In-home delivery

I was eating (or attempting to) in a restaurant in London recently and the food took ages to arrive. Why? Because the kitchen kept cooking things for Uber Eat delivery drivers to collect, which seemed to take priority over the food for people actually sitting in the restaurant. I won’t be going back there again. But it seems I’m not alone.

Putting aside the fact I always seem to be in traffic stuck behind a van delivering supermarket items for people that can’t be bothered to visit a supermarket there’s a good example from New York that I heard about yesterday. Guy walks into a dry cleaners….but it’s not a joke. He want to pick up a suit, but there’s a queue of six people in front of him collecting parcels from Amazon or some such. This is because the dry cleaning shop has become an online delivery hub. His view was wait a minute, surely I have priority here. I’m using the dry cleaning for dry cleaning. Is he right or wrong?

So how to solve this. One idea being developed by Amazon is in-home delivery even when you are out. If you fit a digital lock to your front door you can digitally authorise companies or delivery people to open the door and drop things off. Or for that matter allow cleaners, baby sitters, dog walkers etc to get in when you are out.

I can see this working for people in rented apartments with nothing worth stealing, but otherwise I’m not convinced. Depends how much you trust the likes of Amazon, Uber etc I guess, which in my case is not a lot. Actually, I can see this being widely adopted by younger generations. Also, on the plus side, if all your stuff is stolen I guess you can let the insurance claims guy in when you’re not at home too.

BTW, in case you think that same day delivery is a fixed feature of the future it might not be. I’ve been told on good authority that in the UK a delivery costs £20, so on orders of £25 or £30 this may not be sustainable…unless, of course, we give the job to robots.

Retail Trends

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In my new book Digital Vs. Human (buy here) I featured a ‘future flash’ about a new kind of store. Seems someone has beaten me to it. Here’s my fictional flash…

1 June 2020
I’ve been thinking about shops, partly because I remembered what Theodore was saying about retailers generally missing the point about why people go shopping. He suggested that people partly shop to get out of the solitude and boredom that is their own home. Shopping is therefore, in varying degrees, social and is often more about the other human beings people meet and interact with than the things they buy.Historically, shopping was once very social. Half of all London shops once took in lodgers and many, if not most, Parisian shops were located beneath flats or inside houses.

So here’s my idea for a new kind of shop. It would be called 5 Things to Change Your Life. Each month the shop would curate 5 items that could change someone’s mind about something. For example, several copies of Dark Side of the Moon on Vinyl, a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem 1976, a dozen well thumbed copies of The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard a pepper grinder that works properly and 48 hours of total silence at a monastic retreat.

But here’s the thing. The shop would openly seek conversations with its customers encouraging them to visit the shop to explain their choices to others. We would explain each item’s history and provenance, even providing the contact details of previous owners. The shop would also host events, including poetry readings, live music, cookery demonstrations and art exhibitions. And it would help people to exchange skills, find jobs and even marriage proposals too?

What do you think? Stick with Amazon?

Best, Nick.

And here’s the fact.

Story is a 2,000 square foot store set on Manhattan’s 10th Avenue that takes it’s point of view from a magazine. Namely, it changes with every ‘issue’ – usually every 6-8 weeks. The store was set up by Rachel Shechtman and follows a particular theme, trend or idea each time it reinvents itself.

Story website and more details here.

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Some thoughts on retail

I was asked recently to briefly say something about IT, retail, humans and the future.

The first two are easy. The last two less so. What do we mean by future? I met a science fiction writer called Lavie Tidhar once and he defined the future as being “when things get weird.” In that case I’d suggest that the future is now. $19 billion for Whats app is weird. $19 billion is 10% of Facebook’s valuation. Last year Whats app turned over just $20 million. $19 billion is a lot of money for a messaging app and a long list of names.

Anyway, putting that bubble to one side, here are a few thoughts about retail.

My first thought is a general one. Online is going to grow significantly. Having said this I think there are limits, caused more by psychology than technology.

What I expect to happen is that retail will polarise between high tech and high touch. Habitual, commodity retail will become increasing automated and virtual. There’ll be more mobile shopping, more personalisation and more predictive sales and marketing, based not only on past buying behaviour, but on customer location and mental state. In short, where are people right now, what are they doing, and what might they be persuaded to do next?

They’ll also be more personalisation in the sense that homepages and virtual stores could be different for each individual customer, either due to historical buying patterns or due to facial and verbal recognition. What I mean by this is that if privacy isn’t an issue – and it may well be – it’s easy to instantly alter a home page or virtual store layout based upon general observations retailers can make about a person on a particular device. Cameras and microphones linked to software can, for instance, judge not only age and gender, but emotional state too. I believe Microsoft and Toyota have been looking at emotionally aware machines for a while.

And we’ll shop verbally, like we do in the real world, not by typing in words or ticking boxes on a website. Online retail will have more of a verbal interface. Ultimately, we might even order things by thinking about them, but that’s a long way off and definitely weird.

I’d expect speed and convenience would continue to play a vital role in retail so investment will shift away from stores to supply chains and warehousing. Supply chains will shorten, partly to increase speed, but also to improve agility and resilience in the face of volatility and to respond to customer demands for localisation.

Warehousing will become a key battleground, because the focus will be on how fast something can be dispatched. This links to delivery and I’d expect that Big Data and social media will play a role here, working out when the optimal time to deliver goods to customers is and making adjustments in real time.

As for physical stores, and I don’t see these going away any time soon.

Physical stores, be they out of town Big Box stores, seriously smart vending machines or tiny convenience stores, will still have a role to play because in many instances they will remain the most convenient option. For example, this afternoon a significant number of people (especially those aged 18-24) will have no idea what they will eat for dinner tonight and haven’t bought anything yet either. How do you solve that online? You can’t – unless you start to use drop boxes or local convenience stores as collection points. Or perhaps you could have self-driving food trucks containing the most popular dinner options constantly circling cities awaiting orders.

We also shouldn’t forget that a substantial percentage of shopping, especially in supermarkets, is impulse and impulse is related to physical store design, physical packaging design and serendipity.

You can have virtual stores with graphics reminiscent of the very best computer games, you can have other customers wandering through a virtual store in real time, haptic gloves to touch virtual products and aroma pods to virtually smell things too, but it’s not quite the same. The machines can’t smile or ask how your day has been on any meaningful level.

I’d expect sales assistants to disappear in shops like supermarkets soon, and cash registers and checkouts might start to vanish too. We can ask questions via our mobile devices and we can pay for them when we exist a store if the products carry an electronic tag that talks to our mobile or wearable device at the exit. No more shop lifting.

But retail is social, not only the sense of social media, but in a more profound way. Women, in particular, like to forage and chatter in shops in groups and while both can be done online, it’s not an especially rich experience. Add in the sensory and tactile nature of many products, especially luxury goods and specialist retail, and many aspects of the future of retail start to look much like its past.

Then and Now

Interesting, as always, to see the latest batch of data from the UKs Office of National Statistics (ONS). Apparently, back in 1957, food and clothing took up almost 50% of average household income, whereas nowadays it consumes just 25%. Astonishingly, cigarettes were the largest single item of expenditure in ’57, costing more than heating or transport. And get this, Sainsbury’s supermarket didn’t sell pasta until the 1970s and pasta wasn’t considered a staple for inclusion in the ONS’s average shopping basket data until 1987.

So overall, what has and hasn’t changed? The pace of chance does standout, with items appearing and disappearing from household spending with increasing pace. So too does the increasing cost of fuel, although the increasing cost of food doesn’t stand out quite as much as you might expect. Finally, our thirst for convenience doesn’t ever seem to change – unless you count our increasing appetite for saving a few seconds in a supermarket or the kitchen over ethical concerns or cost in some instances.

Retail scenarios for 2022

I’m doing something thinking about what lies ahead with some people that run shopping malls in South Africa and I’ve been trawling around for information on ‘retail futures’. Below is an edited version of some thinking done by Forum for the Future looking ahead at what lies in store for shoppers and retail groups in the UK in 2022 (written in late 2007, so one assumes influenced by the UK economic situation at the time).

Scenario 1 – Do it yourself
“Individualistic, optimistic society where technology is held in very high regard. Local government has become stronger. The economy is dynamic and entrepreneurial. Brands are less powerful.The oil price is $40 a barrel and congestion is still a huge problem, but air freight has become unacceptable. The big four supermarkets account for just 55% of the market, compared to 76% now and a quarter of consumer spending is online, up from 3% now.

Multi-storey car parks and old warehouses are converted to “vertical farms’ where consumers live. Consumers measure their energy use and carbon emissions by the minute. Solar chargers are built into clothing to power wireless electronic gadgets. Networks of individuals trade directly with one another. Smart packaging refrigerates food using a tiny in-built fuel cell which charges on the shelf and runs down when the food becomes unsafe to eat. The 2022 high street: Power shifts away from big retailers to individual producers who trade direct with shoppers and are more trusted.
The big UK chains are increasingly trading under local brand names and internet trading enables direct-from producer shopping.”

My comment
If the economy is booming why is the oil price only $40? It would be far higher and this would have knock-on effects. Also, why are the supermarkets and brands weaker? As for vertical farms, smart packaging with built-in fuel cells and solar chargers being built into everything this is all possible but not by 2022 in my view.

Scenario 2 – Do it for me
“The economy is buoyant and confidence high. Shoppers want service and are happy for big business to meet their demands while they enjoy their leisure time. Oil is $80 a barrel, the big four supermarkets have 85% of the food market. Consumer can order made to measure products – soap with a specific scent, muesli made to their own recipe.
One-stop “market villages” emerge, offering branded stores and services – like Boots GP surgeries and shampoo-branded hair salons. Biogas patio heaters turn household waste into outdoor warmth. Supermarkets become “diet managers”, using information they have on household income, health, age, preferences to deliver the right foods and daily menus. They know exactly what is in your fridge and can send replacements when necessary.

The big retailers have become more powerful, but branded agricultural groups also sell direct. Store groups have become bigger and merged with farms and food producers to create a “corporate rural society”. Marketing focuses on building trust in brands rather than pushing products.”

My comment
This scenario seems quite reasonable and certainly possible by 2022.

Scenario 3 – Going greener
“The economy is subdued and uncertain and fears about climate change has increased. Consumers are wary of corporations and government. The debt crisis persists and baby-boomer pensioners are living on low incomes. Consumers are less willing to pay for luxury or convenience.Oil is $120 a barrel and the big four supermarket chains have captured 65% of the market. New products and services include community food clubs, sourcing from allotments, market gardens and local farms. Local councils run campaigns similar to WW2’s “Dig for Victory”. Consumers own shares in local farms; peer-to-peer mortgage lending; Google maps allow shoppers to buy food from the most local source.

On the 2022 high streets, local produce is viewed as best and UK agriculture is booming. The high streets are struggling as goods exchanges are set up, real and online, for swapping products. Mass marketing is almost extinct.Advertising has gone local and word of mouth through social network websites.”

My Comment.
Again quite possible and interesting to note that this was written in 2007. Feels a bit like now in the UK on some levels. Not sure why mass-marketing would be extinct though (OK, the trend is real enough and I get why, but I don’t think it will happen to the extent that some people imagine).

Scenario 4 – Harder times
“Consumer confidence is low and people look to government and big business for security and solutions. Business focuses on efficiency and low-cost options. Environmental behaviour has been changed by sweeping legislation. The oil price is $140 a barrel, road use is regulated by pricing. Now the big four supermarket chains account for 90% of food spending.Among new products and services that retailers provide is a cradle-to-grave service, offering everything from food to energy, water supplies, pensions, healthcare, holidays, education and funerals.

All domestic equipment is leased and replaced regularly by retail groups. Prescribed medicines are embedded in food and clothing. Benefits claimants pick up cash in stores and get discounts on their shopping. Tesco villages – affordable, quality eco-friendly homes and communities with all family needs on their doorstep. On the 2022 high street small organisations find it difficult to survive and companies are vertically integrated. Small high streets are doomed. Big retailers run showrooms, where shoppers only browse. All purchasing is through the internet. The big retailers may also run compulsory loyalty schemes, but are heavily regulated.”

My comment
All quite sensible apart from the compulsory loyalty schemes”. Good luck with that.


‘The future of shopping: multi-storey market gardens and talking fridges’ by J. Finch (The Guardian, 8 September 2007 ).

Retail Futures: Scenarios for the future of UK retail and sustainable development (September 2007), Forum for the Future (UK)

How We Now Shop


The future of retail is seemingly not what it used to be. A few years ago we were talking about trendy new terms such as premiumisation, masstigue, transumerism, pop-up retail and third spaces. We were also witnessing the emergence of Shopping 2.0 (a cross between Web 2.0 and online retail). Globalisation was also making a huge impact on everything from product sourcing to outsourcing.

And, of course, everything was about either convenience or experience, which was turning almost everything into either a big-box out-of-town mega-store or a niche, sensory-laden, high street, destination store.

So what’s changed? Quite a bit.

1. Cheap is now cool

The impact of the global financial crisis has slowed things down. It has also re-localised and re-simplified consumer attitudes and behaviour. People still shop online and source things globally but the focus has shifted to what’s in our own backyards. Frugality is back in style and so too is utility, thrift and no-frills. We are no longer ashamed to buy things second-hand and it is now cool to be buying cheap. People are even bragging about how little certain items have cost rather than how much. Quite a turnaround.

2. People are trading down

Shoppers are trading down between segments. For example, if you once bought premium-priced products in a supermarket you are now more inclined to buy everyday brands, whereas people that were previously buying everyday brands are now buying value brands. The same is true with our choice of supermarkets. Aldi is now more in tune with the tight-fisted times than Marks & Spencer. Dollar stores, pound shops and discount retailers are also doing well in the new budget conscious environment.

3. We are buying second-hand

Garage sales, boot sales, second hand shops and online auction sites are now more popular than ever but even when we are buying new we are adopting a second-hand mindset and we are inclined to haggle over price. We are generally not splashing out on big-ticket items but don’t think that this means that spending has stopped. Value rather than price is now the important factor. Equally, we are now more likely to look after things rather than throw them away at the first sign of trouble. This trend also means that vintage items and events such as clothing swaps are doing well.

4. People are creating and consuming at home

A recession is nature’s way of getting people to grow their own vegetables. It is also a good way to get the family back around the kitchen table. Sales of home baking products are on the rise and so too are home-brewing kits. People are even making their own fun with family scrapbooks and presumably it won’t be too long before we see the return of other nostalgic pursuits ranging from dress making to bread baking.

5. Consumers want to be in control

Purchases are more considered and less impulsive these days. The new attitude is  “what do I really need?” and “what can I do without?” rather than “what do I want?” and “what can I have right now?” Convenience is obviously still a major trend but so too is the desire to be in control. From a store design point of view this anxiety led desire for control will probably manifest itself in shops that put us at ease and allow people to try before they buy. The aesthetic of the home in-store in other words.

6. It’s OK to rent

In many cases renting now makes more sense than buying so retailers and other businesses that rent out expensive goods or allow for the partial or fractional ownership of luxury items are doing well. For example, style4hire rents out high-end handbags while P1 International gives what remains of the investment banking and hedge fund communities access to high-end automobiles for a fraction of what it would cost to buy one outright.

7. Bin the bling

The death of luxury retail is over-stated but it is certainly true that if you’ve got it (or you’ve just bought it) you will probably want to hide it rather than flaunt it. Stealth-wealth is where’s it’s at in terms of hiding your haul.Blending into the background is also a good idea these days unless you want to make yourself an obvious target for the media or opportunistic street criminals (the same thing in some instances).

8. Green is starting to fade.

Whatever happened to organics? In the UK sales of organic food have plummeted by 20-25%. Equally global warming has been put on ice while people focus on more immediate priorities. This is not to say that either of these things has gone away. Indeed, environmental concerns have now started to merge with economic worries, with the result that saving the planet now saves people money too.

9. Simplicity in back

Complexity is out. People are fed up with things that they can’t understand and both transparency and simplicity are back. To some extent this is a shift back to basics but there is possibly a shift to old-fashioned values going on here too. Look out for counter-trends involving analogue, stripped down or unplugged products.

10.Local not global

We still shop around the world but globalisation appears to be slowing down. Economic protectionism (Buy British, Buy USA, Bye Bye Chinese goods etc) is back and provenance seems to be more important than ever.

So what’s next?

Some commentators have hailed some or all of the above as a permanent change to the consumer culture. My comment is not so fast buddy.

In my view the answer depends on what happens to the economy. If things pick up sooner than expected I’d expect many of these new attitudes and behaviours to be ditched. They will prove to be little more than short-term reactions to a short-term situation. In other words, we all have ridiculously short memories and we will return to our selfish, debt-ridden, materialistic ways before you can say Prada bags or organic water.

However, if the economy takes another nasty turn downwards and we are confronted with five years of belt-tightening or even a decade of doom and gloom then I’d expect these new attitudes and behaviours to stick. We will start to fundamentally change how we live and we will also start to question how everything from business to politics operates.

What’s left of my money is on the first scenario.

Top retail trends

I can’t believe that I’m reading Supply Chain Digest but it’s the day before Easter and I’ve got nothing better to do. Aaaanyway, a story about seven key retail trends as identified by the CEO of Tesco speaking at the World Retail Congress in Barcelona.

1. Simplicity: Customers are busy. They want things that are easy to buy and understand – so don’t make it too complicated.

2. Speed: People want convenience. Hence Tesco Express, which allows customers to pick something up on the way home.

3. The ‘Immortality’ factor: Customers are looking for healthy foods and other products to reduce aging.
4. Globalisation: Impacts the sourcing of products, market expansion opportunities, and the sourcing of services like IT.
5. Consumer information: Comparing prices is sooo last century. Now customers compare ethical and environmental policies.
6. Trust: Hard to build, easy to destroy.
7. ‘Green’ consumerism: Customers are more aware of things like climate change and want retailers to do their bit.

These are obviously very well-known current trends but the list is a good summary of what is driving retail today. One question poised by Supply Chain Digest (I really must get out more) is “How can retailers exploit these well-known trends in a way that provides differentiation?”. Fair point.  My own thought is that this list is very much what’s happening now. How will the list change in 3-4 years?

Blurring and convergence

13.jpgOne of the key drivers of global change is the convergence of technologies. This is, in turn, driving the convergence of products and ultimately services. Meanwhile, over in business (and especially retail), we are experiencing a blurring of industries and sectors. Hence we’ve got bookshops selling coffee, coffee shops selling music, supermarkets selling loans, Ralph Lauren selling white paint and water companies selling gas. Just how far can you stretch a brand these days before it snaps?


12.jpgBy 2015 the middle class will have disappeared in most developed countries taking mid-price retailers with them (or is it the working class that will disappear?). Whichever it is, most consumer markets are already polarising between economy and premium sectors (low price versus luxury). However, customers can happily live in both segments buying $15 T-shirts one minute and $500 jeans the next.