The New Order

What digital retail will look like beyond the 2020s

 Alison Camps looks into the future for Selfridges on the opportunities digital will bring to the retail landscape, as part of their current The New Order campaign.


Selfridges: It’s been predicted that in the not-so-distant future, brands will be expected to tailor their goods and services to suit individual customers and know their customers inside and out. (E.g. with clothes – going beyond knowing what style their customer likes, but knowing their preferred fabric of a garment, the exact sizes and measurements, how it will work with other pieces in their wardrobe, and so on.)

How relevant is that idea to customers today, and do you think this is an inevitability for retailers decades from now?

Alison Camps: We are already seeing in our research expectations rising with regards to personalisation, driven by a growing awareness of the data that brands hold about us, and an increasing desire for frictionless, effortless shopping experiences.  For example, two thirds of the UK adult population already agree that brands should deliver a ‘highly personalised’ service both online and offline (i.e. in store).

But if we look into the future, I think we will be living in an age of hyper-personalisation. As we become more ‘connected’ – in our homes and cars, as well as via portable and wearable tech – personalisation will be the norm, facilitated by AI and machine learning.

However, data will also become an increasingly precious commodity, or currency, and consumers will realise the worth of sharing information about themselves with brands. Trust and a ‘fair exchange’ of value will become ever more vital. In the digital retail future consumers are going to lean towards brands and providers they feel comfortable with but will equally expect greater recognition (or ‘reward’) for their business in return, over and above the transaction they are making.

S: How will retailers gain a strong customer connection with physical retailers in an increasingly digitised age (even more so than today)? Do you envision that retailers will need to move into a more experiential sphere to survive?

AC: We’ve already seen a major shift in the way physical retail is ‘working’; department stores in particular are having to reinvent themselves as places where people go to gather, and spend time socialising as well as shopping.  Banks have taken to selling coffee. In the future, when there is a risk that loneliness is an even bigger social issue than it is now (for example as a result of changes to how and where we work), retail spaces could well assume an even greater role in people’s lives. Experiences will be at the centre of this.

I also expect that we will see a lot more ‘micro-retailing’, with brands specialising in very specific product categories… something which department stores can turn to their advantage.


S: With that in mind, do you see customers decades from now viewing their favourite brands or retailers as an extension of their personalities (and who they are) as the default, with the transactional aspect coming second? (Or is that already happening?)

AC: People don’t like to see, or describe themselves as being defined by brands, but the reality is that we do make choices that reflect the values and personality we perceive in the brands we buy. For example, I wear Levi’s not Diesel jeans, adidas not Nike trainers, drive an Audi not a BMW.

The future digital retail battleground, however, is going to be about who has access to, and therefore ‘control’ of our spending behaviours. Will it be Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant? Or something as yet unimagined? This is all about convenience, and we are already seeing in our work with retailers the rapid increase in the importance of ease as a driver of brand preference.

This is just as important for premium brands as it is for mainstream ones; being easy to deal with will be basic table stakes.  All of this assumes that the climate emergency we are facing does not fundamentally impact on our ability to consume at will or have any choice in the matter.

S: We’re looking into how AI, and a merging of the digital and physical will become the new normal when it comes to shopping.

What are your thoughts on this from a customer perspective – do you see this happening already, and what’s the initial reaction? (E.g. using VR to try on new clothing, or speak to a customer advisor, etc.).

AC: At the moment, what we are seeing in our research is very much an ‘and, not or’ mindset. Although the preference to deal with brands online is on the verge of overtaking ‘in person’ or physical channels, there is still very much a demand for human interaction, especially when things go wrong, or when a second opinion is needed.

VR, robots, delivery by drone, intelligent appliances and AI are all going to have a significant impact on how we shop, but people will still make the difference between a good experience and an outstanding one. The role of retail has always been to inspire and our basic humanity means that will continue to seek advice, approval and affirmation.