Retail, shopping & leisure

Places for people

Retail, especially in the US and northwestern Europe, is going through a period of rapid change at the moment. Amazon is in everyone’s basket of worries alongside spiralling rents and customers that seem to care for little beyond speed and convenience.

So where might retail go next? One answer might be the past. Perhaps retail will once again become smaller and more specialist, with a clustering of specialisms and with owners and operators living above their shops.

Or perhaps the new model is public libraries. Aren’t libraries supposed to be dead — a relic of our analogue past? Not so. In 2016, for example, more people visited public libraries in the UK than cinema visits, theatre trips, visits to the UK’s top ten attractions, and attendance at live music events combined. Far from dying out, libraries have transformed themselves into places and spaces where the focus is on human connection. They have become learning and discovery hubs where people can find out everything from how to change the ringtone of a phone to discovering their own history.

These spaces are inclusive too. They are open to all (and increasingly always open in terms of hours). Some libraries (e.g. Manchester’s central library) have cinemas showing free films. There are hubs for people looking for work, polishing their CVs, or thinking of starting a business (The British Library has become a national hub for information and advice about patents and funding for startups, for example). You can get legal advice, learn a language, play with your kids, play games, and drink coffee. You can even get married in some libraries. They are also becoming increasingly important as places where people work and study, all of which is impacting how libraries are designed and built. The general theme seems to be flexibility, with gathering spaces for different needs at the core.

So, what does this have to do with retail exactly? The point, if you haven’t worked it out already, is that retail and leisure generally are about people. Yes, people like to buy things, but they also like to browse in inspiring spaces: spaces that are tactile and sensory, where there is the buzz of other people. They like to walk, sit down, get busy, relax, eat, drink, study, work, think. Why can’t all of these things be done in a shop, much in the same way that it used to be done in a market square? Supermarkets in particular, and high streets generally, have a massive opportunity to do something that’s hard to do online: build real human connection.

Ref: The ‘I’ newspaper (UK) 12.9.17. Why the future of UK libraries is in the connection, not the collection by L. Rhind-Tutt.

What does Amazon deliver?

There are two views of Amazon. The first is that it offers customers amazing convenience and value and this explains why the company is set to become the world’s first trillion-dollar enterprise. It is the personification of free-market capitalism. The second view is that Amazon avoids tax, puts small retailers out of business and destroys the fabric of towns and cities. In other words, it is the personification of free-market capitalism.

Amazon’s growth is certainly impressive and analysts expect the company to reach revenues of $500 billion by 2023. Amazon is already the world’s third largest digital music company, it controls roughly half of the US e-commerce market, and it runs the fastest-growing new entertainment channel in the UK.

Despite this, it only made $3 billion profit on revenues of $178 billion in 2017, partly because it operates on low margins. Critics say this represents a land grab by the company, which will put its prices up once it has secured world domination. This might take a while. Overall, the company only has 2 percent of the retail market in the UK and only 4 per cent in the US.

So why the worry? Apart from being tax shy (the company had revenues of £7 billion in the UK in 2016 and yet managed to pay just £7.4 million in tax), the main criticism relates to how the company treats its workers, especially in its comically named “fulfilment centres”. Here people work crippling shifts for low wages and are watched and monitored like never before in history. Until recently, even workers that took a day off sick and had a doctor’s note were given a disciplinary mark against their name. An Amazon worker’s median annual pay in the US was $28,446 in 2017, which means an average worker would have to work for 5 million years to earn as much as Jeff Bezos is himself worth.

A sense of what’s right might be missing here. How long before we see an Alexa-like device implanted into our bodies — one that tells us what to do, rather than the other way around?

Ref: Sunday Times magazine (UK), 29.7.18 ‘Just another day of world domination’ by J. Arlidge.

Facebook fatigue

This is all getting a bit much. Facebook has submitted a patent application based on developing a facial recognition tool that will link cameras installed in shops to shop floor staff and tell them about customers as they walk in based upon their user profiles and real-time facial expressions. This will allow brands to target shoppers with specific products or services.

The technology will also, in theory, be able to identify emotions in real time, further allowing retailers to identify a person’s mood, which can, in turn, be used to help sell people things.

On the plus side, the cameras could be able to identify a shopper that is confused or needs assistance. The cameras could also, in theory, determine a trust level which might be used, say, to unlock secure products or allow payment once you’ve left the store (no need for tills).

But as Maja Pantic, a professor of affective and behavioural computing and an expert in facial recognition at Imperial College London points out, such technologies are a gross invasion of privacy. What if you want to secretly shop for something? Or how would you feel if your emotions and innermost feelings were captured and potentially stored for posterity by a company with a pretty bad reputation for security and moral choices?

Ref: The Times (UK) 1.12.17, Shop cameras will see your Facebook profile’ by K. Gibbons.

Ghost towns

Have you noticed how the shops in every city in the world look increasingly the same and are increasingly selling the same things? Blame globalisation. Meanwhile, towns, especially in Britain, are starting to look the same too, not because they all have Gucci and Chanel selling handbags for £2,000 a pop, but because they are increasingly hollowed-out ghost towns dominated by charity shops, coffee shops, hairdressers, estate agents and boarded-up shops.

Retail’s decline has been going on for many years. Initially the problem was caused by greedy landlords, unimaginative local councils, big-box brands and high rents. Nowadays, the problem, of course, is the internet. How do local shops compete with the prices, range and convenience offered online, especially from Amazon?

The consequence of all this is that places, and ultimately people, are losing their pride and their identity. Shops are agoras. Take away the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, not to mention the local post office, pub, bookshop and library and what do you have left? The sense of decline in some towns is palpable. Pop-up charity shops only serve to emphasise any sense of impermanence. Moreover, the lonely malcontent mood is seizing local and national politics.

Is there a glimmer of hope? Indeed there is, with the embrace of localisation, specifically imaginative local independent stores (and local councils) that have a distinctive one-off character that’s so different to the sterile generics of the chain stores. Think of bookshops championing local authors. Better still: second-hand bookshops celebrating serendipity and happenstance. These types of retailer are about browsing as much as buying. They often involve conversation too. They are meeting points. Busy high streets bustle. Such high streets are alive. They are the future.

Ref: Prospect (UK) 07.19, ‘High street blues’ by H. Anderson.

Shops without tills

If the thought of having chirpy robotic assistants in every store makes you want to smash the (non-)living daylights out of not only the robots but the shops that install them, this next idea might make you scream and trash the whole store.

A while back, Amazon opened a store in Seattle with no checkouts. Instead the store ‘reads’ customers once they have registered their arrival via an app and as they enter via what is essentially an airport-security-style gate. Cameras and sensors throughout the store then watch what people pick up and put in their baskets (or return to a shelf) and then customers are charged once they step outside into the sidewalk. The tagline for the store is: “No Queue. No Checkout. (No, Seriously.)”.

The store uses deep-learning algorithms to educate itself about how people shop and gets slightly more intelligent every time it’s used (in theory). There are humans present, some to help people find things, some, presumably, to help perplexed seniors, and some to work out if shoppers are old enough to buy things like alcohol.

The problem here is obviously twofold. If this concept works (and if it speeds up shopping there’s no reason to believe it won’t, beyond obvious security and privacy issues) then what happens to the 3.5 million checkout staff that are currently employed in US stores?

Second, this is yet another example of how ‘deep spying’ algorithms undermine freedom of choice and human autonomy. If you want a picture in your head about where retail might go if this technology takes off, just travel to Las Vegas and visit a few casinos. Here technology is used to monitor your every move and motivation and keep you inside the casino for as long as possible, making as much money as possible in the process. Do we really want to shop (live) like this?

Ref: The Guardian (UK) 1.3.19, ‘Amazon to reportedly open dozens of Grocery stores across the US’ (Reuters)

Ref: The Times (UK) 23.1.18 ‘Check out the supermarket with no tills (but lots of eyes) by W. Pavia.