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The times, they are a-changin’

Published under Retail
Written by Josh Brinkers

Last week, soon after getting home from work, I heard a knock at the door. Dutifully, I answered it, finding a man with a brown paper bag standing in front of me.

‘Hi mate, Amazon order for you’ he said, handing the bag to me.

I wasn’t expecting an order but I took the bag anyway. After thanking the man and closing the door, I opened the bag and found a frozen pizza inside. Weird, since I didn’t remember ordering it. I didn’t even know Amazon did pizza.

My confusion levels were edging towards maximum, so I consulted my wife who was sitting in the next room. ‘Why did a man from Amazon give me a frozen pizza just now?’ I asked.

‘Oh, I forgot to pick up a pizza on my way home so I Prime’d some over from Amazon with Alexa’ she answered, single-handedly forming a sentence that wouldn’t have made any sense to anyone 12 months ago.

You see, my wife received an Amazon Echo a few months ago. It’s essentially a voice-activated speaker which you can use to play music, check the news or even order products directly from Amazon. All you have to do say is something like ‘Alexa, order me some pizza’ and, in the case of certain products at least, it’ll be in your hands within a couple of hours (I know this is reading like a paid advert right now – it isn’t, and other home assistance products are available - but stick with me).

After my wife had explained how this pizza had made its way into our house, I stood looking at it for a while. I was silently marvelling at the fact I was officially living in The Future - I mean, I could just say I wanted something and it’d show up. How cool is that? That pizza caught me with the feeling humanity had come up with a technology akin to Marty McFly’s hoverboard or the flying cars in Blade Runner; it’s almost a silly change to the way we already do things, but it’s hard to say that it’s not better. After all, I’ve now got a robot butler in my house - just like sci-fi in the 1950s promised I would.

That being said, this little experience has given me a few things to think about. Well, one thing in particular at least; basically, I don’t think my wife would have bought that pizza if Amazon hadn’t made it so easy. And it’s obvious I’m far from the first to realise that any inconvenience, no matter how small, can stand in the way of a sale.

Every major shift in the way we buy things has been designed to make the process quicker and easier. Things like one-click ordering, contactless cards, even the near universal acceptance of PayPal exist only to shorten the purchasing process. The objective is to capitalise on that impulsive urge you get when you see something you like: make things easy to buy, and there’s a chance you will before you’ve even had time to think about it. Supermarkets have been doing this for decades by putting things you probably shouldn’t be eating right next to the checkouts – only now you could quite easily buy a new TV or washing machine with the same minimal planning and effort.

I guess if we were to try and predict the future of retail this trend toward immediate convenience is the one with the potential to be most disruptive. Given that I can already order something I feel like eating just by saying it to the room, there’s no reason this couldn’t spread to other more expensive items. And who knows, soon enough we might only have to think about wanting a pizza for one to turn up at the door.

Where does it stop? Chances are it won’t. This sort of speculative thinking has been hanging around the office quite a lot recently; we’re aware we’re in quite a unique position to try and predict the future of retail for our clients, or at least help them to define what it might look like. Doing this is fast becoming a necessity too. Retailers like Amazon are constantly setting the bar higher and higher when it comes to new ways to shop, while shoppers are increasingly drawn to ease and convenience. It’s becoming a race towards the future, and those not thinking ahead already are beginning to fall behind.

So how can we help with this? Surely we just need to ask shoppers what they want retailers to develop, right? Unfortunately it’s not that easy. Experience has told us that taking such a straightforward approach won’t reap the most inspiring answers, and it takes some creative thinking and delivery to encourage respondents to look forward. It’s a case of finding out what shoppers want before they even know they do.

That’s what we’ve been working on recently. We’ve developed a holistic approach that targets the issues shoppers face today, before developing and testing new ideas to solve them. These innovations have the potential to do anything, from smoothing over small annoyances to revolutionising the way customers use stores. It’s a way of future-proofing retailers against the changes we can all see coming, ensuring they keep and inspire customers for the foreseeable future.

After all, necessity might be the mother of invention, but invention’s fast becoming a necessity.