(Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, 20/20 Foresight: A Futurist Looks Ahead to the Ten Trends That Will Shape the World of 2020, that I am writing with the able assistance of fellow futurist Simon Anderson. This chapter takes a look at the future of retail.)
In the summer of 2011, Tesco, a British retailer, implemented an interesting pilot project in Seoul, South Korea. Because the price of land in the South Korean capital was so expensive, Tesco created an experimental virtual store on the walls of a subway station. The retailer posted a visual display depicting items on a grocery shelf and allowed passengers, using their smartphones, to select products for purchase as they waited at the subway stop. By day’s end, the items were delivered to their homes. The experiment resulted in 10,000 shoppers taking advantage of the convenient opportunity and Tesco increasing online revenues in South Korea by 110 percent. This project offers a sneak peek into tomorrow’s customizable retail shopping experience.
What follows is a futuristic scenario from the day after Thanksgiving in the Year 2020. The protagonist is Brittany, a 29 year-old woman who works as a professional “remote” nurse in the Veteran’s Administration Virtual Intensive Care Unit where she is responsible for remotely monitoring 40 patients in their homes. Today, however, she has the day off and has one thing on her mind—shopping.
“Five, four, three, two, one … Happy Shopping!” At the moment the clock struck midnight and Thanksgiving Day gave way to “Black Friday”—the most profitable day in the retail industry—Brittany’s 84-inch OLED TV screen seamlessly transitioned into a massive conduit for the Internet. On the screen were displayed three deals her Personal Artificially Intelligent Assistant (PAIA)—a software program that had been learning Brittany’s unique tastes and shopping quirks since it was first embedded in her personal mobile device (PMD) in 2014—determined Brittany would be most interested in considering. The first item was a pair of casual sandals. Initially, Brittany scoffed at the footwear and said to her PAIA, which she had named AIM-e, (which stood for Artificially Intelligent Me),
Without responding to her question or sarcastic tone, AIM-e mentioned the shoes were made of a flexible, breathable electronic canvas that allowed the product to morph, chameleon-like, into an array of different colors and patterns. Without delay, AIM-e assembled a series of photos and video clips from Brittany’s “Life-Log” (a database of personal video recordings Brittany had been using to document her life over the past few years) and showed how the shoes would mix and match with a surprising number of items in her existing wardrobe.
“Cool,” she replied, now understanding why AIM-e had selected the shoes. “What’s the price?”
After stating that they were $69.95, AIM-e discovered an unadvertised manufacturer promotion and informed Brittany that if she could persuade three of her friends to buy the same pair within the next 10 minutes they would each receive an additional $10 discount off of their purchases. Upon Brittany’s voice command, AIM-e estimated it would need to send an invitation to at least six friends if Brittany was to stand a solid chance of partaking in the deal. AIM-e immediately identified a list of those contacts in her social network most likely to be both interested in the deal and still awake (AIM-e did this by noting who was active on their networks in over the past few minutes.) It then contacted the PAIA’s of those individuals and inquired if their owners were interested in the offer. Within minutes, AIM-e’s calculations had proven correct and Brittany and three of her friends had scored their first deal of the 2020 Holiday shopping season.
On her large wall-sized screen were now displayed twelve different websites and live feeds. A scene in the upper hand corner caught Brittany’s attention and she requested it be placed on the full screen. Brittany asked AIM-e what she was looking at and was told it was a scene taking place in Helsinki. Due to the Finland’s more stringent retail rules, stores there were not allowed to open until 8am—or midnight on the East Coast of the United States. “What are all the people lining up to buy?,” asked Brittany. AIM-e replied that Nokia-Mobility had succeeded in creating the first truly thin-film, transparent and wearable mobile computing device. The product was flexible enough to be worn as a bracelet or band and could also be folded up into the shape of a PMD or stretched into a screen-like display.
“Wow! What else can it do?,” Brittany asked in an intrigued voice. She was shown a one-minute promotional video. Afterwards, she knew it’d make the perfect gift for her boyfriend, but needed to know the price and whether it would be available in time for Christmas. When informed of the price, Brittany scrapped the idea. The manufacturer, she was told, was artificially limiting supply to create demand and buzz. By the growing size of the crowd, it was evident they had succeeded. Brittany asked AIM-e to monitor sales and let her know when it might become available at a price that would fit her projected budget. Drawing on an open-source data mining database of past retail information, AIM-e calculated that there was a 40 percent chance it would be available by Valentine’s Day at a price she could afford.
Not to be deterred by one minor setback, Brittany returned to wall display and said, “What else do you have that might interest me?” In a flash, AIM-e displayed a new blouse it thought would make an affordable gift for Brittany’s best friend. Using a series of cameras positioned at the corners of the screen, the blouse was then displayed in 3D. In rapid succession, it was then matched with a combination of pants and jeans AIM-e had scanned from the best friend’s network profile. “Do you prefer a certain color for your friend?,” asked AIM-e.
Unsure of herself, Brittany asked to be put in contact with two of the friends who also knew her friend—and whom she also knew she wouldn’t be disturbing at this hour—and asked for their opinions. Moments later, the three were gathered in a virtual conference. After reviewing the 3D images, one offered that the collar wasn’t her friend’s style, while the second asked her own PAIA to confirm whether the friend liked wool. A search of the friend’s public profile revealed that she had an allergy to wool. The purchase was scratched and AIM-e learned another fact about Brittany’s best friend that it automatically added to that friend’s profile. Brittany signed off on the conversation by thanking her friends—and their PAIA’s—for saving her $100 on a gift that would have had to be returned. A few years earlier, Brittany would have also reminded the friends of the party she was throwing in less than 24 hours but knew that was unnecessary since AIM-e would confirm their attendance.
Next up, Brittany asked AIM-e for some recommendations for her brother whom was always tough to buy for because he was a staunch environmentalist with a strong anti-consumerism and anti-corporate bend. Any product that had the slightest negative impact on the environment could set him off on a lengthy diatribe as would any mention of what he referred to as the “Sinister Seven”—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, IBM, Microsoft and Kovista (an Indian integrated communications provider that didn’t even exist until 2015)—whom he felt, in his words, “had created an oppressive oligarchy controlling global information.”
Soon, however, with AIM-e’s helpful assistance, Brittany had come across an innovative agricultural seed bank that was donating a variety of long-forgotten maize seeds to indigenous peoples in Africa and South America. Although not as productive as many newer types of genetically modified seeds, a growing number of scientists were concerned that a new breed of super-resistant insects might soon be created that could leave hundreds of millions of acres of newer, modified corn, vulnerable to infestation. The natural diversity of ancient types of maize offered a hedge against such a disaster.
Upon learning the seeds were hand-delivered to the indigenous people by a native speaking botanist, Brittany exclaimed to AIM-e, “Perfect! Let’s see my brother not like this year’s gift.”
The time was only 12:30am and already Brittany had two of her three most-difficult-to-shop-for people scratched off her 2020 Holiday shopping list. She went to sleep knowing that the remainder of the day’s other tasks—shopping for her annual “Black Friday Ball” which she hosted annually for her old high school friends, and organizing the itinerary for her and her grandmother’s traditional “Black Friday downtown shopping extravaganza”—would be a breeze.
After six hours of rest, Brittany was gently awakened by her LED alarm clock simulated the natural light of the sun rising. Next, she took a guilt-free long hot shower knowing the recycled and purified rainwater had been heated by the solar windows of her apartment complex. Afterwards, she grabbed a light breakfast of toast and “Fake-on”—or lab-grown bacon. As a vegetarian, Brittany ate no animal meat but she did allow herself the rare (and still pricey) treat of an occasional piece of synthetic meat. Ready for her long day of shopping, Brittany located the closest all-electric car-sharing service vehicle and drove into the city to meet her grandmother.
Due to all the information technology embedded in the automobile, Brittany arrived 10 minutes earlier than she expected because she was able to avoid the most congested routes. As she left the vehicle, her PMD automatically paid the car-sharing service which then changed the car’s status to ‘available’ and updated its current location.
Brittany used the extra time to stroll around the shopping district. As she passed a boutique retailer, a location-based service detected her presence and sent an alert to her PMD notifying her she was eligible for a 50 percent discount off long-stemmed wine glasses. Realizing she would need a few extra glasses for her party that evening, Brittany entered the store and picked up the product and left. The retailer’s radio frequency identification (RFID) system deducted the purchase from her banking account and automatically forwarded the receipt to her virtual file cabinet in the cloud. (At the end of the month, Brittany would receive a visual report documenting how and where she spent her money.)
Next, Brittany visited a virtual store that had been temporarily located in small office space previously used to house a kidney dialysis facility (it had been put out of business by a series of breakthrough treatments for diabetes over the past decade). Inside the logos of 20 different stores were displayed. With a single voice command the shelf space of any one of the stores could instantly be called up. Brittany opted to do some virtual shopping at the large all-organic store physically located store less than a mile from her apartment.
Using her PMD, Brittany first selected the appetizers for that evening’s party. Rather than overwhelm her with 40 different types of cheese, the virtual display showed only three types. The algorithm behind the display understood that while most people claimed to want more choices, the reality was that too many selections overwhelmed the typical shopper. Moreover, because Brittany was a regular customer, based on her past purchases, the algorithm could estimate her preferences and recommend options she would most likely choose. Brittany selected two of the recommended cheeses and then inquired if the display could recommend a cheese her lactose-intolerant friend might be able to enjoy, as well as one for a vegan friend. The display recommended a goat cheese from northern Italy for the first friend but failed to find a suitable selection for her vegan friend.
Moving on, Brittany next selected the olives. Picky about the types of chemicals used on her food, she wanted only olives from farms capable of documenting their sustainable practices and organic pedigree. When shown how much more expensive the organic olives were, she balked. Then, figuring it was the only dinner party she’d be throwing the rest of the year, she decided to splurge.
On a whim, Brittany also decided to try a new type of Sri Lankan and Columbian spiced corn chip that had been created by a consumer using a crowdsourcing platform the chip company made available to the public. It allowed individuals to create their own sample chips and share them with friends. This particular chip was one of the few that had generated enough interest to be made into a commercial product. Upon selecting the chips, her PMD presented her with a discount off a new salsa from Brazil. It noted that 60 percent of the people who had previously purchased the chips also bought this particular brand salsa and had given it an approval rating of 87 percent. Brittany purchased the salsa. Over the years, she had come to trust the combined recommendations of thousands of strangers over branded advertising and the opinions of individual food critics.
Next, Brittany selected her vegetable tray. She began by asking the virtual wall to display only products grown within a 100-mile radius of her apartment. Not only did she prefer the fresher taste of locally grown vegetables, Brittany enjoyed supporting local farmers and reducing her carbon and water footprint. Her PMD estimated that by buying all local products she’d emit 120 fewer pounds of carbon dioxide but use 10 more gallons of water. The latter was because the organic vegetables consumed more water than genetically modified crops. Rationalizing that since she had used recycled rainwater for her shower that morning she still had a net-positive “water balance” for the day, she went ahead and bought the more water-intensive organic veggies. Brittany did this because she was still convinced that organic vegetables tasted better, even though every independent taste test in recent years had shown that genetically modified vegetables were preferred by a clear majority of all consumers due to the fact that every variable affecting taste, texture and appearance was controlled.
Last, but not least, Brittany had to select the wine. Unable to recall the name of the tasty pinot noir she had recently sampled at a friend’s house, Brittany used the only information she could recall and asked AIM-e to “find the name of the wine from the vineyard owned by the female CEO who had refused to take her company public because she didn’t want to subject her company to the short-term whims of Wall Street investors.” Told the answer was “Thoreau Farms,” Brittany purchased five bottles.
On the other side of the country her purchase was instantly registered and a robotic device pulled ten bottles from the cellar shelves to ensure that the inventory at the regional distribution center would remain sufficiently stocked throughout the Holiday season. (The robots pulled the additional bottles because a high-speed data analytics program calculated Brittany’s purchase would create an additional five sales from her friends).
Upon the company’s request, Brittany’s PMD then displayed a message asking whether she would like to have five percent of the profits from her purchase donated to a viticulture program aimed at educating women in South America. Brittany immediately responded in the affirmative and remembered that the taste and aroma weren’t the only thing she enjoyed about Thoreau Farms wines.
With her grocery shopping done, Brittany issued a voice command to have the products delivered to her apartment in a 90-minute window between 5:30 and 7:00pm that evening.
Brittany’s PMD alerted her that her grandmother had just departed the subway station and was now only a few blocks away from their favorite cafe. AIM-e asked Brittany whether she would like it to order herself and her grandmother a cup of their favorite coffees. Told yes, AIM-e did so and wirelessly paid for the purchase. When Brittany and her grandmother arrived at the bistro, the warm drinks were waiting for them along with a complimentary piece of biscotti.
After some time spent catching up with one another, Brittany prompted the pico-projector on her PMD to display a map of downtown area and AIM-e to propose a personalized shopping tour that would maximize the number of shops they could hit during their eight hour shopping spree. A week earlier, AIM-e, knowing this day was scheduled, had also booked a lunch reservation at the grandmother’s favorite Italian restaurant.
First up was a gift for Brittany’s mother. Although she could have easily purchased the sweater online, Brittany had come to appreciate how many retailers’ now had made the in-store shopping experience extremely pleasant. The lighting, the aromas, the music, the unexpected layouts and, above all else, the personal attention made shopping an intimate experience.
Upon arriving at their first destination, the concierge had already pulled many of the sweaters Brittany had previously viewed online for her mother and had them neatly arranged with a combination of silk scarves designed to accent the various sweaters. After feeling the fabric of each item, Brittany and her grandmother exchanged a knowing glance and pointed to the same sweater-scarf combination. “If you get the sweater, I’ll get your mother the scarf,” said her grandmother.
The concierge offered to help with more gifts but Brittany and her grandmother had other ideas. As they were walking to the next establishment, a digital display featuring some customized jewelry caught Brittany’s eye. Sensing her glaze had stayed on the advertisement long enough to suggest serious interest, the facial recognition technology inside the display changed the sign to read “Emily’s Hand-Crafted Work is available at the Pop-Up Shop just down the street.” The display then began to show live footage of Emily working on a piece of customized jewelry. Inside the store a beep from her two-way video display notified Emily that an interested customer was watching her work. Looking casually into the camera, Emily smiled and, holding up a piece of her jewelry, said to Brittany “If you’re interested, come on down and I’ll show you and your mother what else I’m capable of doing.” Pleased at the overt compliment to her grandmother’s youthful looks, the pair agreed to take a detour from their planned itinerary. “This is what I love about shopping downtown, the serendipity,” said the grandmother. Without Brittany’s knowledge, AIM-e sent a notice to the Italian restaurant moving the pair’s lunch reservation back 15 minutes.
Unable to afford regular retail space in the city, Emily had rented a small booth that allowed her to set up shop and sell her customized jewelry on one of the city’s busiest sidewalks. The zoning change the city passed in 2018 allowed Emily and scores of other independent artists the opportunity to make a living while also providing the city an additional source of much needed revenue. To maximize taxes, the city rented out different corners based foot traffic and proximity to major retailers.
Impressed with Emily’s work, Brittany’s grandmother showed the artist a photo of a pendant her own grandmother had given her years ago and asked if she could design and manufacture a copy with a few personalized changes. After the photo was transferred to Emily’s PMD she configured a 3D design and asked the grandmother if it resembled the real thing. Assured that it did, Emily indicated she could design the pendant to the grandmother’s specifications and have it manufactured on her 3D printer by the time their shopping spree was done.
The grandmother just shook her head and turned to her granddaughter and said, “If our shopping experience continues to be this easy, we’ll be able to catch a matinee performance of The Nutcracker.”
“Or just get more shopping in,” replied Brittany with a smile.