How does technology shape the future? We’ve just started our project on 2020 Retail. Funded by Asda, our objective is to understand how changes in retail will both necessitate and generate changes in the social relationships between customers, retailers, other businesses and civic institutions.
Its a fascinating conversation starter: everyone seems to have a view on how technology is changing their engagement in shopping, and by extension, influencing the nature of the places they live and work. But its often futile to predict in advance how new technology will find its most effective application. 14 years ago Wired predicted that we’d be grazing from an “internet fridge” which would monitor and automatically re-order our groceries. One 2008 study futures images of robots patrolling shop floors with tablet computers in hand.
Online shopping – food shopping in particular – is booming (and it’s clear that blu-taking your iPad to your fridge door would be cheaper and more effective than buying a device which tries to integrate the two.). But convenience food chains, independent cafes and delis are also booming. Changes on the High Street are driven by numerous factors and technology is just one of them. The newspaper headlines – “online shopping is killing the High Street” – are too simplistic. A fairer assessment might consider:
Retail is only one element of business on the High Street. Hairdressers, cafes and nurseries are taking up units across the country. The vacancy rate for shops has stabilised in recent months in part because shop units are already being converted to other uses.
Independents are doing better than multiples. Among chains, a total of 12,511 stores closed in 2011 and 2012, while 10,652 opened. However, over 31,000 independents stores opened in the same period: a net gain of over 3,000 (sources here and here) – though the last few months have been less positive.
The fortunes of shopping streets are becoming increasingly divergent, in part following widening inequality nationally and locally. Although every region had fewer shops in 2012, DCLG’s own analysis of ONS data (Slide 15) shows that each household in London have on average £190 more to spend each week than households in the North East and neighbouring streets feel increasingly distant from one another: one classic example in London being Chapel Market and Upper Street in Islington.
Yes, access to technology such as smartphones will change the way we shop. Yes, these changes will have profound impacts on physical retail environments. But these conditions represent opportunities for our villages, towns and cities, not just threats. This week Bill Grimsey’s argument made headlines: in the online age, let’s stop pretending we can save a High Street model which relies on attracting struggling chains and belt-tightening shoppers.
To critically analyse the changes that technology is supposed to be unleashing on retail we need a definition of technology. Most dictionaries agree it involves the practical application of knowledge to solve a problem; Wikipedia’s entertaining summary starts with a picture of an astronaut and ends with a gorilla using a stick to cross a river.
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So if technology could be anything from a system to a device, a spaceship to a stick, then of course technology will drive change in retail. (Indeed…what isn’t technology?). Ultimately, technology is only possible through collaboration, and our ability to collaborate sets us apart as a species (language being our primary innovation). As Michael Tomasello put it in the New Yorker recently, you’ll never see two chimps carrying a log together at the zoo.
In the broadest sense, to remain an innovative and civil society, we need to have places where we live and learn together, developing skills to navigate neighbourhoods and cities, becoming comfortable and competent in the presence of strangers. Shopping has the potential to connect us: to places, to memories, to each other. Many people had their first memory, first kiss and first job on the High Street. All are social rather than individual experiences. The Portas Review realised this; ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi and consultancy Flamingo have recently echoed this. Connectedness will never go out of fashion.
2020 Retail will need to ensure technology doesn’t alienate people. Socially productive retail spaces, whether malls or High Streets, would enable and inspire visitors to share experiences, engage in and build their social network, and contribute to society in ways which aren't possible online. As Manuel Castells argued 20 years ago: face-to-face interaction will likely become ever more valuable, the more ubiquitous digital connectedness becomes. The future of retail will therefore be low-tech, as well as high-tech.
Jonathan works on the 2020 Retail project at the RSA's Action and Research Centre - @jschifferes