Retail

Why we should be talking about the future now.

Who doesn’t like to stargaze and wonder what the future may hold? It doesn’t mean you’re an astrologist or futurologist or anything in-between. Literature and film are full of the imagination of people who do just this – whether is a dystopian post-apocalyptic world, or one of enhances artificial intelligence, silver suits and flying cars.

Bring our feet back to earth though, we really should be considering the next 5, 10, 20, 30 years – and what it will mean to not only our generation, but the ones that follow. Hard-hitting (and banned) adverts, such as this from Iceland, show some uncomfortable truths which are deemed ‘too political’, but by the time we stop hiding behind that, there damage done will be irreversible.

The truth is that the rate of change we face is unprecedented. Technology as a growth sector and enabler to other sectors is beyond what our minds can (generally keep up with – and couple that with a consumerist attitude, gives little wonder that we will happily hack down rainforest to ensure we have more grazing cattle or palm oil to make our shampoo so silky smooth.

But there is change coming, and there will be a backlash. The next generation will start to shun some of this folly, and there are signs beginning to show.

The retail environment is suffering – and that’s because we’re changing what we do and how we do it. Yes, the internet changed the world and it gave us more options. Stack ’em high covers some of those options – but people are asking for quality, provenance and value. (cheap doesn’t equal value). As prices steadily rise, and household income stagnates, ‘the people’ become more bitter about the faceless organisations and corporate entities and the money, their money, which funds a new company car or an overseas ‘bolt-hole’ for the stressed c-suite.

Where I live, potatoes are farmed in the fields next to my street. They are then sent 80 miles away, processed, frozen, packaged and then returned to the stores a couple of hundred meters from my house. We take fish from the north sea which goes to Spain and we then buy as a ‘Spanish’ product. And so on.

Why is this? The world got smaller and transport got better and we were taken in by convenience or by romantic notions. Whilst this happened, we forgot what was on our front door, and what made us like where we live. We shunned local and went international. But with that, we shunned some of our identity, and created a broad and bland middle-ground.

Now this broad and bland middle ground occurs in many many things we consume. Think about the restaurants where you live, or the beer (or wine, or gin etc) you drink. There’s probably a section of low quality/cheap, a section of high quality and expensive – but the most of it will probably be a generic acceptable level. Whatever acceptable means to you. And the thing is – we’ve got board of it. The people selling it are possibly interested in balance sheets and shareholder value. We’re so board of it, we shop for it sat on the toilet, or in front of the telly. This is a price purchase, not really a value one.

So what will happen? Some things will naturally go online. Why? Because it’s easier. Also, because there may be little value in you needing to touch and feel the product – or know about it’s provenance (as long as it’s ethical, ecological and so on). Some pockets of retail will exist for this – due to the need for convenience.

Warehouse may increase – but for that need. Not for people to browse, put for storage and for things to be despatched.

But what about city centres and high streets?

That’s where we (“we”) need to be better. We need to be experiential and more clever about how we use the space. Sure, there’s still space for a shop window, but does it need to be (and can companies afford for it to be) cavernous? We also need to lure people back to the high street – and that’s the big issue here. Many studies point to making experiences for people. Not a funfair or theme park. Experience come in different shapes and sizes. Remember – we’re all used to unlimited choice now, not conformity.

Craft and provenance will become more important. Look at the explosion in the micro-brewing and distilling categories. Brew-pubs are on the rise again, and restaurants are making headlines when they use seasonal and local produce, as well as having a social conscience too. Long may this continue and long may this spread into other sectors – clothing for example.

So while there’s room and need for economies of scale, there’s also need for the little guy, the person that gives the unique and bespoke. After all, this is what gives us, and our cities, an identity. Do we want to live in a featureless clone of somewhere else, or do we want to live somewhere that is one of a kind?
We’re lucky where I live. York has culture and history and a very relaxed culture. Neighbouring Leeds however, it contrasting – a business centre of the North, more a metropolitan city with a faster pace of life. We’re allowed to like both you know.

So why do we need to talk about the future now? Because it’s happening now, tomorrow, next week. Things are changing, and we need to understand that. We need to get on this train, because it’s not stopping. Remember, the most dangerous words in business are ‘but that’s what we’ve always done’. And as the old adage goes, ‘if you always do what you’ve done, you’ll always get what you got’. However, remember, this is in diminishing returns.

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