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What’s next: Retail 5 years in the future

“My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare, I had to cram so many things, to store everything in there.”

The lyrics in David Bowie’s song, Five Years, capture what life is like for many consumers in the fading light of the year 2013.

This is the age of overload and overindulgence. We don’t watch TV any more, we binge view. We no longer communicate; we drown in email and social media inputs. We don’t make simple purchase decisions; instead we battle choice paralysis at the supermarket shelf.

Too much stimulation. Too much information. Too much stuff. It’s totally exhausting, and the next five years will be about stripping away and simplifying for consumers. Retail will need to play its role in helping to make our complex lives easier.

By 2018 I believe that we will be well into the ‘responsive retail’ era. Being responsive is all about, as the dictionary defines it, “reacting quickly and positively”.

Technology will be far less intrusive and more invisible than it is today, retailers will instantly and automatically adapt to individual customers’ needs, and retail generally will be far more intuitive than it is now.

The days of shoppers delightedly comparing prices across the globe on their computers and smartphones will be gone. Customers will expect that pricing changes dynamically and, allowing for exchange rates at a given time, will be consistent market by market the world over.

Individualised pricing will be typical – personalised offers, rather than mass percentage-off sales.

QR codes will be a thing of the past. If you want more information about a product, the item will talk to your mobile device and give you precisely what you need.

Burberry is ahead of the game already in this regard, with its system of RFID tagging, where the chip in a garment triggers content and changes the mirror instore into a digital display.

We will need to do much more of the thinking and the work for customers. You can already see the beginnings of that trend now.

I often quote the example of Sainsbury’s Brand Match. The UK supermarket offers a service whereby every time you spend 20 pounds or more in store, the POS system and checkout automatically compares the prices of the brands in your trolley versus other leading supermarkets and, if you could have paid less at the competitors, you receive a coupon for the difference.

Another case in point is the work that WPP* and Intel are doing on developing intelligent shelves (on trial in Singapore right now). In the next few years, the store shelf will read who we are – our likes, dislikes, wants, and needs – and alter the information presented to suit.

It’s all getting closer to what Cisco Systems calls true “customer intimacy” in a data driven, completely connected world.

The complementary movement to responsiveness over the next five years will be responsible retail. Again to quote the dictionary meaning, this is about being “morally accountable for one’s behaviour”.

Consumers are becoming ever more aware of the results of their actions – a product bought today becomes landfill tomorrow, and an improperly sourced item can have societal ramifications (e.g. encourage sweatshops).

Shoppers will want retailers who think through the cradle to grave cycle of products, who ensure fair and ethical manufacture in the first place, and who give back as much as take from society.

The trend is already evident in retailers such as US adventurewear company, Patagonia, which famously ran a full page, anti-consumption press advertisement in the New York Times, headlined Don’t buy this jacket, and recently introduced Worn Wear (secondhand Patagonia clothing with a story behind each piece).

In answer to one of America’s biggest shopping weekends of the year, Patagonia produced a short film, also called Worn Wear, billed as “an antidote to the Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping frenzy, Worn Wear is an invitation to celebrate the stuff you already own”.


Retailers like Toms in the US are institutionalising a responsible retail approach. Toms started life as an online shoewear company, with a manifesto (now trademarked) of “One For One”. For every pair of shoes purchased, Toms donate a pair to a needy child in a third world country.

In 2018, retailers who don’t behave responsibly will be the exception, rather than the norm.

Amazon provides clues on where retail will be in five years’ time. It is already both responsive and responsible.

In terms of the former, Amazon tracks and reads a shopper’s profile, anticipates needs, and makes relevant product suggestions. Its 1-Click Ordering makes purchasing easier too – once your details are in the system, you are just one click away from check out.

When it comes to acting responsibly, Amazon has introduced Amazon Smile, which allows shoppers to automatically donate 0.5 per cent of every purchase to the charity of their choice.

Responsive and responsible retail. A kindler, gentler, more intimate and intuitive future? Well, yes. But both trends will also take pressure off shoppers and remove guilt, and relaxed customers are more likely to open their wallets.

Jon Bird is chairman of specialist retail and shopper marketing agency IdeaWorks, which is associated with *WPP globally. He is also chairman of Octomedia, publisher of Inside Retail and the new Inside Shopper newsletter. Email: Blog: Twitter: @thetweetailer

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