seamlessly connect, their digital and physical worlds will be left ‘feeling good’ about the exciting, scary, challenging, connected times that lie ahead.


Content includes:

All in
How can we foster and learn in order to create an inclusive and diverse culture in design?

Cultural diversity in design
Brands that cater to the widest range of people will not only be rewarded by consumer spending, but by elevated status in competitive markets too.

Design for a better world
Noteworthy brands who are innovating for a more inclusive world.

How do brands create cultural relevancy through compelling storytelling?
It’s not whether you stand up for a social issue, it’s how.

Why shouldn’t grass be purple?
Designing for colour blindness.


All In.


Fresh thinking from 1HQ