Is digital retail a sustainable opportunity?
Peter Madden for the Guardian Professional Network
I was on a panel this week to launch BT’s Retailtopia, a study event which examines the immense impact that information technology is likely to have on shopping over the next 10 years. On current trends, online shopping will account for over half of all purchases in a decade, with Amazon set to overtake Walmart as the planet’s biggest retailer. And although UK companies are currently world leaders in online and digitally-enabled shopping, I think that very few of the big retail players are really prepared for the scale of the changes to come.
We are likely to see not just more online shopping, but a blurring of the online and physical experience, with shoppers at home able to visit virtual changing rooms and shoppers in store able to access a cloud of information about products.
We are likely to see the arrival of the “internet of things” with every product given a digital identity, every movement mapped, and every preference logged. Information will overlay all areas of our lives. This will produce a rich seam of data to be mined, and analysing – and acting on – those data patterns will be key to retail success.
We are also likely to see a whole load of new players enter the game – peer-to-peer sellers, small independents or online farmers’ markets – as new technologies democratise the market and bring down barriers to entry for smaller players.
When people do visit stores, it will be for entertainment and the leisure experience, so expect to see chef demonstrations, children’s entertainers and food tastings.
What could this all mean for sustainability? On the one hand, people will be presented with more opportunities to consume. By 2020 the store will come to the consumer, via whatever handheld device we are using then, with personalised offers to entice us to spend. There will be few physical, technological or geographical boundaries to making purchases. We certainly won’t need to carry cash. We’ll just click for what we want.
On the other hand, this cluster of new technologies does offer the opportunity to reduce the environmental impact of consumption.
Shopping may become way more efficient. With intelligence embedded in everything, retailers can use that intelligence to cut the waste they produce and reduce energy and water use. Logistics will be smarter, and adjustable in real-time. Retailers will probably start to share more infrastructure. And the higher volume and density of home deliveries should allow for efficiency savings.
Shopping could be dematerialised. There will certainly be fewer journeys to physical shops, as more people buy online. And we can also expect a far greater proportion of the nation’s wealth to be generated digitally rather than physically, with many more goods and services to be provided virtually. Just think about how the MP3 file has almost completely replaced record shops or how the Kindle is currently becoming a serious rival to bookshops.
Shopping could be more informed. The new technologies, and the information that they generate could help customers make wiser choices. There will not only be total transparency around products in terms of their ingredients and provenance; but that information can be packaged and communicated in ways that make sense to the individual shopper. The climate-change conscious could get a carbon score for their weekly shop, with suggested adjustments; people with health issues might receive nudges to ensure their purchases fit their dietary plans; while people who care about fair trade will be able to click to watch a live video feed of the farm or factory on their smart phone before buying.
The technological changes are likely to come thick and fast. The consumer experience will probably be more seamless, more personalised, more ubiquitous. And if these technologies are applied in the right ways, I hope that it might just also be more efficient, more informed, and more sustainable.