Richard Watson

How will you be running your store in 10 year’s time? How will your customers pay you? And are Amazon drones and 3d printers set to change the face of UK retail? RN put these questions and more to futurologist Richard Watson

Symbol groups and multiple c-stores are in growth. What else can we expect to see in convenience?

In Japan and the US they have vending machines the size of kitchens which stock everything under the sun. They’re smaller, so they can be sited in places like petrol stations. Supermarkets will run out of local space, so vending can be slotted in and it suits younger people who prefer self-service. We are very close to a situation where you’ll use your phone to find the nearest vending machine, order a pie which will be heated up when you’re 30 seconds away, then you’ll pay for it with your smartphone.

Which other global trends could we see here?

In Japan again, they change lighting, music and physical layouts according to the time of day in their 7 Elevens. They also use data and predictive software – which we have a little of already – that reveals shopping habits, locations, etc. I also think we’ll see more companies anticipating what you need and putting it in front of you. So in America, McDonald’s’ has started pre-cooking orders based on the make and model of car you’re driving, because they have data showing that people in station wagons buy certain things and so on.

Will Amazon break into the UK grocery market?

There is no reason why they shouldn’t get into non-perishable goods. We’ve got used to them with books, so we can probably get used to them with packaged Cornflakes. But with cheese, dairy and fresh it does smack of the panic we had 15 years ago about warehouse clubs that people predicted would decimate retail.

Will shopper demographics change?

There are two major demographics worth noting – people aging and people living on their own. Tesco are looking at something called Active 55, a store designed for people who are 60+, and in city centres they already cater to people living on their own. I went to a Morrisons recently and they had a whole gondola end dedicated to the small bottles of wine, because they have a lot of customers who can’t finish a whole bottle. A lot of retailers still work to the idea of serving mum, dad and two kids, but actually, that’s the exception these days.

How will smart technology develop and what impact could this have on the way we shop?

We’ll see more use of physical screens online and also in stores, to find out about a producer, for example. And if you are shopping at home, you’ll see more gaming-style graphics for supermarket aisles online. So in a few years, I’ll be “walking” down a supermarket aisle and the graphics will look like Call of Duty. The problem at the moment is that online doesn’t represent reality. Scrolling down and ticking “beans” is not how people, in particular women, shop. There will be more of a blurring between online and physical shopping in future.

How will the payment industry change and what effect will this have on physical shops?

It’s going to change a lot. Nobody under the age of 25 writes a cheque anymore. I can’t see there being coins in 30 years’ time, but whether cash goes is an interesting one. The trend is towards the wallet disappearing and going into your phone or to embedded or online payments. Credit cards will probably go as well; they’ll also be in your phone. Some people will allow companies to access them in return for some kind of value, so I’ll share my location with Coca-Cola if they give me 10% off, for example.

How will transport developments influence shopping habits, the supply chain and shop locations?

The petrol car won’t go away, but the electric car will grow and we’ll see self-driving cars within the next 15-20 years. In 30-40 years it will probably be illegal to drive a car by yourself in major cities. There will be fleets of self-driving taxis and up to a point, delivery vehicles, but how do you get shopping from the van and into someone’s house? Deliveries of groceries by drones – forget it. Maybe in remote locations or in an army context, but not to deliver pizza.

Will any other trends impact retail?

A lot of people are freaking out about the price of oil. If it went above $200 it could totally change the face of retail, not just because it would make people question the value of driving to Waitrose, but because virtually everything in store – from a steak to the packaging surrounding it – contains oil. People haven’t thought about that. That would change how we shop. Energy could get more expensive, but solar is also on the cusp of getting extraordinarily interesting.

Will 3d printing impact the grocery market?

Some have said it will be bigger than the internet, but I don’t agree because there are so many practical issues. Yes, you can print food – NASA has done it – but it looks and tastes horrible. People eat food with their eyes and it’s got to look and taste nice. Where it could really work is if you had a 3d printer in Tesco for printing, say, shoes. That could be fun because it’s experiential. But it would also be a fad.

What do independent convenience stores need to do to be successful?

It’s not rocket science. It’s about customers and providing really great customer service. Yes, you might have Sainsbury’s experimenting with Google Glass to use facial recognition, but that’s incredibly insincere and it’s much better if you recognise me, know what I want to buy and are just genuinely friendly and make me feel special. Price, location and what you’re stocking are important to a certain point. But fundamentally, it’s service. You can use technology to enhance that, but ultimately it’s a very human thing. Some things will be radically different in future, but the basics don’t change – good stock, location and service will never go out of date.