The future of retail is already here

Once upon a time, the future seemed a long way off. Remember Tom Cruise in 2002’s Minority Report? And the famous shopping centre scene?

Director Steven Spielberg recruited a panel of futurists to predict a far-off tomorrow that included responsive, personalised advertising and sales assistants, triggered by iris and facial recognition.

Well, today, we’re living in that future. Geo-location is ho-hum, facial recognition is a feature built into our phones and Alibaba in China has already tested “smile to pay” in kiosk screens in KFC stores, that replace the need for a wallet.

Way back in 1994 (was that really 25 years ago?) American phone carrier AT&T ran a TV ad that forecast a future where shoppers could check out “a whole shopping cart at a time” through a scanner, and you could receive “a phone call on your wrist”.

Fast forward to today, and frictionless grocery retail is a reality with Amazon Go stores (now rolling out across the US), and when I visited one in Seattle recently the receipt was pinged to my Apple Watch along with my trip time. Shoppers are actively gamifying grocery shopping, seeing how fast they can get in and out of the store.

AmazonGo receipts are pinged to your wrist.

The future, as science fiction writer William Gibson famously wrote, is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed. Or, as Matt Thompson from American grocery giant Kroger put it even more succinctly: “The future is now”.

I see examples of the “future of retail” in the US every day. Creator Burger in San Francisco has a burger-making robot. Nordstrom’s “Local” retail concept centres around click-and-collect, and services, and has no stock in store. Amazon’s 4-Star stores stream ratings and reviews live to the shelf. Kroger is testing self-driving grocery delivery vehicles with Nuro in Arizona.

China takes things to a whole new level. When I attended Singles’ Day in China last year, I witnessed first-hand a shopping culture that was more “Bladerunner” than suburban mall. There, the mobile rules and stores are not destinations but “nodes”, designed to be interacted with both physically and virtually as the need fits. (My colleague in China ran out of garlic while cooking at home. No problem – he jumped on his app, and had the ingredient delivered in time to finish preparing the meal.)

As I write this, I am about to return to Australia for a visit. I can’t wait to share my experiences and observations of perhaps the most dynamic time in the history of retail. At the same time, I’m also looking forward to seeing what’s new and exciting in our part of the world. The truth is that, particularly today, the future of retail is not limited to a geographic region. From Telstra stores to innovative supermarket and convenience store design, there is a lot to learn from what’s going on in the Southern hemisphere. You just have to look. Because the future is already here.

Jon Bird is chief retail and commerce officer of VMLY&R, and is based in New York. He will be speaking on the future of retail at a series of breakfast conferences across Australia and NZ, starting next week. These breakfast events are FREE and open for registration now. Please register via the links below:

Sydney: March 19th

Melbourne: March 20th

Brisbane: March 26th

Auckland: March 28th

At these breakfasts, Jon will be delivering a keynote presentation on global retail trends and how the future is shaping up. He will be joined by Marcella Larson (Microsoft) and John Menagh (Sitecore), who will deliver some fascinating content on technology at retail and aligning digital retail strategies for optimal impact. The breakfast wraps up with VMLY&R’s Danny Lattouf leading a Super Retail Panel with different brands/retailers in each city including The Accent Group, Lion, Qantas Loyalty, & Westfield to name a few.

In addition to the Commerce for Connected Brands breakfast events, Jon Bird and Jack Hanrahan are hosting an exclusive Sydney Retail Study Tour following the Sydney breakfast on Tuesday March 19th. This FREE tour runs between 10am and 4pm and includes retailer hosted visits to the following retailers: Westfield, Myer, Suncorp, General Pants, Microsoft, Soul Origin, Woolworths Metro and The Grounds of Sydney, including lunch at The Grounds. With highly limited spots available, you’re invited to register your interest here to secure your spot.

And if you have an example of how Australia or NZ is leading the way, Jon wants to hear from you. Email


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