Retail is about to get utterly different. The coming change is enabled by the internet but will dwarf the impact of simple shopping via the web.

To be reading this article your computer has relied on a complex graph. A journey consisting of a spider’s web of routers, fibres and radio signals. 

My supper last night, pepper roasted beef since you ask, made a similar journey from farm through factory, distribution centre, and shop to end up in my oven. 

Graph theory is an impressive sounding phrase for a fabulously simple idea. As with pretty much everything in maths, it traces its origins back to the colossus Leonhard Euler. The analysis within his Seven Bridges of Königsberg paper were used to get this article to your screen this moment, and my beef to the table last night. A graph is a collection of points, vertices in math-talk, that are connected via edges. A graph itself has a collection of features, behaviours… a life. Graph theory saturates the modern world; from your sat nav, to social media friend recommendations, to google searches, to… well everything.

Modern retail has evolved through punctuated equilibria. The act of shopping relies on, but also defines, how a society works. Our current retail landscape is based on efficient sea & road transport. Farm to factory to store relies on two revolutions; containerised shipping, and the automobility revolution. For food crucially the fully chilled supply line. The final act, the handover of goods to the consumer, aka shopping, relies on consumers access to cars and modern public transport. Two graphs of transport overlap within the vertices of shops, and the magic of shopping as we know it today happens.

Whether you are a believer in the cataclysm of a network of shared, self-driving devices that render single-ownership ‘cars’ redundant, or prefer the more evolutionary path to self-driving cars, it is clear something big is brewing in how we and stuff get moved. Modern shopping as we know it is about to change, in a way it hasn’t changed since the car was born 100 years ago.

Currently internet shopping is surprisingly like physical shopping. We all self-select from fixed price ranges curated for us by retailers, place the purchases in our ‘basket’, then ‘checkout’ the goods and present our payment details via a ‘till’.  The shop as the vertex between the ‘supply line’ and ‘deliver to home’ line has been maintained; and the movement of stuff from farm to home and fork is strikingly similar. In truth, for grocers with in-store picking, all that has happened is that the shelf-picking and drive from store to home has been outsourced from customers to store staff.

In a dynamic, intelligent, robotised world this will not be how shopping works. For a possible future of retailing, and what that means for today’s retailers, tune in next week.

Part 1 of a whitepaper series, written by Blair Freebairn, to be released weekly.

Photo Credit: Nicolas Picard on Unsplash