Retail — 15 March 2019

What’s next for retail? An interview with a retail futurist

Future of Retail - Conversation with a retail futurist

According to Howard Saunders – retail futurist, keynote speaker, and published author – two massive things happened between 2007 and 2008 that were to change retail and the way we interact with retailers forever. One set the global economy back decades, and the other placed a slab of black glass in our palms that gave us near-instant access to the sum of human knowledge.

“We suddenly had access to everything, and everyone felt entitled to have an opinion on it all,” says Howard. “It heightened our expectations and placed huge pressures on retailers to match them. We demand better, from everything.”

The rise of the independent store

“Charlie Chaplin was probably the richest and most powerful man in the world at one point, and he held on to the silent film as he believed it to be the height of artistic expression,” says Howard. “In a matter of years, he went from being rich and famous to a bit of a dinosaur. Everyone knew that the talkies were where we were headed, but he couldn’t see it. And it’s the same in retail.”

Over the past 50 years, our shopping habits have been driven by the rise of the supermarket. This new, self-serve model was championed as the height of convenience, but it has also contributed to the downward decline of the high-street. According to Howard, all that is changing. “What we lost in this model was our sense of community,” Howard explains. “But people are now searching out these high-friction experiences, they want human engagement. The rise of the independent, local, boutique stores is a testament to that fact.”

Creating stores people want to visit

“What the rise of the independent stores tells us is that people are hungry for interaction and information from retail brands,” says Howard. “Supermarkets and high street retailers provide you products, but as our sense of belonging to the world increases and we become more ethical in our approach, this isn’t enough. We want to know where our products come from and want to share our positive experiences of retail outlets with others.”

To prove his point, Howard provided many examples, but one, in particular, stood out. “Starbucks has recently launched new stores that it’s calling Reserve Roasteries,” says Howard. “It’s all about giving customers the chance to interact with the brand and find out more about the coffee it provides. The latest edition in Milan uses Augmented Reality technology so you can watch the beans being harvested, meet the farmers and truly live the brand. The Roasteries are proving a huge success as customers’ thirst for knowledge, and coffee grows.”

Why hospitality is the next big thing in retail

“The proliferation of digital technology has helped us define what we want from the real world,” says Howard. “And that is a human connection. Recognition and connection. What retailers have to do, therefore, is create an environment that makes people feel connected and respected.”

With high expectations and this need to feel united, we asked Howard for advice on how to prepare for the future. “You can see it already from the huge brands that they are falling over themselves to be hospitable places to be,” says Howard. “Staff greet you at the door, apologise automatically for any wait of any duration – even if you’re next in line. The brands that get the balance of creating a welcoming environment while providing something truly unique through technology will be the ones where people want to visit in the future. And that is where you should focus your energies.”

To have your say on the future of retail, engage with Howard on Twitter: @retailfuturist

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