Shopping will be an almost entirely different experience by 2040, and the variation across retail sub-sectors far more pronounced than today. Luxury outlets will lead the way on service with highly-trained staff who are experts in their field providing a highly-personalised experience with technology at its heart. Staff will be alerted when a customer enters a store as sensors detect the user’s mobile phone (or another piece of wearable tech), and their data – including purchase history and sociodemographic information based on where they live – will be passed onto the worker’s instore tablet (or equivalent).
In contrast to the personalised luxury experience, grocery shopping will be a highly-automated process within the store, building on the Amazon Go experience. The number of people working in retail has fallen dramatically since 2014, with the period since 2016 seeing a particularly noticeable fall. This looks set to continue. All mundane and repeatable tasks will be outsourced to machines and there will be no checkout process other than to simply walk out of the store, which will lead to a substantial loss of traditional retail jobs. Workers will only remain on the shop floor to assist customers while they are purchasing, although all information will be available on their phone and on interactive screens instore.
Figure 1: UK retail employment relative to total economy, 2014-2018 (index)
Source: Macrobond (British Retail Consortium data)
Everything in between the luxury and grocery experience will differ greatly depending on the sector. However, the key influence on performance will be the ability for stores to seamlessly merge a fantastic immersive physical experience with powerful yet subtle technology.
The 2040 store will have become a showroom for retailers to showcase their products – particularly for larger items. Traditionally big-box retailers will have diversified away from the retail park format, opting to move into the city centre, where they will occupy smaller stores and display only the most important products. Furniture retailers, for example, will increasingly mock up house designs in the store, with shoppers able to use virtual and augmented reality to see how different items would look in various setups, following the example of retailers such as Ikea and Loaf. Meanwhile, car showrooms (currently an edge of town feature) will be more prevalent across the city centre.
The grey area between online and physical retail will be significantly larger as the boundaries between the two become harder to identify. In-store sales will be placed through online platforms, with shoppers able to photograph or scan an item on their phone, for it to be immediately delivered to their home.
Whether the high street feels much different by 2040 is open to debate. There will still be shopping and there will still be shops. But what, and who, is in those shops looks likely to change dramatically.