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The future of retail in beta

Put your ear to the ground and you can hear the future. That’s because the advance party has already arrived – we are living in an early beta version of what’s to come.

But the rumblings that you sense now are nothing compared to the earthquake on its way.

Steve Brown, chief evangelist and futurist at Intel, believes “there will be as much disruption in every sector in the next decade as has been experienced in the last 30 years in media and publishing”.

Print in particular was relatively easy to play havoc with, reckons Brown, and now more complex categories are in for an overhaul.

With that provocative proclamation (chilling or challenging – you choose), Brown opened the WPP/Intel Futurecasting Summit I attended at Intel’s headquarters outside Portland, Oregon.

Over the ensuing three days, a small group of retailers, marketers, designers, economists, researchers, and technologists set about inventing the future of retail.

Or more specifically, the future of the shelf – with the term ‘shelf’ used in the broadest possible sense to represent a retail offer presented either physically or digitally.

Day one was all about absorbing and debating the trends we are seeing right now – social, technical, economic, cultural.

“Science and technology have progressed to the point where what we build is only constrained by the limits of our imagination,” Brown went on to say.

He spoke of emerging concepts such as ‘dynamic media’, which will reinvent the camera (yet again), by capturing numerous views from multiple lenses, allowing for amazing optimisation and manipulation of images.

He also gave examples that had direct relation to retail.

We’ve all heard of 3D printing, but how about ‘Mink’, an invention of a Harvard graduate, which will allow consumers to print an infinite variety of makeup, in any color they choose, in their own home? What might that do for the cosmetics counters in department stores?

Or how about the app offered by automated apparel store, Hointer, that lets you nominate yourself as a ‘no hello’ shopper? It electronically says to sales staff “please don’t interrupt me, I just want to get in and out”.

Brown believes that we are entering a “smart, connected, sensing” world, and that will have major ramifications for retail. Once data-dark stores are being illuminated with information.

Physical bricks and mortar environments are not only being seamlessly linked with online, but are becoming intelligent in their own right.

From robots that roam stores checking inventory, to shelves that make a judgment about the shopper in front of them, technology is transforming the ability of the store to better serve, anticipate and respond to the needs of shoppers.

So far, so good. Now the only issue is that shoppers are not as acquisitive as they used to be!

Jamie Gutfreund, chief marketing officer of Noise, talked to our group about a new customer segment called “nowners – those who have no need to own anything”.

In the past, says Gutfreund, “ownership was aspirational”. Now, many consumers (perhaps better described as nonsumers?) value access over ownership.

Hence the rise of a sharing economy, and services such as Rent the Runway, where you can rent your entire wardrobe and (presumably) only own your underwear.

More on that subject next week, as I try to distil a three day rush of ideas into a series of learnings.

In the meantime, pay close attention to the new applications and concepts springing up every day. You can see flickerings of the future in business ideas such as Uber, Task Rabbit and WaNeLo…they are the future in beta.

Exciting times.

Jon Bird is MD, global of Labstore, Y&R’s worldwide retail and shopper marketing network. Email: Twitter: @thetweetailer. Blog:

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