Future Shopping

Historically, retail is the dipstick of social change; what made a good store in 1600, or in 1900, or even 2000, and what makes a good store today are different.

Those differences are a reflection of the evolution of us. The changes have been about gender, or who we sell what to; economic circumstances; and, of course, technology, which has altered both our ability to understand and access goods.

Retail change is accelerating as the mantle of consumption is passed from a retiring generation of baby boomers to a millennial generation that is in its genetic prime: finding partners, having children and pumping up spending. But particularly in North America, that millennial generation is also battling downward mobility and the appetite for goods that many cannot afford.

Thirty years down the road, much of the change in retail is going to be driven by a complete reformulation of the relationship between how we make the stuff, how we sell the stuff and how we consume the stuff.

Four trends to watch:

Malls are becoming “alls.” In the recent past, malls would begin and end with Contempo Casuals, Borders and french-fry-filled food courts. But this aging model has already started to transition into a fully functional lifestyle center. The mall of tomorrow will have all the apparel, consumer-electronics and general-merchandise options, but alongside it will be gyms and innovative fitness centers, medical services and even schools, grocery stores and luxury spas.

The mall across the world delivers an important experience in many emerging markets. The three key offerings are physical safety, a hygienic place and climate control. In a world where turmoil is unlikely to disappear completely even 30 years into our future, going to the mall will still have equity. We will go to the mall to be entertained and live our lives; to recreate, not just to shop.

The artisanal movement will flourish. Artisanal goods—stuff made in a nonfactory setting that we are willing to pay a premium for—are the new must-have. Call it the durability of craft; whether hand-knit sweaters or stinky cheese, homemade is cool again.

 Homemade is a brand in itself; things we cannot commoditize. We see this piece of the future in the health of the farmers-market movement. Eliminating the middleman, the makers or farmers of stuff can find their markets and—if they work efficiently—make a modest living.

We see it also in Etsy, an online site where people buy and sell artisanal goods, and Murray’s Cheese, an online business where acquisition is crossed with a romantic element of consumption. Can we assume that 30 years into our future our computers will allow us not only to see but also to feel and smell the things we shop for? It is not out of the question.

This is also about the counter trend of being local. It is about a need to be different and nostalgic for things that are timeless and somehow pure. How much will this market represent? Probably no more than 15% to 20% of our consuming economy. Access to the artisanal market is predicated on the financial resources to afford it.

Apparel in the future will be personalized—and tailored to our unique proportions. The apparel factory of our future is robotic and compact. In Seoul, the epicenter of the digital world, we see the prototypes of that future shop where—on the showroom floor—you have a body scanner linked to a magic box that cuts, stitches and glues. What comes out the other side is simple and basic in 2015, but in it, we see our future.

Indeed, that combination of a personal shopping “bot” that knows all our measurements and manages our closet will take the guesswork out of lots of purchases and give us both customization and uniformity. Thus the distance between factory and point of sale could be a few feet or few miles, but not across the ocean. That shopping bot works both in store and online.

Mobile retail will have two means. First is the way our smartphones now link us to a digital e-commerce universe. The second definition is retail that comes to us. Both in the sense of a farmers market that opens once a week on a specific street corner, but also a new version of the peddler’s wagon that finds us at the beach, the football game or on the street corner. It curates its goods and gets us at happy, if not vulnerable, moments.

Retail and shopping in the next 30 years will be an incredible evolution to watch. Yes, we still will be shopping 30 years from now. The merchants and chains of yesterday and today will be largely gone. Retail has always been about birth, life and death; and just as in organics, that death ends up as compost that regenerates.