The Future Of Retail: One Small Step Towards One Giant Leap

‘Iterative innovation’ helps normalize consumers to far-out changes in the retail landscape.

People love making wild predictions for the future — flying cars, sentient homes, Martian settlements, 3D-printed food, etc. While these predictions may often be feasible from a technical perspective, in reality they are rarely realistic visions of the future. This isn’t just because predicting the future is an extremely difficult endeavor, it’s also because most predictions of the future are based on the perspectives of today, while simultaneously abandoning any possible path of iteration that would connect existing solutions to future ones.

A simple Google search of ‘retro-futurism’ is a potent pool of proof for this phenomena. (Zeppelin-docking stations?) While it can be fun to imagine the future this way, it’s not always helpful from a business perspective.

The original iPhone can be used as an example of our inability to see into the future. It was essentially a digital purse, packing a mirror, calculator, camera, map, telephone, etc. into a sleek little digital box. But if you had asked someone in 1983 what the purse of 2007 would look like, they probably would have predicted something like a magical clown purse — a bag that can fit an endless amount of anything, no matter its size or weight. Regardless of how inventive or brilliant the thought might be, it is still based on the fundamental notion of what the purse was in 1983. The problem isn’t in the responses, the problem is in the question.

It’s interesting to think about this breakdown. If you ask a child to draw a car or kitchen “of the future,” surely they will think up something fantastically beyond today’s limits. But it seems that as we age, we become limited by the countless kitchens we’ve seen. They effectively burn the Platonic form of a kitchen in our minds, and it becomes exceedingly difficult to break from this form in its entirety.

This is likely highly interrelated to our current culture of ‘iterative innovation,’ where the v.2.0 product is a series of incremental improvements on the v.1.0 product. The truth is that the process works this way for a reason. Innovation is often more successful and palatable for consumers through iterations of things they already know, as opposed to a (potentially) shocking leap in a single giant stride. A little bit of the familiar mixed with a little bit of the new is a potent cocktail.

fresh direct delivery

In innovation, this can be an extremely difficult issue to contend with — there is an almost invisible line you can’t cross surrounding the level of novelty when introducing new ideas, toeing the line between value-adding breakthroughs and disconnected novelties. At Sylvain Labs, we often talk about the concept of Optimus Time™. At its core, Optimus Time™ is the idea that people and culture have an appetite for new things, but the new things need to be introduced when the consumer has been primed in some capacity — primed by the evolution of preceding iterations or by key occurrences in the world that relate somehow to the product or service you’re innovating upon. If people haven’t been primed, the result is a product whose epitaph reads, “Ahead of its time.” There are countless examples of this, but one potent comparison is Web Van vs. Fresh Direct. Web Van was an almost identical service to Fresh Direct. It was introduced in 1999 and had one billion — that’s billion, with a ‘B’ — dollars in venture funding, but failed miserably. Aside from management issues, Web Van’s failure came down to the simple truth that people weren’t ready to buy groceries online in 1999. However, by the time Fresh Direct launched in 2002 — and exclusively in New York City — people had become more comfortable with e-commerce thanks to the likes of Amazon, eBay, and other dot-com-era success stories.

The retail category as a whole is full of examples that bring Optimus Time™ to life. Consumers wouldn’t feel comfortable allowing a retailer to track their every movement in a store (even for deals) if they hadn’t already become accustomed to sharing location and personal data online via social networks (who have also taken much of the heat) or been primed to sharing purchase data with merchants as part of loyalty programs. Similarly, purchasing products via a single tap of the phone would be out of the question if Amazon’s one-click ordering system hadn’t already trained shoppers to be comfortable with purchasing on impulse via digital channels. What these examples show us is that brands can piggyback on other’s leading-edge advances to create iterative innovations with which consumers will still be comfortable.

So the question becomes: how can we step outside the limits of today’s reality and make meaningful strides toward something radically new without scaring or confusing our customers? As the successful examples of Optimus Time™ show, this involves a sort of quadratic recombination of innovations in the world. How can you take a high-level view of the world’s leading trends and innovations and apply a rigorous understanding of their development in one category in a way that’s relevant to other categories that desperately need this proven thinking?

brainstorm session

This remixing of ideas can push us into the future in ways that are both realistic from a technically feasible perspective, but also reasonable for consumers to digest. It’s this iterative nature of many successful innovations that makes looking wildly into the future a wonderful exercise in imagination and creativity, but a risky endeavor for enterprises beholden to an existing customer base.

As marketers and manufacturers, we ask people to become comfortable with ways of doing things — we teach them new behaviors, new platforms, new infrastructures — so it makes sense that they don’t want things to be constantly and completely reinvented. The truth, though, is that consumer reticence for radical change acts as a built-in safety mechanism, making sure that, as innovators and inventors, we’re not flying off the tracks with each new idea we have. We can compound our learnings.

For those companies with successful businesses models, and a fairly satisfied customer base, a product like The Future of Retail allows them to look at the leading edge of technology, giving them a leg-up on the competition with ideas that are already beginning to prove themselves, and activate recombinations of ideas that intuitively make sense. In this way, these businesses are taking advantage of the future as it’s introduced instead of gambling with a future written in comic books and tea leaves.

Written by Joey Camire and Ben Cheney

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Image by ANTIFAN-REALRecessionista and Square Enix

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