Fast Company

Retail Therapy

Take a trip to the small town of Rheinberg in Germany. It's home to a 4,000-square-meter supermarket created by Metro, the world's fifth largest retailer. If you believe the hype, you are looking at the future of supermarket shopping.

In this store, you'll find the latest retail innovations, including intelligent weighing scales that can identify and price fruit and vegetables by sight -- regardless of whether they're loose or wrapped in plastic. You'll also find tablet computers that can be attached to shopping trolleys -- and activated by inserting a customer loyalty card. Once signed in, you can download a shopping list that you emailed to the store earlier, check your favorites list, print out personalized special offers, and get directions to the cleaning supplies aisle.

There are also information terminals scattered throughout the store to help customers learn more about a particular brand of wine or a new type of toothpaste, or request a recipe for the chicken you just bought. And needless to say, the store uses RFID technology to ensure that the shelves are never empty.

Looking ahead a few years, what if in-store ads could target customers the moment they pick up a bottle of Pantene? What if you're pegged as a frequent shampoo buyer? The Prada store in New York already shows footage of models wearing certain outfits if you hold clothes up to a nearby screen. You might be greeted by name. You could be directed to a loyalty queue for a speedy check out. Or maybe you won't even have to check out: An RFID reader will automatically scan your bags as you exit the store. And the bill will be sent automatically to your credit card company or bank.

Do customers really want such high-tech innovations?

In the future there will be lots more old people. Some old people don't like technology. Most do like stores with better lighting, non-slip floors, lots of seats, and big easy-to-read prices. You'll find all of these innovations in the Adeg Aktiv 50+ food market in Salzburg, Austria. Future migration back to cities and the rise in single-person households means that low-tech convenience stores, 24/7 kiosks, and giant vending machines -- like the McDonald's owned Tik Tok Easy Shop in Washington, DC -- may be more in touch with customer needs too.

In other words, rolling out identical retail formats is history.

Giant enclosed shopping malls are already starting to look like dinosaurs because shoppers are too busy and too tired to fight their way through giant car parks and endless corridors just to buy a pair of shoes. In the last 10 years, the number of women who consider shopping a "pick me up" has fallen from 45% to 21% in the US, while another survey said 53% of shoppers "hate the experience."

Why is this the case? One reason is that most shopping centers have no authentic identity or sense of self. I call them "anywhere places" because the look and feel is the same in Boston or Bangkok.

Making shopping more theatrical is one way of breaking this monotony, so it's no surprise that supermarkets are now trying to capture the sights, sounds, and smells of French markets while mall operators are trying to develop themes along the lines of 1,000-year-old Moroccan bazaars.

Selfridges's department store in London even describes itself as a theme park where customers are encouraged to buy souvenirs of their visit. Recent foot-fall generators have included a regional food festival, a Brazilian event, and a conceptual art installation in which 600 naked people rode up and down on the escalators. As they say, sex sells.

At the same time, shoppers are getting fed up with giant retailers bulldozing local communities and turning streets into homogenized strips that are devoid of life after dark. In fact, 75% of people in Britain think that supermarkets like Tesco -- which takes £1 for every £8 spent in Britain -- have become too powerful and would support stricter government controls. This fact has not escaped the attention of the world's largest retailer, which is testing smaller neighborhood stores dubbed "Small-Marts."

Maybe the future is "stealth retail" -- shops that don't operate like shops and malls that don't look like malls. This is not a new idea. Back in the 1960s, Victor Gruen, the architect of the modern mall, called for retailers to incorporate civic and educational facilities into shopping centers. In other words, shopping malls and supermarkets should function more like old-fashioned town centers, incorporating non-retail elements like schools, doctors, libraries, churches, and sport facilities. A good example is a Swiss retailer called Migros that has created health and education centers.

Connecting with the local community doesn't just mean parents collecting tokens for school computers. It means placing the school alongside the supermarket -- like Sainsbury's has done in the UK by teaming up with a company called Explore Learning -- or using retail space for community purposes like Tesco has done by putting a police station inside a supermarket in Essex. Going local also means utilizing local labor and selling local produce. Farmers markets have been so successful in recent years that there's even been talk of allowing them to use supermarket car parks after hours.

Another important trend is Everyday Low Pricing, but low prices often carry a high cost for other countries. Moreover, increased consumption doesn't seem to be where people are heading. Read Growth Fetish by Clive Hamilton and Status Anxiety by Alain De Botton. If you put a coat and bag checking service into a store, people will be able to carry -- and therefore buy -- more. Regardless, this misses the bigger picture. People are beginning to realize that buying more things doesn't make them happier.

In 1989, 58% of people in the UK said they were happy. By 2003, this figure had dropped to 45% -- despite the fact that average incomes had risen by 60% over the same period.

Perhaps the ultimate solution is for retailers to be more than just shopkeepers. Maybe their higher purpose is to build and support communities. That could mean creating aesthetically pleasing environments that are integrated with all aspects of the local area. It could also mean employing friendly people rather than impersonal machines. Such practices may add to the cost of goods, but you can't build a cut-price community.


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