Why History Holds The Secret To The Future Of Retail

Critical Mass
  • Date Published
  • Categories Blog
  • Reading Time 5-Minute Read

Associate Strategy Director, Lara Tokarz discusses the experience design strategies helping retailers turn novelty into the norm.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard about how well Amazon is doing digital experiences, I wouldn’t have to shop on Amazon anymore.

Strike that. I still want the convenience.

We all know that brands like Amazon and Google push the boundaries of what’s possible in terms of digital and physical experiences. They’re a dire threat and a source of inspiration all at once. They have massive budgets that allow them to test technologies and products in-market. Some of the experiments are duds, like the Amazon Dash button or Google Hangouts, but some are world-changing, like Alexa and Google Home. Many of us find that once we have them, we can’t do without them. Just like we can’t do without Google and Amazon.

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And that’s something I try to get brands with big aspirations and anxieties to look at—the pivot between novelty and necessity.

The road to technological necessity isn’t a new thing. In fact, most technologies we have today have followed a fairly uniform pattern. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in Sapiens, “One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally, they reach a point where they can’t live without it.”

The phenomenon that Harari is describing holds true of washing machines, email, computers, text messaging, air conditioning, social media, e-commerce, smartphones, and even auto navigation systems—things that are effort-reducers and time-savers. They were once novelties or luxuries or both. Now, they’re must-haves.

The takeaway: If we can look at novelties and luxuries and understand why they might become necessities, then we can make educated guesses about the future. To get some preliminary bearings, here are three high-level things I look for. If I find them, then the product or service is probably worth examining and researching in greater detail.

1. Does it save time, take less effort and come naturally to us?

2. Is its barrier to entry low enough that people will be willing to try it out for novelty reasons?

3. Does it have a high potential for people to adopt it?

Let me stress that those are high-level criteria. A starting point. No one can see the future with crystal clarity. Even Amazon, a brand that has an incredible track record of shaping the future, has tried out a lot of stuff to get there—dash buttons, voice, two-day shipping, one-day shipping, lockers and a whole lot more. They were fun to try and often helpful (I once forgot all my breast pump parts as a new mom and had them delivered to the office within an hour and my life was saved). But they weren’t uniformly promising.

So, what is worth paying attention to right now? Amazon Go.

With movement tracking, triangulating cameras and shelf sensors on rollers that get paired with older tech (like a separate downloaded app and a QR code to scan in), Amazon Go is the future. Yes, you feel like you are stealing that sushi roll when you leave without paying — until you get a receipt five minutes later, tied to your existing Amazon account. Just as this is a novelty today, and maybe even a luxury since it only exists in urban markets, current trends and abiding history give us reason to believe that this is the next consumer necessity. It also fulfills our criteria:

1. It’s quicker than waiting in line at other grocery or convenience stores, but it isn’t so vastly different that we get confused.

2. All we need is a smartphone, an Amazon account and the app for Amazon Go to scan in on—all low barriers to entry.

3. Even though we feel like we’re stealing food because we aren’t checking out at a register, we trust Amazon enough to engage with it. The more we use it, the less we want to go somewhere where we need to wait in line.

What does it all mean?

What it doesn’t mean is that retailers are doomed because they didn’t think of it first. If we can see the future of consumer expectations in a new retail experience, we can act to emulate them. It means immediately adopting the right data structures, the right technologies, and the right mindset. It’s about having the will and insightfulness to pair technology with what already works, finding better hand-offs among channels, and building the experience around what your consumers will need to have.

In the end, that’s what Amazon Go is doing — allowing me to get my lunch quicker without having to talk to anyone while I text my husband about my day. Aside from the detection cameras, the technology is simple. It’s proof that our greatest asset is thinking smarter, being more efficient and answering customer needs.

The stores and retail experiences of the future already exist—brands just need to know how to mold them into what’s right for their own customers and businesses.

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