The Future Of Retail: What I Want, When I Want It, As Long As I Need It

The Future Of Retail: Immediate, Exact, Temporary

I was sitting on my deck the other day, reading an article on my iPad when I glanced over at my lawn. Hmm, I thought to myself. That needs cutting. So I thought – what are my options:

  1. Get out my lawnmower and cut the grass. Would probably do me a lot of good physically, get me out from behind a screen, breathe some fresh air, get some exercise, and since I have a push mower and a pretty small lawn, it wouldn’t take too long
  2. Call up a service on my iPad to send someone to cut my lawn. Easy, fast and done. I don’t need a lawnmower, I’ll just have someone bring theirs. But then I don’t get the benefits of mowing my lawn: the fresh air, the cost savings, etc.

What if I don’t have a lawnmower? I’ll have to order one from Amazon, wait for it to show up, assemble it. Such a hassle. In the future, I support that I’ll have a 3D printer and I can 3D print a lawnmower. But that will take a long time and material, then when I’m done with it, it will sit there gathering dust until I need to use it again. That does not sound like the future of retail. At least in the Star Trek universe you could recycle it back into a block of matter that can be converted into something else. Like a chicken salad sandwich and coffee.

I’m almost 100% sure that one day we will have replicators which can convert anything to anything (I suppose retail will disappear around that day) but until then, we need things. As the generations changes, we may not need the same things, or as many things, but we still need things. Unfortunately the retail experience (and the retail companies) of today are woefully underprepared for the sooner that you think future.

The Future Of Retail: Materialism Begone

We are rapidly moving from a world where “whoever dies with the most toys wins” to “whoever dies with the most experiences wins”. We are moving to a point I like to call “Retail Zero”, where people will need zero material goods. No one will own anything, anymore, in the sense that we own things today.The only possessions we will have are those few who bring us some kind of meaning. Some kind of joy.

A recent book by Marie Kondo, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, whom I like to call the Japanese Organization Queen, puts it simply “If it doesn’t bring you joy, get rid of it”. She talks about how getting rid of things can change your life – last I saw the book is just flying off the shelves, hungrily read by many in the West who are starting to feel that enough is enough. Where will retail be when people don’t want to buy or own most things anymore?

Even fractional ownership, as some call it, will probably disappear, as people become more and more mobile. Look at cars. There is a whole generation of people growing up who’ve never driven, aren’t interesting in driving, and if Uber and the like spread as far as they can go, and autonomous vehicles hit their stride (which they probably will sooner than you think) then who will own a car? Once virtual reality becomes common place, will anyone really need to own any “real” thing, when they can just reproduce it virtually. I suppose in that world, retailers will have to be happy to develop extremely detailed renderings of objects to be used in virtual reality. but I’m getting ahead of myself. There is still a long way to go before that.

The Future Of Retail: Ad hoc, Customized Mega and Micro Manufacturing

Here is my take on a near future retail experience. You will see someone either online or in person with something that you feel will bring you joy. Using some kind of device, could be a smartphone, could be an augmented reality device, you will capture that item, and order one. (If its an A/R headset, you may even have the option to live with the object virtually for a bit so that you can decide if you really need to the object or not) The order will instantly arrive at retailer who will either manufacture the item immediately, or for items which take longer to make, have a set of them in inventory, within a few hours, preferably an hour, of where you are. It is then personally delivered to wherever you are at that exact moment, without packaging, by some random individual (or autonomous vehicle) who happened to be travelling between the micro-factory or the warehouse and where you are. You saw the item an hour or two ago, and now its in your hands. Soon, you will decide if you are tried of it or not. As soon as you are, you indicate that you are ready to sell the item, its immediately listed and sold, then someone picks the item up from you and delivers it to the next owner. This continues until the item no longer operates or gives the final owner joy, and it is sent to a plant for recovery. All of the parts are captured and there is very little waste.

I doubt that in this world, retailers will remain as they are. The act of “shopping” will become something completely different – more of an entertainment. Or everything will go from “ownership” to “rentalship” where the retailer simply rents whatever the item is out to the customer, who gives it back when they are done with it. The customer is no longer tied to material possessions – the only thing she owns are things that bring her joy.

Owning my lawnmower doesn’t bring me joy, but mowing the lawn, getting exercise and letting my mind wander, might. Maybe I just need to “rent” a lawnmower for a half-hour every two weeks, and let someone else handle the actual ownership. I’d love to empty my garage and just ping Home Depot to rent me whatever I need, when I want it, and then give it back when I’m done.