The future of shopping

What is the future of retail? High street shopping has lost much of the luster it had until the nineteen-seventies. It was the Grands Magazins at the turn of the twentieth century – Bon Marché, Samaritaine, Printemps – who made shopping a destination and a pastime. In the eighties, when branded stores started to take over, the high streets in Manchester and Birmingham, Vienna and Brussels started to look increasingly identical.

Today, high streets in Europe are to a large part interchangeable, with branded retail, coffee and fast food chains dominating the streetscape. With increasing rental prices, mostly only large multinationals could afford a presence in high streets, with the result that inner city shopping streets in Europe have lost their main point of attraction: Uniqueness and difference. The mantra of brand recognition, combined with soaring real estate prices, has made shopping in high streets generic and unexciting.

No wonder, then, that online shopping is successful. Buying online is not exciting, but at least you save yourself a tedious trip. Taking this logic further is Amazon Go, an supermarket without cashiers or counter personnel. Amazon Go is a brick-and mortar store imitating an online store where your every move is being tracked and recorded. As if it were the implicit goal of contemporary tech companies to eliminate all jobs on the planet, there is no single human in attendance.

Here is how existing data and technology can be put together: The AI system, which has identified you through the selfies you abundantly delivered to your Facebook and Instagram accounts, tracks your every move and emotional expression. That displeased look on your face when you see that new yoghurt promotion? Saved in the system – you won’t see it again. Forgot that salad and had to retrace your steps to the veggie section? Saved in the system – next time you will be reminded when you enter the shop.

There is no checkout, as everything you put into your shopping bag was tracked and will be automatically deducted from your online bank. As you walk towards the exit, a section in the fridge lightens up, and your Amazon Alexa voice suggests you purchase that ice cream you so much enjoyed. It knows as you tweeted about it last week.

One of the more sinister arguments for surveillance systems with CCTV cameras and face recognition systems is that they do not require “human cooperation”. Indeed, if you are in a CCTV environment you are being tracked, if you like it or not.

In this shop of the future, you have been identified through a host of different pattern-matching algorithms: The system knows it is you through the geometry of your face, which an algorithm automatically constructed from your selfies. The system knows it is you through the way you walk, which an algorithm has compressed into a pattern from footage on CCTV cameras. The system also knows you through the patterns of your skin and your retinas.

But is that really the future of shopping? AI-assisted shopping will have to deal not only with privacy laws, but also with the uncanny experience of interacting with synthetic assistants. What happens to the psychology of shopping when shoppers know that they are permanently observed, interacting only with pattern-matching algorithms? Will the millennials, a generation brought up with online dating and selfie-making, indeed relinquish all privacy for the alleged convenience of AI-assisted shopping, or will there be a resurgence of privacy and individuality?

Another approach is to bring back excitement and a sense of experience to shopping. Bangkok’s newest shopping mall, Embassy Quartier, hosted in purpose-built buildings in the heart of Asia’s most visited shopping destination, offers a range of interesting concepts to encourage discovery: Curated fashion spaces with interesting and lesser known local designers, hybrid shops, and an extensive food mile with a stunning breadth of offerings, arranged in a spiral design where one can walk through a Pan-Asian food street sloping up to the top floor.

How we conceptualize the shopping experience of the future depends on how we see our customers. Since time immemorial, from bazaars to department stores, shopping is about human narratives. It is a quest, a discovery, and a deeply human experience. We should work on making their time worthwhile, offering interesting stories, positive surprises and enriching experiences, not on taking them away.