Rick Liebling: How People Will Shape And Be Shaped By The Future Of Retail

Retailers and consumers will become untethered from traditional systems of commerce.

Perhaps more than anything else, the 21st century has been marked by its ability to disconnect long-held paradigms from what were previously perceived to be sturdy moorings. Many of the things we’ve long held as truths — be they in relation to work, family, religion, media, or technology — have been blown apart by cultural upheaval and scientific advancement. The result has been that people – let’s do away with terms like ‘consumers’ for now – have been thrown into a new reality. (Or, depending on your viewpoint, emancipated from the old one.)  This sort of disruption inevitably benefits some and hurts others, especially in the short term. But as an equilibrium is achieved, people learn how to maneuver the system.

PSFK’s Future of Retail report, not unlike a William Gibson novel, provides a provocative peek into the very near future. As Creative Culturalist at Y&R New York, it’s my job to observe and, ideally, directly experience these trends to help our agency and, by extension, our clients, make sense of them.  Having digested an executive summary of the FoR report, I’d like to propose a sort of macro-macro trend. One that speaks to the larger societal evolution we are experiencing, manifested within the retail category. I call it: untethering.

As retailers slough off the physical back end of manufacturing via off-shoring and outsource other, ‘soft-cost’ functions such as tech support, we’ve seen the retail industry ‘untether’ from local communities in many ways.  I think we’ll see this continue and, combined with other advances in technology, the untethering will also appear ‘at the front of the store’ as the very notion of the ‘store’ itself changes.

We’ve seen the dramatic affects on retail as the way people buy products has changed, first from home computers and more recently from their mobile devices — the ‘showrooming’ trend.  Now as content becomes a sales channel via mobile and second-screen technology (of which trend the report provides interesting examples) the very nature of the ‘storefront’ changes. Is a shoppable music video a piece of content, an advertisement, or a digital shop? The answer is “yes.” Omni-point-of-purchase, as the report refers to it, blurs lines and removes friction from previously discreet interactions.

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An intriguing knock-on effect of this could be how it alters the roles of employee, customer, and ‘brand advocate,’ that elusive yet highly sought after superfan that has been the Holy Grail of corporate social media efforts. You could also easily throw in ‘producer’ to the salesperson/customer/advocate mix. Sites such as Etsy now allow virtually anyone to become their own retail brand, further untethering individuals from the systems of last century.

Can a retail brand exist purely in the digital world? If so, what does it mean to be a ‘salesperson’ of such a venture? Does that role cease to exist? Or does that person become untethered? Could there be a new role, in the vein of an Avon representative, where you become affiliated with a number of brands, earning money for selling and promoting products? Now a person can use the entire arsenal of social networks and tools to act as a salesperson, customer service rep, and brand advocate — and it could be done anytime, from anywhere.

Retail brands have long courted influencers with large networks, but the efforts usually lacked real strategy and it was difficult to track success. Now, however, the tools exist, from real-time big data dashboards to personalized customer profiles that recall purchasing histories, to allow a new type of employee to really drive the bottom line for retailers while providing retail value to people.

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We’ve seen the rise of the curator in recent years. Those clever and resourceful folks with impeccable Pinterest boards and finely appointed email newsletters. In an untethered world these people will become ‘retail consultants’ — perhaps getting paid a commission from an company, but perhaps also benefitting from a customer subscription service. The purchase funnel is now a purchase network and those savvy enough to understand the game from all sides will surely figure out how to benefit from it.

The untethered retail environment opens new interpretations and opportunities for loyalty programs as well, another trend noted in the report. We’ve come a long way from the ribbon-cutting ceremonies of old. Ramified, social experiences disconnected from a retailer’s physical space, if they even have one, will encourage new and novel partnerships.  There will be an opportunity to re-imagine the loyalty program from the individual to the community – especially in an untethered world where people will have a greater need than ever to connect.

The role of advertising, and the advertising agency, will – and must – evolve. The same pressures weighing on retail will also be evident in the world of marketing. Communications will need to be further customized, personalized, relevant, and delivered in real-time. But the nature of the message will need to change as well. Instead of a brand sponsoring a movie, perhaps a movie will sponsor a brand? Young directors will offer to make films about a retailer or their product, imbed sales opportunities directly within the film, and receive a percentage of the sales.

All futures are possible at this time, but this we know for sure: those who don’t embrace the future, be they retailers or people, will find themselves in a world in which they struggle to succeed.

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Rick Liebling is the Creative Culturalist at Y&R New York. He provides strategic and creative counsel to clients looking to connect their brands to people through an understanding of culture. 

Photos by KLPR, Techcrash and Shop The Finest

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