American futurist Thomas Frey, founder of consulting, networking firm and think tank DaVinci institute, creates fascinating visuals of a world yet to come. The former IBM engineer and author of the book Epiphany Z has outlined future scenarios in the way we work, communicate, etc. In this email interaction, he does some crystal ball gazing at the world of retail. Excerpts:
You left IBM to create a home for crazy ideas. Which is the craziest idea you have had?
At the DaVinci Institute, we positioned ourselves to be on the cutting edge of developing micro colleges, alternative credentialing, co-working, and thinking through the challenges of next-generation intellectual property, security, location, and business modeling.
Some of our newest ventures still in the works are a theme park based on future jobs in Korea, a museum of future inventions in the US, and a Futurist Hall of Fame.
According to you, e-commerce will never peak over 30 per cent of all retail. Yet, others like Skype co-founder Jonas Kjellberg say that retail could be 100 per cent online. Your take?
Yes, in the US, we’re currently at 10 per cent e-commerce and I have said that I don’t think e-commerce will actually rise much beyond 20 per cent. There are several reasons for that.
* If we ask what it’d look like to have 100 per cent of our retail purchases in the US done online, it would mean:
* Ten times as many delivery vehicles
* No malls, shopping centres, or retail stores of any kind
* No restaurants, coffee shops, bars, or nightclubs
* With grocery delivery, no personal selection of fruits, vegetables, flowers, or meat
* No beauty salons, nail shops, dog grooming, bike rental, banks, or fitness places
* No movie theatres, escape rooms, yoga classes, trampoline parks, health spas, dance studios, martial arts training, sensory deprivation tanks, or game salons
* No local sales tax for cities and local communities
* Very few places left to go and do things
* A complete reworking of all traffic patterns
Most of us would agree that this is not a likely scenario. However, every category of e-commerce is different and e-commerce is already responsible for the overwhelming majority of sales in categories where products can be digitally delivered, like music, books, and games.
In the foreseeable future, which technology trends do you think will change retail immensely?
We are entering an era of mobile self-driving businesses. The number one challenge of traditional retail has always been driving customers to the store. As we move into a highly mobile marketplace, businesses can drive to where the customers already are.
Today’s store fronts are a throwback to yesteryear. Commercial building owned by wealthy landlords, highly regulated by cities with signage, zoning, and code level restrictions, requiring years of prep work to construct and a similar time frame to modify or change anything on the property.
At the same time, the buying public is a mercurial bunch. People love to shop at places that are new and different. They love to be surprised by their experience, and they are willing to pay for those surprises.
The mobile food truck industry has paved the way for a much larger industry.
Gone are the days where stores could simply warehouse products for shoppers to buy. Retailers need to provide customers with a feeling of excitement, exclusivity, and a tell-your-friends remarkable experience.
The mobile self-driving business era will change the retail landscape in innumerable ways, and will continually rewrite the rules for what works and what doesn’t.
We see a lot of divergent trends in retail — while one trend is driving massive scale and volumes, another trend is moving towards personalisation. Can retailers deliver personalisation at scale?
Personalisation and the scaling of product sales tend to lie on opposite ends of the spectrum, but there are a few situations where it could work.
As an example, if a company designed an automated purse-making machine, the customer could essentially design their own purse, selecting the kind of material, straps, zippers, buttons, colours, size, shape, embossing, LEDs, buckles, etc.
However, working with physical products comes with its own set of limitations, and even fully automated machines can only work 24 hours a day.
Retailers providing services is an idea that you have mooted. But is it limited to lending library kind of concepts or will we see other forms of services?
In addition to “retail as a service” where products are not purchased but simply used for a time and returned, future companies can also offer training packages, strategy packages, and entertainment packages where customers are grouped with other like-minded individuals to uncover new possible uses, techniques, and approaches.
You have travelled to India to present your thoughts. What are your observations about the country's retail? Which of your futurist ideas do you think will work here?
With over 10 million small retail outlets in India, the biggest challenge becomes product differentiation. For this reason, the idea of developing a “Maker District” has the most potential.
There are several reasons why Maker Districts are on the verge of turning traditional retail on its head.
Walking through an active, vibrant shopping district where people are baking bread, spinning pottery, brewing beer, making jewellery, cutting and designing stained glass, decorating cakes, molding with pewter, and sculpting with clay, will give every visitor their own one-of-a-kind experience.
In addition to the sights and smells, having musicians performing mood-stirring music will help establish a different character and flavour with every visit. In this environment, creative people are both the entertainment and the proprietors of the shops.
Not only will this be a showcase for talent, it will attract audiences that are hungry for inspiration. People love to watch things being made. Every source of creation is also the source of inspiration.
Also, small mom and pop businesses have a vested interest in building their community. No, they probably aren’t the most sophisticated, tech savvy business people, but artisan products don’t need to compete on price, and they only need to earn enough for a comfortable lifestyle. These are people that are doing what they love, not changing the world.
Amidst all this disruption, what happens to the retail workers? What are the skills they will need?
With automation, we are automating tasks out of existence, not entire jobs. With retail, this means relatively fewer sales clerks, customer service agents, merchandisers, and sales reps.
At the same time, with the number of new products rising exponentially, there will be increased need for product evaluators, demonstrators, and sales channel partners.