Chapter 2: Retailing Past and Future
Simon’s virtual self knows Simon very well, better than Simon knows Simon. Simon is hungry. His virtual self lets the network know. The network is aggregating hundreds of thousands of needs an hour. The needs are communicated to one of over a thousand hubs across the UK. These hubs are using an AI to predict and pre-prepare all the meals needed. The hubs rely on two death star factories, churning out vast quantities of raw materials, shipping the right amount of fresh material out to each hub at 2am every day. The network knows Simon needs his food hot, so a complex fleet of connected micro-vehicles with real-time tracking and routing are deployed. This ensures Simon’s meal arrives within 14 minutes and piping hot. This all happened last night, and Simon enjoyed his Domino’s Double Pepperoni very much.
Last chapter I outlined how the substrate of retail is transport.
When a transport revolution happens, a retail revolution follows as night follows day.
William Gibson’s ‘the future is here – just not evenly distributed’ quote remains a touchstone for all who ponder on the futures. Generalising from Domino’s, replace the mopeds with automated delivery bots, replace the Domino’s app with a more general-purpose needs identifier, and allow homes to receive goods automatically. And you have the outline of how I believe much retail will work in the mid to late 2020’s.
The mixed-use shop/F&B hub has a past that goes way back, it will survive. Socialising in inns, shared eating spaces, and communal areas started in the Neolithic revolution 10,000 years ago. Later retailing emerged, with the selling and the fabrication happening in the same place for general merchandise, or via markets for fresh produce. When society got bigger and more complex middlemen emerged and the retail supply chain was born. Trajan’s market built 2,100 years ago looks strikingly like a modern shopping mall. Shopping appeals to something deep within our hunter-gatherer psyche.
Much of today’s shopping is not fun; a combination of drudgery and bewilderment from the tyranny of choice. I imagine perhaps 80% of shopping will disappear into the magical networks that ensures stuff I want and need just appears.
Modern branding and the colossi of the modern consumerist economy were born out of retail. The very idea of a brand in its modern form emerged in the late Nineteenth Century, driven by mass-production coupled with retail through shops and by catalogue. When the buying agent stops being human but our digital twin, how does a brand work? Brands still carry huge power; the ability to signal status via goods, is a human trait that goes all the way back to the Neolithic Revolution. But branded loo-roll…
The implications for today’s retailers, F&B operators and property industries are many and varied. To go back to the Domino’s example their ‘fabrication hubs’ still occupy high street units and look like ‘shops’. Things must still happen somewhere. But the nature of occupancy and the balance of retail will change. The power brands will have to take charge of their entire factory to customer network. The days of the retailers who are utilitarian aggregators of the mundane are limited. Most of the public shop space will disappear, shopping will become purely a fun pursuit again. This is to be celebrated. Life is too short to be bored.
Through the first two chapters I have relied on the premise that the coming transport revolution will change everything for retail, next chapter I will explore some of the key developments in automated transport and how that is impacting retailers now.
Chapter 2 of a whitepaper series, written by Blair Freebairn, to be released weekly.
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