Talkback: World Economic Forum – shopping in 2027


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That’s right – it’s yours truly vs. the World Economic Forum and the CEO of Walmart. The subject of today’s talkback is this video – it’s brief, go ahead and watch it before reading on:

I actually largely agree – or maybe I should say I half-agree. Yes, the growth in online shopping will continue, and that will probably put us in the 50%-range by 2027. I also agree with the other major beat of the video, that customers of the future will be evermore demanding or expecting of convenience, meaningfulness, quality and service.

This, however, is where the contradictions start. 

Basically, the two trends contradict each other, as they’re presented in the video. For example, if we’re going to be buying more and more stuff online, and it will be delivered by drone (driving or flying), how would we see a simultaneous rise in small specialized shops? And, even with the advances of the next decade, isn’t it likely that complex ecosystems of data, apps, touch-walls/mirrors/whatever and delivery systems will still be the domain of the kind of large multistores or chains that the WEF says will dwindle?

And how will there be that many fewer jobs if more, smaller shops – with more employees per customer – are going to open?

It should be noted that this is at least in part thanks to the imagery. We’re shown grocery shopping basically all the way through, behind all the suggestions. This might be exactly the kind of shopping that does become automated and online-based, so that in stead of big supermarkets we’ll simply have warehouses where nobody has to go, where robots and drones handle our orders automatically and ship them to our homes.

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The smaller stores will then be where we buy all the non-trivial stuff, the spices of life, so to speak. This also means, however, that personalization means different things across the board – maybe we won’t care to make a big song and dance of those basic groceries, so yes, they’ll be specialized for our household, but it’ll be low-friction, with only the sparsest of contact between customers and vendors in that market.

And that still isn’t at all certain. People actually like shopping for themselves – sometimes even the trivialities. But that doesn’t mean that buying milk and potatoes has to become a mind-blowing personal experience. Just a good one. Relations with customers over time will matter more than the individual touch point experiences.

Then there’s the tech. I’ll be blunt: I don’t think that much will change in the next ten years. Beyond payments getting marginally more convenient, we simply don’t have good enough value propositions in the pipeline at this point. And the most convenient of payment systems – remote checkout – probably won’t be that easy to implement, much to my regret (I love the idea). The tech has been mature for more than a decade but it hasn’t happened yet, probably because it’s a lot more difficult than we think to make such a system stable, convenient and secure. You may have your own experiences with the kind that automatically deducts payments – in Denmark we have the “Rejsekortet” system for public transportation, and it’s marred by distrust, because even though the transactions it’s supposed to handle are pretty straight-forward, a lot of people still experience that they’re faulty, deducting too much money for one reason or another. Not all the time, of course, but often enough that people worry.

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This kind of distrust would kill remote checkout before it could get started. There’s also the obvious risk, in wide-coverage wireless systems, of hacking or spoofing (here’s Adam Savage of Mythbusters talking about his experiences with that issue way back in 2008).

And the other technology forecasts – VR shopping? Almost certainly not. Remember, we came around to shopping on “machines” we already had, that were valuable to us for other reasons, and that we’d build trust with – the phone, TV, computers, smartphones. VR headsets aren’t anywhere near viable as a product for regular, non-tech-nerd consumers yet, and has no trustworthiness with them, no value proposition, the 800-1000$ price tag is not likely to go down into the “buy for fun” range anytime soon, they need to be tethered to a pretty powerful computer… basically, they’re a niche product at best, and ten years is a short time

Remember, it took 3-4 years from the iPhone until smartphones started to become ubiquitous, and there were smartphones before that. With VR, a much bigger technical mouthful, a decade is even less time. And even then, VR shopping would depend on every single vendor providing high-fidelity, up-to-date 3D models of every item in their inventory. If you have any experience with acquiring hi-res product pictures, say, for press use, you’ll understand why this will present a problem.

3D printing? Even worse. Printing anything of a quality that you can use it as a product is right now limited to very high-end, very expensive printers, operated by teams of specialists. 

Anyway, that’s my take. As usual, you’re very welcome to come back and tell me I was wrong.