Karl McKeever Column October 2016

The retail landscape in 2040

Over the next quarter of a century, our lives will certainly have changed beyond recognition. Shifts in society and technology will directly impact on the way in which we buy products or access day-to-day services.

In the fast-moving world of retail, we are used to looking one or two years into the future to predict how the latest trends and innovations will shape the industry. However, it is sometimes worth looking further ahead to see how it will reflect more substantial and fundamental changes in society.

The effect of global warming may be one of the main reasons for people to adopt a different lifestyle. Rising pollution in cities, along with increased fuel costs, could spell the end of long-distance commuting. Adding to pollution levels with unnecessary car journeys might even become taboo and result in people spending more time in their local area, whether it is for work, shopping or leisure.

Building on the idea of localism, home working is likely to become a more attractive and popular option for both employers and employees. With ever-improving internet connections and communications, companies will be able to cut costs by scaling back equipment and office space, while ensuring that the work is being completed. From a retail point of view, this will further increase demand for same-day delivery services. Popping to the shops during a lunch break will become a thing of the past, replaced instead with online orders and rapid delivery, perhaps by drone.

In recent years, we have seen something of a renaissance in our major cities, including Birmingham and Leeds. The more forward-thinking local authorities are now building city centre investment into their economic strategies, and we can expect to see the fruits of this in the years to come.

While the cities may prosper, it could be that retail parks will suffer a dramatic decline by 2040. Changing shopping habits mean that people do not have to drive to an outlet when they can buy what they need online, particularly if they do not find the experience enjoyable. Improved delivery options mean that the internet will continue to take more of the market share. Technological innovations, for example 3D printers, could also threaten traditional stores as people start to manufacture their own goods at home.

As we have seen with some high streets, the declining popularity of retail parks may result in them becoming ‘ghettos’ for budget or poor quality stores, especially if rents drop. It is clear that drastic change and innovative ideas are needed for them to stand any chance of survival.

One solution could see them transformed into a mix of business and community spaces. As car use decreases, vast park areas could become redundant so this land could be offered to independent shops, local businesses and voluntary groups, as well as larger stores.

For those willing to take a risk, retail parks may even become home to micro city farms. Spaces formerly occupied by retailers could be given to community groups and start-up businesses to grow fruit and vegetables, or even rear animals. Food security, global warming and the cost of imports will no doubt be major concerns in the future, so it makes sense to use this land to feed local populations.

It might be said that, in the past, retailers have only paid lip service to sustainability, however, this is expected to change in line with public opinion. The scarcity of resources such as oil could lead to a rise in the cost of consumer goods and would lead to people lending goods to each other, buying second hand or pooling their money to purchase something.

During the recession, we saw a return to thrift-inspired activities such as home crafts and supper clubs as people looked to consume less and this could continue, particularly as people grow more aware of the impact a throwaway culture can have.

Communities are powerful forces, and businesses like AirBnB and Uber have been quick to capitalise on the idea of sharing. The so-called sharing economy is on track to grow as people, especially as those living in cities like London, experience higher living costs. Retailers will certainly have to adapt, perhaps by offering goods for hire via an app rather than straightforward purchase.

In the end, the retail industry is continually evolving so there is no way of knowing for sure how it will look in 25 years time. From drone delivery to the reimagining of retail parks and community spaces, there are countless opportunities for those who have imagination and are willing to take a risk.

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