Forget the future of retail: focus on the here and now

Read my article in The Monocle Winter Weekly to get a fresh perspective on the year ahead.

You know the year is drawing to a close when you hear the future-gazing chatter get louder. We’ll soon be swamped by projections of “the next and the new” in gleaming technologies that promise to change the way we shop forever. But will they – and do we want them to?

Some buy into the myth that only technology can save retail; I don’t. Remember QR codes? And what of NFC or iBeacons? They totally revolutionised shopping, right? The truth is that the story of retail is one of evolution, not revolution. Then there’s the fact that most major retailers are looking at it backwards. All too often, technology is applied for technology’s sake – retailers just can’t help themselves. But often there has been scant consideration given to how it benefits shoppers or if it solves a genuine need.

Forget virtual mirrors in changing rooms; people want to try on clothes, feel the texture of the fabric. But think about the solution first, then how to apply the technology with real relevance, and you could be on to something. How about footwear retailers using VR mirrors? Just think: you could try on a pair of boots then see how they would look with a range of outfits. That’s technology usefully and thoughtfully applied.

Another consideration: are technology-filled experiences really the future for jaded shoppers already burned out by hi-tech overload? Tomorrow’s shoppers will be digital natives who have grown up in an “always-on” world so there is every chance that they will be seeking experiences that allow them to switch off. Could we be entering an era of “no wi-fi” zones that instead invite shoppers to live and experience the moment?

There is a fundamental, overriding factor that can sometimes all too easily be forgotten: shoppers want to shop. Introducing banks of gleaming iPads to enable us to go online in-store can be helpful but they should not take too much of the focus. One thing is certain: those who will prosper won’t be the ones who make their shops more connected. Instead it will be the savvy retailers who invest in making their retail spaces more tactile, physical and sensory.

For many years the corporate behemoths have been viewed as superior to independent sellers. But major retailers could learn important lessons by observing and applying the small details employed by our most successful indie stars. But with a slavish devotion to consistency in their shops around the world, big retailers are often misaligned with the desire of shoppers to enjoy retail experiences that celebrate personalisation and individualism.

So for all the talk of which innovations are likely to define the year ahead, retailers should instead focus on their staff. Abandon the faceless and embrace the face-to-face. Book retailer Do You Read Me? carries the spirit of this concept within its Berlin shop. A warm, unpretentious space, it escapes the national stereotyping of cold, ruthless efficiency and instead sees staff happily interact with shoppers, creating a community for literary conversation. Cycling shop Rapha is another example. Staff here are real enthusiasts and true brand ambassadors. It is here that we see the distinction between recruiting individuals who live and breathe the brand and those who simply have the right look.

My parting shot: regardless of size, shops have to continually deliver transformation; the only constant in retail is change. It’s time to accept that there is no end point but, rather, a continual evolving set of demands. In spite of what we are told, technology is not always the answer because today’s innovations will be obsolete tomorrow.

In trying to define the future of the industry, retailers need to lift their heads from their technology bubble and look at meaningful ways to harness the power of their staff and their physical space. These are often low-cost or no-cost solutions, rather than expensive technology white elephants, that can and will make a visible difference to the retail experience – and the bottom line.

This article was originally published in The Monocle Winter Weekly, Edition 1, 2017.