Monthly Archives: October 2018

The future of retail and the high street

Over 3 months since my last blog, because… reasons. Futurologists are often asked about the future of the high street and the future of retail, obviously strongly connected, because the high street as we knew it not long ago has already changed hugely and yet seemingly always under imminent threat of extinction. I have blogged on it, but am shocked that my last one was a few years ago, so time for an update I guess, especially with the news today that Debenhams may be closing 50 of its stores.

A few old blogs that are still relevant:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/the-future-of-high-street-survival-the-6s-guide/

Just one of those Ss stood for Surprise, or serendipity if you prefer. The surprise aisles in Lidl and Aldi are among the biggest reasons for their success. There’s always something you never knew you wanted at a price you can’t resist, so they do well. Good luck to them! Not knowing what you want before you see it explains much of the attraction of charity shops too, it isn’t all about price.

My other Ss are also still proven well founded (socialising (including coffee shops & Facebook clubs), synergy (between online and physical), service, special, and ‘suck and see’ (try it out before you buy)).

Another blog addressed the balance between high street and out of town centres:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/03/01/out-of-town-centres-are-the-most-viable-future-for-physical-shops/

A more recent one on possible reversal of urbanisation in the further future is also a bit relevant:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2018/06/13/will-urbanization-continue-or-will-we-soon-reach-peak-city/

So, updating then…

Retailers all know that they must have an online presence, but it’s still surprising how little effort they put into making their IT work. I experimented with setting up accounts with some of the big retailers and the experience is shocking. This week, I tried to set up an Argos account, but couldn’t get any further than typing my email address and hitting continue, at which point I just got a message ‘unknown error’. I tried it from various links from emails and their Sainsbury’s owner site, and tried a few times on different days, same result. How can they win new customers online if nobody can set an account up? Does nobody actually ever check whether it still works?

I successfully set up a Next account ages ago, but never used it because it wouldn’t let me edit any of my data such as whether I wanted junk mail by various channels, or even how to spell my name (I’d used my initials ID and it insisted on calling me Id), the options either didn’t exist or were greyed out. I could phone up but why bother? A month ago it stopped working for several days, after which time it eventually said I didn’t have one. So I assumed it had evaporated during their IT changes due to never being used and set it up again, and it recovered all my data from its previous existence. I still won’t use it because it calls me Id, and I can’t change it to I D or even ID.

Very has the same IT trouble, can’t edit your name away from Id, and can’t change your preferences for receiving junk mail, but I only set it up as a test so don’t care.

These companies are among the biggest. If they can’t get it right, who can? I did try a few smaller ones to see if they were better but still got a mixture of some successes and some ‘unknown errors’, 404 messages and so on.

By contrast, I’ve never had an IT-related problem with Amazon or eBay and only a few minor ones with 7dayshop. So I shop there and ignore most other shops. They employ competent IT staff in sufficient numbers to make it work, and they thrive (though perhaps not as much due to IT as tax and rates advantages). Those shops whose poor IT annoys their customers enough  to go elsewhere deserve to do badly. 

Websites and apps are today’s platforms for extending high street presence into cyberspace. Augmented reality will provide those companies who are up to the job with massively superior platforms to do that. The web arose from converging just computing and telecoms. Augmented reality converges the whole of the real and virtual universes. Overlaying absolutely any form of computer-generated imagery, data or media onto anything in the real world, streets could be extra art gallery space, space for computer games, enabling digital architecture and avatar replacement of strangers, adding digital fauna and flora and aliens and cartoon characters and celebs and AI avatars anywhere they may be desired, making enticing imaginary worlds that add to the fun of actually going into town.

It won’t just be text, graphics and audio. Various haptic interfaces already exist, but soon active skin will link our peripheral nervous systems to our IT, allowing sensations to be recorded, associated with whatever caused them, and then reproducing those same sensations when something similar happens virtually. Tiny devices in among skin cells could simply record and reproduce the nerve signals. Each hand only generates about 2Mbit/s of data, only a little more than a basic TV channel, so it should be no big problem handling the data.

AI has really moved on since 2013 too. It’s still far from perfect, but you can use fairly normal English to ask an AI to find you something and it often will, so it’s heading in the right direction. Soon, with 3D life-sized augmented or virtual reality avatars to interface with, they’ll be more in touch with our emotional responses when we browse, getting signals from wearables and active skin, face and gesture recognition, gaze direction, blood flow, heart rates etc. An abundance of data will help future AI’s learn more and more about us and our desires and preferences until they can genuinely act as our agents, (as we already realised was the far future by 1990). It’s only a matter of time. In my estimation, AI is progressing about 30-40% more slowly than it ought, (I won’t write about why I think that is here) but it will still get there. As will VR and AR and active skin and active contact lenses, and various other also long overdue techs.

AI online will also be less impressed by all the distractions and adds humans are exposed to.  Functional shopping will be liable to AI substitution but recreational, social, emotional shopping will still be done by people themselves. 

AI links well to robotics, and at some point, robots will go out and do some of our shopping for us. They will have very different customer characteristics and ergonomic needs, and may be better suited to picking up from bleak warehouses than attractive high street stores with ‘surprise’ aisles.

Drone delivery is much spoken about but I don’t think it has a big future for domestic use except in areas with large back gardens and no pets, or mischievous kids. It will work well for rapid delivery to business delivery bays that have appropriate landing areas and H&S policies.

3D printing is much over-hyped, but will eventually replace a small proportion of shopping by home manufacture, or local 3D print shop for more complex production.

Self-driving and driverless cars will greatly reduce or even eliminate the huge problem of congestion that deters people from going to town, as well as eliminating the much-too-high cost of parking, but without incurring the current public transport penalties of waiting in poor weather, poor stop locations, lateness, sluggishness, discomfort, overcrowding, security, and exposure to disease and unwanted social pests. By collecting from home and delivering all the way to the destination in a suitable vehicle, they will also improve social inclusion for older and disabled people. Driverless cars using smart infrastructure could be achieved many times cheaper and earlier (given the will) than current self-driving approaches, but at the expense of virtually eliminating the car industry that hopes to continue to sell expensive cars that happen to self-drive rather the cheap ($300-500) public pods made of fibreglass that can be made without any need for engines, batteries, AI or sensors and would instead be propelled on factory-made and rapidly installed linear induction mats that switch each pod at each junction rather like routers switch internet data packets.

With easier and faster access to a high street that is made far more attractive by imaginative use of AR, companies sticking to the 6S guide would still be able to attract customers into the far future. While there, they would be able to browse much wider range of stock. A garment wouldn’t need to be stocked with lots of each size, but could just have one of a few sizes for people to see if the like the fabric etc before scanning it with an app or taking it to a till with their laser-scanned body measurements, to have it made in their exact size for delivery later by a rapid personalisation manufacturing industry. As well as having more stock present physically, augmented reality can also replace all the aisles of goods the customer isn’t interested in with ones that hold things available for online purchase from that shop or their allies, adding another virtual-physical synergy to improve revenue potential. Even a small store could potentially hold a vast range of stock to buy in an exciting and attractive personalized environment.

I guess I could go into far future services associated with shops, such as customising VR kit to people’s nervous systems, providing recharging for android shoppers or whatever, but this is already long enough.

So the high street isn’t going to become just coffee shops and charities. Even if some existing retailers don’t up their games and go under, many new ones will appear that understand how to use new technology to good effect, and they will make good profits from both high streets and out of town centres.

 

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