Apr 172012

The Future of RetailDuring my teenage years I adored shopping.  On a Saturday morning I’d assemble a bonkers outfit, mount my boneshaker of a bicycle and ride miles to spend hours milling around town.  And an even bigger thrill was to be gained by repeating the experience on unfamiliar tarmac or foreign shores, albeit without the bicycle.  I would glimpse the lives of others, objects new and old, ugly and beautiful, and emerge better educated.

Now I avoid “the shops”.  The homogeneity of outlets and content leaves me cold.  What is there to discover when you’ve seen it all before, often in another country?  OK, so the collections change every 6 weeks, but where is the innovation? the passion in production? the glimpse into other’s lives? the escapism?  I want my leisure time to be filled with joy.

In The Thoughtful Dresser, Linda Grant talks about the origins of retail.  Department stores were one of the only places a respectable woman could go outside the home, and it served purposes way beyond the parting of cash.  We see these social functions as the focus of Mary Portas’ work as she strategises the re-birth of our town centres.  I wish her well.

A couple of months ago a supplement came with The Times: Raconteur on The future of retail.  It contained a wealth of information and advice for retaillers hoping to survive the current downturn whilst keeping abreast of technological advances.  As I flicked through, multiple alarm bells rang.  Now, I agree with the idea merging stores with online sales so items can be variously viewed in the flesh, bought online and returned to stores.  The idea that online overseas sales can offer a brand stability is good.  However, “Real world retail isn’t dead; it just needs an engaging, data-driven, interactive shot in the arm” is just nonsense.  When did the industry remove the products from the equation?  People buy things they are attracted to, that are well designed to fulfill necessary functions and that make their heart sing.  Your lack of data is not reducing sales, your lousy stock is.

And mid-rant another of these gems was delivered this morning: Raconteur on Customer Loyalty.  Again, the bells clanged.  By page 14 it is admitted that they are not talking about customer loyalty, but consumer-retention marketing. Really? You don’t think we figured that out already?

Currently, a huge amount of retailler’s resource goes into technology, data management and security.  Surely this should be re-directed into good design, quality materials, payment of living wages and provision of excellent service?  The modern consumer has a wealth of data at hand, and this is what big business is scared of.  We are able to shop around (or scan and scram) and this is terrifying for those rooted in top down marketing.  The people have access to power.  Now they need to seize it.

My hopes are for an end to unthinking consumption, increased customisation of products, and greater availabilty of objects which are worthy of emotional investment.  These cannot be bought with loyalty cards, but they can be made with love.  Educate yourself about materials and production, seek gems and allow them to bring joy into your life.