The Future of Retail

by | Aug 23, 2008 | Business Trends

Thomas Frey Futurist Speaker the future or retail
The coming demise of the retail storefront

Last week my wife Deb and I were relaxing at a new shopping center in the Denver area. Along the sidewalks a series of speakers cast a rather pleasant musical backdrop to the shopping experience.

At one point an interesting song began playing. I reached for my iPhone, and used a program called Shazam to “listen” to the music, revealing the name of the song and the artist. I was then able to purchase the song on my iPhone and download it directly to the phone for later use.

The nature of this transaction is quite revealing in that it gives us clues as to what our shopping experiences will be like in the future.

Point and Click Shopping

Imagine yourself walking through a shop, wanting to know more information on a particular product. You pull out your phone, point it at the product and click a button, instantly revealing a page with product information, links to product reviews, and places to purchase it online. Pressing another button you are given options for purchasing it online and having it delivered to your home. Since you are already in a retail store, you could purchase it there if the price differential isn’t too great.

But the shopping experience isn’t necessarily confined to a store. If a person walks by on the street and you just happen to like the jacket they are wearing, just aim your phone, point and click. You can see the same jacket displayed on your screen in a variety of colors and styles, with your ability to complete the purchase transaction only a click or two away.

Since most cell phones already have a working camera, the missing element is a piece of object-recognition software, barcode reader, or RFID receiver that connects items with the online marketplace. It’s not a real stretch to envision this being commonplace on some level in a matter of months.

Replacing Interactive Video

Over a decade ago, business leaders were focused on what they believed would become the “next big thing” – interactive video. Most thinking about interactive video had been framed around our ability to watch television or a movie and click on objects to get information and purchase things.

After many years and countless failed attempts to open up this marketplace, more entrepreneurs have grown increasingly disillusioned by the prospects for interactive video. Several people have pointed to the attitudinal differences between the people who “lean forward to be engaged when using a computer” and those who “lean back to relax to be entertained by a television”.

However, next generation retail won’t find it necessary to play within the bounds of a television set or a movie theater. Suddenly, the whole world becomes a marketplace with some very different rules of engagement, unlike anything we’ve seen in the past.

Next Generation Retail

Consider the new options available to retailers. Rather than displaying items in a store, models can be used to walk down busy streets, each being paid a commission for the items they sell. But this opportunity isn’t reserved just for clothing; some people may work as “appliance models” holding toasters or blenders in their arms as they walk by.

Retails stores may suddenly opt to close their storefronts and hire models to walk the busy streets of upscale neighborhoods in a way that will get them noticed. Streetwalking hustlers, working on commission, may alter a simple walk through the park into a possible buying experience.

But going beyond wearable fashion and appliances, billboards and sides of busses will be equipped with “point, click, and purchase” features. Bumper stickers on cars may sell everything from pizzas to vacation packages.

The Internet without Computers

What I have described above is really the next evolution of hyperlinks, the idea of turning our physical world into clickable links that provide us with information, purchasing options, and much more. Our lives suddenly shift into a somewhat surreal existence where we find ourselves as cast members in a giant Internet production where everything we touch, feel, or do can be part of someone else’s larger agenda.

For many, having a complete stranger point and click on our clothing, purse, or even the makeup we’re wearing starts getting a little weird. The population suddenly gets divided between the clickable people and the non-clickable people, with the time when every person and everything becomes clickable just a matter of months or years away.

Car repair will be done by pointing and clicking on the failing area of the vehicle, sending images and sensor readouts to a repair team. The fix is made either by remote reset, bringing the vehicle into a shop, or by a mobile team armed with the parts and tools for making the fix.

Healthcare will begin to evolve by people pointing and clicking on the ailing part of the body and sending self-diagnostic readouts to a doctor. Since the healthcare industry has traditionally been late adopters of new technology, this will most likely happen later than sooner. But alternative health practitioners will be quick to jump on board.

Going Even Deeper…

“I wonder what vitamins that person is taking.” Point and click.

“I wonder what he had for lunch?” Point and click.

“I wonder where that family sends their kids to school.” Point and click.

“I wonder who she slept with last night.” Point and click.

With face and object recognition software, the options for layering additional information onto specific objects and people is limitless. The potential level of intrusiveness goes far beyond what most people will find palatable.

Is this something that the government will have to protect us from? I may be wrong, but my guess is that any person who feels this technology can be regulated by systems and laws is a person who has never set foot into the clickable world. So far none of us have.

The stage has been set for the next great age of experimentation. Our clickers are poised and ready. Let the technology begin.

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