The future of retail: Insights from Future Laboratory's 2019 Future Forecast
Mar 8, 2019
When QICGRE collaborator The Future Laboratory released its 2019 Future Forecast, we took the opportunity to unpack the global waves of cultural change impacting Australian retail with the consultancy’s co-founder, Chris Sanderson. Here, we draw out six key learnings from the annual report, which outlines 50 consumer trends spanning the realms of food and drink, health and wellness, retail technology, youth culture, beauty, fashion, fintech, travel and luxury. It is by taking time to observe, interrogate and intuit patterns of consumer behaviour that businesses such as QICGRE can build the experiences and services our communities want and need. And one thing’s for sure: the future starts now.

Inconspicuous spending and the new status symbols

An appetite for modes of shopping that go beyond the purely transactional and a backlash against conspicuous consumption can be seen the world over, says The Future Laboratory’s Chris Sanderson. He explains: “Across all sectors and almost all income groups we’re seeing people no longer simply equating the purchase of a product with status, now status is wrapped up with the experience and inspiration and knowledge that a purchase can provide.”

He says a new generation of affluent consumers are redefining what constitutes luxury and seeking out items that signify virtue, cultural elitism or health before ostentatious acquisition. This means anything from a $20 bar of handmade Claus Porto soap to a $2000 S’well reusable water bottle aligned with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation can become a status symbol. By extension, a niche brand can now be as powerful a drawcard for a shopping destination as a heritage one.

In addition to heralding the growth of guilt-free fashion labels such as Hong Kong-based BYT, the Future Forecast highlights examples of youth rebellion against stereotypes that equates material wealth with success such as the parodying of the ‘falling star’ meme in China.

Sanderson continues: “People’s interest in a product is increasingly tied to self-definition and to the acquisition of knowledge because knowledge is power.

“Just look at food service and how restaurateurs are feeling it’s incumbent on them to include more information on their menus – we don’t just want to know who’s cooking our beef, we want to know what the cow’s name was and what kind of grass it ate and how much nutritional value a specific piece of steak contains,” he adds.

The blurring of beauty, self-care and health

The report outlines how technological developments are giving rise to hybrid medicalised salons and at the same time that at-home beauty rituals are coming to incorporate ingestibles and Silicon Valley-inspired gadgets.

Sanderson says: “We're anticipating a big change in terms of the crossover between medicine, wellness and beauty, including an increase in devices to counteract the impact of modern living on our wellbeing.” With salons, spas and clinics that blend holistic and medical approaches to beauty and wellness set to become regular checkpoints in people’s self-care routines, he believes it makes sense for shopping centres to house these services.

The busiest retail precincts, suggests Sanderson, will be those that also manage to seamlessly blend retail with fitness and leisure activities such as walking trails or indoor climbing. Even silence can be commodified as consumers seek to combat sensory overload, lending new importance to soundproofed spaces within lifestyle precincts.

Indeed, as urban dwellers become more aware of the impact that environment has on personal wellbeing, it is worth considering how we rank physical experiences. The Harvard-developed BioSay app, for example, tracks biometric data on your emotions, stress and energy levels to help you identify and recommend places that have the most positive impact on your health.

From stress monitoring to paying for goods through face detection, Sanderson says we have “barely scratched the surface” of what biometrics can be used for.

“People still want to visit a physical store as the point of contact, of story and of emotion.” p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 11.0px Helvetica}

Craving social connectedness

With medical practitioners around the world reporting an epidemic of loneliness, those managing physical spaces are in a unique position to provide opportunities for empathic human connection.

Sanderson explains: “We're seeing a whole generation of people who socialise less because their point of contact with other human beings is through a screen, and any psychologist you ask will tell you they’re deeply worried about this.

“The fact that e-commerce still only represents a healthy minority of global retail spend proves most people still want to visit a physical store as the point of contact, of story and of emotion,” he continues.

This is why, suggests Sanderson, future-facing organisations such as QICGRE are wise to hinge everything they do on the cornerstone of community.

He adds: “When you think about the appeal of the bar in the 1980s sitcom Cheers (‘where everybody knows your name’), it’s hardly surprising that people might want a shopping centre where the sales assistants greet you by name.” This is where seemingly intrusive tools such as facial recognition systems could augment good old-fashioned concepts of hospitality.

According to Sanderson, shopping centre owners are best placed to broker new interactions and foster a sense of connectedness by assuming the role of hospitable host. “At its best, a shopping centre is like the Roman forum: a place where people come together buy and sell, share ideas and have their voice heard,” he adds.

The inclusion imperative

In-person retail can respond to the international rallying cry for greater empathy and inclusivity far better than e-commerce, says Sanderson, and the commercial advantages to serving the needs of diverse customers and supporting equality cannot be underestimated.

Making all genders feel welcome in a retail environment is about more that stocking gender-neutral cosmetic brands such as Fluide, however. “Retail staff need to be trained to anticipate the needs of customers who might otherwise be excluded or marginalised, and ultimately this requires us to elevate customer service as a career choice in line with countries such as France and Japan,” Sanderson observes.

One consumer research study cited in the Future Forecast revealed ‘feeling valued’ to be the most important factor in a successful shopping experience for the affluent second- and third-generation immigrant families driving the American luxury market. Offering services such as personal styling and post-purchase follow-ups is therefore going to go a long way to securing the loyalty of these often-marginalised consumer, and others too.

Embracing multi-layered experience

With Chinese retailer Take Go planning to open 100,000 unmanned stores over the next few years and US supermarket chain Kroger investing in driverless delivery vehicles, the polarisation of functional and experience-based shopping is only going to become more extreme.

Sanderson says: “Expectations of what you do in a physical store are changing because technology has made the actual moment of purchase almost subconscious, and the retailers that will thrive are the ones creating experience palaces.

“The reason Disney stores are flying while Toys R Us has been tanking is that one offers an unforgettable experience, including maybe meeting your favourite character in person, and the other offers you a warehouse visit,” he adds.

Instead of determining success by sales per square foot, the Future Forecast posits that inspiration per square foot could become the new metric as brands such as Chinese fashion platform Dear So Cute reimagine the retail space as an immersive theatre.

The sweet spot for mobile-empowered shoppers, suggests Sanderson, is in the layering of digital information over in-store environments to create ‘phygital’ experiences. He continues: “All the research shows that the shopper who has both a digital and physical experience tends to have a much deeper relationship with the brand - especially when the two are converging.”

Innovations such as augmented reality apps and ‘magic’ mirrors that recommend alternative clothing items you might like are only the tip of the iceberg, says Sanderson, and their appeal should not be underestimated. “[Integrating these technologies into your customer experience] is like when the escalator first came to town and people would make a special trip to the department store just to ride the moving staircase,” he adds.

Flexibility is the new norm

As traditional hierarchies collapse and mass production gives way to designing for difference, consumers are coming to expect flexibility and customisability in all aspects of life. As such, a recent experiment in flexibility by Target US, which saw one half of a store designed with the on-a-mission shopper in mind and the other half configured for the casual browser, is likely to become commonplace.

Sanderson adds that mixed-use developments with flexible floor plates, such as 80 Collins, prove that storefront models need no longer be rigid. “Retail doesn't have to be confined to a rectangular box with a predesignated back-of-house space anymore, and we can use consumer data profiles to personalise the store experience,” he says.

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