By David Dorf on Sep 19, 2013
People like to ask me what retail will look like in five or ten years. I can paint a futuristic picture involving lots of tech toys, but the reality is that I, like most people, am horrible at making accurate predictions that far into the future. There are just too many variables, and the biggest one is the consumer. Its really hard to predict the success of an idea AND get the timing right. I recall testing tablets at a retailer ten years ago, but they've only recently taken off. People are saying tablets will replace registers, and maybe they will, but I never could have predicted that ten years ago.
So perhaps instead of asking what will be different ten years from now, maybe we should ask what won't change? That's one approach Jeff Bezos takes when deciding where to focus energies. You can bet consumers will still want low prices, vast assortments, and fast delivery so those are constants in the Amazon strategy. So what are some other things that won't change?
The internet isn't going away, that's for sure. If anything, bandwidth will increase and open up even more features. How can your business benefit from a 10x improvement in bandwidth? Would all the products on your website be animated, perhaps with 3-D perspective? Would you offer live video help online and from store kiosks?
Mobile will still be important as well, but it might take some additional new forms like wearable devices. Its always going to be important to serve customers wherever and whenever they want to shop. We need to stay flexible and support various form-factors for communicating with consumers on the move. That might include watches, holograms, and displays projected on the nearest piece of glass (Total Recall 2012).
You can bet the marketing department will still be around, and they might just wield even more power. Assuming we're able to increase the amount of data we collect about our customers, how will we use that data to improve the shopping experience? Can we provide real-time, personalized pricing? What new types of security can we employ to protect that data? How do we better include the customer's voice in our business processes?
My best advice for retailers: First and foremost focus on how technology can improve the things that aren't going to change. Adopt technologies that help keep prices low, improve the customer experience, and make better merchandising decisions, for example. These will vary depending on your business model, but the point is to not waste energy aiming for something that may never take hold. Even the best ideas have fits and starts, so don't even try to align your strategy to predictions of the future. But always track innovation and be ready to adopt when the timing is right. Awareness and agility are key.