Few would have thought that retail would become interesting, at least not in our world. Even fewer would have thought that retail would become one of the most disruptive and disrupted arenas on earth.
Corner shops, where the owner would order some strawberry jam for a regular customer, because he knew ‘that madam would be about to run out’ are the stuff of old movies. Shops of any note in provincial high streets have made way to phone shops and computer stores.
Yet, while the issue of the day used to be “What about the city centers?” as supermarkets moved shoppers to the edge of towns, now the issue of the day is, “What will become of the supermarkets on the edge of town?”
We talk about the blurring of the digital and the real. Until very recently this was in pretty abstract terms.
Now, it is real and hard edged.
Amazon, having persuaded millions upon millions of shoppers that there was no reason to go to an actual shop and having sewn up the logistics business, is now poised to mop up the shops themselves. They have, so we understand, had some serious talks with Waitrose, the upmarket food chain in the UK – this after scooping up Whole Foods last year.
Meanwhile, with Russia basically beyond reach, Walmart and the other big retail chains are beginning to panic and look for new opportunities. Walmart has signed a $16 billion deal with Indian e-commerce company Flipkart, and is presumably looking around for other deals to defend itself.
Add to this already frenetic game of chess the potential disruption triggered by AI-driven automation (the chairman of JD.com reckons it is beyond big), and who wins becomes anyone’s guess.
With automation, of course, comes savings beyond the obvious, human ones. Robots do not need light, heat, food or health insurance – and they do not commute. Welcome to the dark, cold, remote factory.
Not to mention drones. If and when the regulatory and safety issues are smoothed out, the rise of drones means that the days of being restricted by distribution hubs are gone.
You could go further and imagine Hyperloops carrying cargo to and from some deserted piece of land where they are assembled in cold, dark factories and sent back out by drone, Hyperloop or rocket.
And while this goes on, we, presumably, sit and play ever more compelling games, and occasionally visit the Virtual 5th Avenue, Bond Street or Orchard Road to browse for Gucci, Versace or Prada.
Wherever all this ends up, one thing is for certain. The ‘boring’ world of retail just became very interesting indeed.