Retail

Retail isn’t dying – it’s entering a golden age

Vaughan Rowsell /

By Vaughan Rowsell, founder and chief product officer, Vend. 

The death of retail is generally where the conversation goes when people in the online and technology spaces talk about it. The media too, because it’s a good story. And we are all going to eat Soylent, and wear white turtlenecks and have self-driving Teslas. But it won’t last long because AI robots are going to kill us all in a few years. Sometimes I worry about our ability to predict a future any of us actually want.

Retail is NOT dying.

Retail — the activity of shopping and socialising — is entering a new golden age, and its technology that is enabling this. Not killing it. Physical retail is not going anywhere, in fact it’s becoming something magical.

I see two types of retail — chore and cherish. Chore is getting the groceries. Cherish is finding the things you love and want to share like a gift or fashion. The cherish part of retail is what defines us as unique human beings.

There is no doubt that Amazon’s arrival on Australian shores, possibly in time for this Christmas, will continue to disrupt distribution and the chore side of retail that not many of us enjoy. Technology can predict our behaviour and preferences and automation can deliver our bread, toilet paper or a replacement phone charger just in time. Alexa can be your personal assistant simplifying the chore of retail. “Alexa, we need more dishwashing liquid, and something eco-friendly please”. I think this leads to a more delightful experience because it removes the chore.

There is no doubt that mobile and social are playing a more active part of how we discover and shop. We can buy things through more channels than we ever have before. Discover cool things through the social shares of our friends. This is delightful because we can discover new things easier, and share them.

There is no doubt that the big box store retail is not what people want anymore, it’s soulless. Shopping centres will need to pivot and some will close because of this. Shoppers don’t want to be herded or shop at the same 15 stores everywhere they go.

But there is also no doubt that retail is becoming more vibrant and diverse. More independent stores not fewer. More artisan products. More carefully curated sets of products for you to fall in love with and cherish. It has never been easier to run a retail store than before. And technology is driving this.

There are online channels and “offline” stores, but it’s not online vs offline — it’s just retail. It’s about using all the channels and experiences.

This has in the past been referred to as omnichannel — selling anywhere. It’s about giving your customers the option to discover you anywhere, and shop with you anywhere. Buy online or collect in store. But it is really just retail.

Online is the easiest way to discover and connect with customers today and if you are in retail you should be focussing a lot of your marketing spend on these new channels. Facebook, for example, makes it super easy to connect with customers in a hyper-targeted way. Ebay and Amazon when it launches in Australia will make it super simple to shift excess inventory in a hurry.

But acquiring customers online doesn’t mean that they want to shop online. Retail is all about the experience and this is where technology is helping the physical store. The magic of retail is the act of discovering and experiencing products to cherish and that will always be something shoppers will want to do and some of the discovery will be online, but a lot of the experience will be in person. It will be a blend and that is why although the tools retailers use today should be all 100% digital, the real experience is still analog.

The best retailers in the world know this and so invest in both online reach and a magical experience with their brand in store. They also know that they need to know their customers better. Know their preferences, likes and dislikes. They need to engage with them in new ways and build a relationship and this is done with digital tools. Forget the loyalty card or the VIP club sign-up slip at the counter. Your phone can do this.

Meanwhile high streets are becoming more vibrant. New retailers can literally pop-up anywhere. Craftspeople can sell anywhere, in the corner of another store or a market. And customers come because they love it. They love the experience, the act of hunting and gathering. Finding the hidden gems. Being part of a community. Having fun and being delighted. It’s what makes us human.

So please, please, can we stop talking about the death of retail? I honestly don’t know what you mean.

It’s never been a more vibrant time in retail. And its technology driving this, not killing it. I am super proud to be part of this industry — just wait till you see what is around the corner. Literally.

It’s going to be awesome.

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Vaughan Rowsell

Vaughan Rowsell is the founder and chief product officer at Vend.

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