You remember how we used to get ‘stuff’ back in the day? We’d head out in the car, drive to the supermarket or shopping centre, park the car, pick up a trolley or a basket, walk up and down every aisle in every department, find the stuff we wanted, queue at the checkout, pay, then take the stuff to the car, not forgetting to return the trolley and pay the parking fees before heading home. Doddle.
Today, of course, we chortle at the ridiculousness of the weekly shop, as we open our front doors to the Amazon delivery it predicted we would want at precisely this hour. So, two thousand years of mankind venturing out in the quest for stuff has come to an abrupt end.
Except, as we now know, shopping was never just about accessing stuff. This may be blindingly obvious to those of you reading this, but believe me, there are plenty of retailers out there who are still obsessed with sales per square foot and in lubricating real world shopping to replicate the efficiency of the online experience.
At the other end of the spectrum we have the retailers who believe that everything must be ‘experiential’ and that ultimately customers are children that demand constant entertainment. Well, maybe we are, but the thought of the high street slowly morphing into one giant theme park makes my back teeth itch.
In the 90s and 2000s the term ‘retail theatre’ was similarly embraced and then misinterpreted to become little more than layers of cut-out cardboard stuck to a gondola end. Please god, let’s not go there again.
The problem with the term ‘experiential’ is that everything is an experience. Queuing for forty five minutes at the Post Office is an experience, and a memorable one to boot, but it’s probably not something to be held up as an example of best practice. I prefer to use the term ‘brand playground’ and this, let’s say, more immersive, route is perfect for a Samsung, Adidas or a Nike that wants to show off how clever and wealthy it is. But surely, shoppers want engaging spaces that they can relate to, that make them feel a part of a community, that show them some respect…and that may well be a convenience store or a local hair salon. Genuine hospitality you might call it, and it should certainly be at the very top of every retailer’s list of priorities.
Robots may be whirring away frantically in the back office, working on logistics, accounts and stock control but it will be a fair while before we actually want to connect emotionally with a machine. For some reason it seems that COOs are happier to talk of investing in an army of human replacements than in training real humans already armed with natural charisma, charm and social appeal.
Today’s retail landscape has an enormous, all encompassing, ever-expanding web of data laid across it like a giant digital blanket. Stores have been turned from isolated boxes of goodies into brands that extend from our mobiles into the store and beyond. Everyone with a smartphone in their pocket understands this and the dialogue between customer and brand has been fully embraced and has become wholly expected these days. Whether we like it or not, as we head out every day we are wading through an invisible blanket of data that ripples and twists in response to each of our turns and choices.
Retail brands are desperate to get involved in our leisure lives and this is already bubbling up from beneath the surface with Samsung’s fitness programs, Lululemon’s Sweatlife Festivals and Nike’s running clubs. The next genesis of this, however, is likely to be game changing. When brands work together to manage and curate our lives, things are set to get truly exciting. The technology is already in place and it’s only a matter of time before a Westfield or a Visa or an independent start up uses algorithms creatively, stitching together concepts and brands and firing off amazing, bespoke offers to each of us that weave together products with community events and leisure activities that include our friends and our families.
Poor, inundated, bombarded customers will need filtering systems that help manage this but don’t fret, that’s happening too. As machine learning gets smarter Alexa, Siri, Echo, Cortana and the AI gang will begin to negotiate on our behalf. Imagine, just like the stock exchange, billions of incremental negotiations will ping-pong away as we sleep to bring us more exciting, personally tailored, better value deals than ever before when we click on our phones first thing in the morning. In an instant, the retail contract will have been reversed. Brands that hold their exclusivity dear will be sorely tempted to cut a few dollars off the price to complete the deal for Fear Of Missing Out. That’s role reversal and, ultimately, real consumer power.