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    Wired’s executive editor shares his thoughts on the future of retail, ‘slowbalisation’ and our evolving relationship with technology

    THE ROYAL EXCHANGE: How have shopping habits changed since the crisis hit, and what are your thoughts on how they might evolve as we come out of lockdown?

    Jeremy White: Well, the main thing that’s happened is that everybody has been forced to experiment with e-commerce. People have been given a reason to try it, because they’ve had to. What this has done is to forcibly familiarise people with technology that some people weren’t really interested in trying before. It’ll be interesting to see how many people stick with it afterwards. I think it will decrease, but it won’t go back down to the levels before the pandemic hit.

    TRE: Do you think there is still an appetite for real-life experiences such as shopping, entertainment and dining out?

    JW: Absolutely. I imagine there’ll be an enthusiastic return to real life experiences, having been denied them for months on end. There might be a small period where people will dip their toes in the water with going out and shopping ‘normally’ as we did before, but then I think we’ll very quickly return to buying things physically, as we used to, and enjoying it again.

    There are elements of the retail experience that e-commerce cannot duplicate, such as the physical experience of trying something on, and the ease of choice when a range of products is physically in front of you, as opposed to clicking through different pages of a website. The physical interaction with a product is part of the experience, and this is where bricks and mortar has a distinct advantage over e-commerce. Those sorts of things will be brought to the fore once again.

    TRE: What might the bricks and mortar retail experience look like going forward?

    JW: Lots of things will happen. The SARS epidemic in China is widely credited for completely transforming the e-commerce experience in that region, because it forced everybody to adopt it in the same way it’s being adopted in the rest of the world now. It was the catalyst for them to completely transform the retail experience and an opportunity for physical retail to invest and completely re-evaluate the experience they offer to customers.

    Big tech is a very good example of this. Big tech companies tend to invest heavily in research and development and innovation during a downturn in economy. They want to be ready to take advantage when, inevitably, the economy takes an upturn. Intel did this in the 2008-09 financial crash to great success. Right now there is a tremendous opportunity for retailers to model what big tech does and invest and reinvent and innovate the physical retail space. It’s a chance to bring in all sorts of technology that will increase and enhance the experience for the customers. I’m talking about things beyond just smart mirrors and systems for requesting different sizes from the changing rooms.

    There are elements of the retail experience that e-commerce cannot duplicate

    TRE: What kind of technology do you think customers want in retail spaces?

    JW: Well, actually, it’s the less glamorous stuff that is the most useful. It’s technologies that just take away the drudgery from the experience. Like really good smart inventory systems that will tell you immediately whether something is in stock or not, and how soon they can get it in for you. And really good smart payment systems.

    In China, for example, WeChat – their version of WhatsApp – has already started rolling out payment via visualisation identification. It’s even simpler than getting your card out of your wallet and tapping it to make a contactless payment. All you do is look at the point of sale terminal, and you pay – the point of sale terminal identifies your face. Imagine the ease of experience – you pay for your purchase just by looking at a camera and then walking out. Lots of these things are coming that already exist in other jurisdictions.

    TRE: Might we see more of a return to local shopping and manufacturing?

    JW: Yes, absolutely. The idea that the global supply chains have to change has been termed many things, including ‘slowbalisation’. One thing the pandemic has shown is that the global supply chains are broken. Once China shut down, even the companies that tried to move their production facilities out of China, to Southeast Asia, found that they couldn’t because so many of the components were made in China.

    You’re only as strong as the weakest link in the supply chain, and so many of those links were in China that most businesses found it almost impossible to actually get around this. Lots of lessons have been learned and there will be a re-evaluation of the global supply chain and whether this is a sustainable model.

    TRE: Ultimately, will technology be our saviour?

    JW: It’s not quite as simple as that. We will be our saviours and technology is a tool. Very much like artificial intelligence, a lot of people feel that it’s either going to be our saviour or our destroyer, but actually it’s going to be neither. It’s almost like asking whether fire is good or not. It is simply something we’ve created and how we use it will determine how it affects us. We cannot abdicate our responsibility for our deliverance. Technology is there to provide those tools, but how they’re used is still governed by the humans that use them. Technology will help, and it will certainly make things much, much easier, but it’s really still just about us – about you and me – and how we govern ourselves.

    Jeremy White is the executive editor of
    Wired UK, a print and online platform that reports on future science, culture, business and technology. White is also a keynote speaker and consultant on topics including technology trends, AI, retail disruption, digital transformation, FinTech and design;

    A conversation with… is a monthly series that invites today’s leading minds to discuss current topics, exchange points of view and explore new ideas with The Royal Exchange