The Future of Retail: 14 Expert Predictions and Tips on How You Can Prepare

This is a post by Alexandra Sheehan

What is the future of retail? It’s the question that every innovative retailer should be asking themselves. The rise of technology and big data have created a quickly changing environment with more and more competition.

Thinking about what’s to come tomorrow and how you can prepare your business today is one major key to staying ahead of the competition. That’s why we asked 14 retail industry experts to share what the future of retail holds through their point-of-view.

Here’s what they had to say:

1. Retailers will have to reach customers through storytelling

“The future of retail is about focusing on the customer as a channel. Consumers will continue to become more and more platform-agnostic (albeit physical store, digital site, mobile experience. etc.) Regardless of the touchpoint, consumers want access to options, insights to availability and seamless ways to transact.

Across platforms, brands also need to invest in strong visual storytelling and utilize physical to deliver immersive experiences that answer the elements that cannot be answered online.”

— Melissa Gonzalez, chief pop-up architect, The Lionesque Group | Twitter | LinkedIn

2. Shoppers will have increased control

“The future of retail is shopper-centricity. Long gone are the days when a brand’s chief merchant held sway in determining what could be purchased, when, where, how and for how much. That power now lies in the hands of shoppers.

To succeed in the new retail reality, retailers must respond to the demands of shoppers by delivering value-added, seamless shopping experiences across all customer touchpoints and eliminating the friction points that make shopping a chore rather than a desired elective experience that’s speedy and convenient. If ecommerce has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t have to wait in line. For anything. Ever.”

– Ray Hartjen, director of marketing, RetailNext

3. Barriers to entry lower while success standards get higher

“Constraints promote creativity, and this is no different for the future of retail. New technologies have dropped the barriers to entry into the retail industry, but the bar for success gets higher every year.

Business size is no longer indicative of success and speed to market isn’t universally rewarded. We’re seeing some of the most powerful brands promote lifestyle values instead of just focusing on instant gratification.

So how can we learn from brands that are thriving in this changing environment? Here are a few things merchants should consider as they prepare for future challenges:

  • Value your cash flow: Cash flow management is vital to any healthy business, but it can also help enhance your brand narrative. For example, take a fresh look at how you buy inventory (frequency, breadth or depth) or evaluate your hours of operation (by day or by season). Creative solutions in areas like these can enhance your brand and even make other changes less risky.
  • Value intimacy over attention: All brands that have built a loyal customer base have one thing in common: They’re focused on making their true customer happy. Your brand behaviors should be focused on creating intimacy with your best customers. Build your efforts around your ideal buyer persona — the customer who repeatedly buys at full price, who reads your marketing emails and who engages with your social media posts. Don’t chase the attention of broad, uninterested audiences at the cost of ignoring the loyalists in front of you.
  • Become a learning leader: Leaders who seek to learn from each opportunity synthesize and apply lessons faster. In an industry that moves quickly and inundates customers with choices, being a responsive leader has never been more important. Take time each season to reflect on your successes and failures. Seek outside support or insights to elevate your own skills if you see a gap. Just taking these steps will put you ahead of almost all of your peers who are stuck in the weeds every day.

Using constraints to fuel creative solutions and developing your business acumen will serve you now and in the future. Even better, it will help you develop brand-loyal customers and carve out a strong market space.”

– Chris Guillot, Founder at Merchant Method and Instructional Designer of The Merchant Map

4. Superior service and efficient checkout

“The future of retail is a two-part mix of superior service and fast checkout.

Superior service: People hear superior service and think of human interaction, but this may not always be the case in the future. The advancement of communication technology and artificial intelligence will be the saving grace of brick-and-mortar stores for the next generation.

Superior service will be an AI chatbot for every store you enter, allowing you to receive real-time discounts, directions to a particular product, notifications about free dressing rooms, and even the ability to request help from a human store clerk on demand.

The conveniences of online shopping will soon be transferred to the retail store, and it’ll be revolutionary.

Efficient checkout: The next biggest piece is automated checkout. Checkout continues to be the biggest time-suck of the retail shopping experience. The shopper gets very little value from a human-oriented checkout. Stores will eventually see the opportunity in automating their checkout process so shoppers can save time while stores themselves cut cost on redundant personnel.

While some will say won’t this eliminate jobs the hard truth is yes, it likely will for those who are unskilled and not socially savvy, but for employees that can adapt to a customer service focused role, they will gain the opportunity to attend to customers on the sales floor.”

– Sam Sternweiler, founder, Opasite

5. Brands will leverage physical locations to enhance engagement with customers

“With the growth of online shopping and the ‘Amazon experience,’ brands tend to forget the impact and value of showcasing and selling their products in a physical location. While many Fortune 500 retailers such as Macy’s and JCPenney have been closing stores, successful online brands like Bonobos, Warby Parker and Allbirds have started to venture into brick-and-mortar, opening physical stores to enhance the customer experience.  

By opening a physical store, these online brands get much more than additional sales and brand exposure — they open another effective channel of engagement with their customers. This channel enables them to:

  • Test products and collect customer feedback that is difficult to gather online
  • Guide customers on how to use products to maximize value
  • Develop a truly personal, authentic connection with customers
  • Tell a compelling story about the brand, product and its creator
  • Sell through unique experiences such as events, workshops and classes that disrupt the relationship and increase loyalty

The future of retail is all about building a real, valuable two-way connection between a brand and its customers. Brands that will effectively leverage their physical locations to learn more about their customers and disrupt the customer engagement will be better positioned to grow and win in the marketplace.”

– Mark Ghermezian, founder and CEO, RAAS

6. Retailers need to be tech-centric to go above and beyond

Technology which enhances shopper engagement is available and rapidly evolving. Shoppers are ready and expect change. To prepare, merchants must:

  • Service late adopters but learn from and plan for early adopters: They will be your strongest advocates and will expedite market adoption.
  • More frequently than today, prepare to change the physical environment: As a standard, regularly include enhancements in technology and brand/category experiences. Shoppers demand it.
  • Create a path for self-advocacy while shoppers are in your stores: Influence plays a huge role online, and it should have a place in your store. Influence and advocacy matter.”

– Mike Kelley, executive vice president, Pierce

7. Internal mobility will be significant

“Long gone are the days when retailers can rely on legacy HR systems to manage their workforce. The best employees end up leaving to go to competitors as it’s not usually in the store manager’s best interest to promote them.

To achieve this, retailers will need to better understand their workforce and their skills rapidly.

Employees will also expect to receive increased career progression opportunities. As retail staff are not on computers or email as much as in other industries, mobile tools like Speakap will help streamline this communication.

And with the gig economy, employees are opting for multiple part-time jobs to occupy their work week. Companies will start to think about how best they can collaborate together (even potentially amongst competitors) to advance their employees skill-sets and careers.

When it comes to recruiting, there’s an increasing need to align the candidate experience with the customer experience to find the appropriate brand ambassadors. As the requirement for store employees becomes more advisory and consultative (as consumers are far more informed), resumes and traditional applications are no longer efficient ways of screening for what’s important (soft skills).

The use of video and rapid communication (like SMS, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger) will help create a more engaging recruitment process that makes it easier to complete for the candidate and a more efficient way for the brand to quickly identify the best fits.”

– Adam Lewis, CEO, Apploi

8. Retail will become more human-centric

“The pendulum is swinging back to the stores, and specifically the human beings who operate and leverage them. The omnichannel stir of the past decade has put most retail organizations in a reactionary, defensive investment position. While much of that may have been worthwhile, the disparity in investment towards the front-line retail teams has had catastrophic effects for a channel that generates most of the revenue.

While that revenue may atrophy to some extent in years to come, one thing is for certain: Regardless of vertical, the demands and expectations of customers who engage the store requires store managers and sales professionals to be better skilled at communication, empathy, and problem solving. They must be more informed on their company’s product ranges, campaigns and sales processes; they must be much more comfortable with data from social media, merchandising and ecommerce.

The future of retail means bonafide experts in the field. This will be a retailer-led initiative towards continuing career education and a reinvention of the role of a front-line retail employee, the likes of which the retail industry has never encountered.”  

– Ray Riley, CEO, Progress Retail

9. Mobile tech will empower retail staff

“Mobile apps for clienteling will be commonplace for retail store associates. Clienteling is relationship-building with key customers and takes into consideration information about their preferences and past purchases.  

In the future, all associates will be able to ask their customers questions about needs and wants and capture meticulous notes in their mobile apps. They’ll have access to product catalogs, key product information, inventory, product availability, customer preferences, order history, online behavior, wish lists and other content to ensure they present customers with timely offers and valuable information.

Associates will proactively communicate with customers via text, email and new emerging social apps. They will understand their customers, be well-trained, informed and equipped to serve each customer in a unique, personalized way.”

– Bill Zujewski, executive vice president of marketing, Tulip Retail

10. More data will mean more personalization

“The future of retail is hyper-personalization for the hyper-connected consumer. Merchants need to focus on identity resolution: accurately identifying and connecting customer engagement across multiple identifiers, devices and channels.

Then they need to understand the various segments existing within their customers’ behavioral data. Do their customers prefer to shop in-store or online? Do they browse online and buy in-store? Who are their high-value customers vs. sales-only buyers?

Truly understanding how customers interact with your brand, and taking a holistic approach to online and in-store data, will help retailers deliver the right messaging at the right time and propel sales forward.”

– Michael Osborne, CEO, SmarterHQ

11. Data will be at the epicenter of retail success

“The future of retail belongs to retailers who prioritize data, both as a worthwhile investment and an operational planning mindset.

Now that the pressure’s on from ecommerce-primed consumer demand, and in-store tools like foot traffic counting tech have caught up, merchants need to get obsessed with data collection and analysis.

Having year-over-year trends on hand while you plan for holiday staffing or when you need to recover lost revenue is save-your-business powerful. The sooner you can get started collecting and making decisions based on data, the better for your stores.”

– Michael Brand, CEO, Dor

12. Authentic brand experiences will trump advertising

“Advertising is dead. For too long, retailers have used paid advertising to subsidize uninspired brand experiences, whether physical or digital. In the bygone era of mass media and foot traffic, this may have worked.

But in today’s transparent, media-soaked and digital-first environment, no campaign, however slick or well-funded, can gloss over mediocrity. Consumers have too much information — from reviews, friends and social media.

So how can retailers compete? For all the hand-wringing about the digital revolutionaries — Netflix, Dollar Shave Club, Blue Apron, Amazon — their example is instructive: Retail is an arms race to deliver experiences so compelling, unique and delightful that customers go out of their way to find them. The new players have simply leveraged technology to raise the stakes with better memberships, free shipping and personalized recommendations.

But take heart. The future of retail is big enough for both ecommerce and successes like STORY. STORY eschews online sales altogether in favor of a Manhattan storefront that radically reinvents its theme and inventory every few weeks. That’s their formula for success (and part of the reason Macy’s invested in the brand). In the new ecosystem, every retailer will have to find its own unique path. But the winners will do what successful retailers have always done: transform transaction into magic.”

– Andy Walters, director of digital project management, VOLTAGE

13. Omnichannel will continue to blur lines

“In the last few years, the lines between retail and ecommerce have blurred. That trend will continue. Concepts such as click-and-collect have proven to be successful measures for big box stores.

On the flip side, the Warby Parker model of retail will grow in popularity, since Millennials have shown a preference for browsing in-person but buying online.

If there’s one question mark about the future of retail, it’s to see how Walmart and other legacy retail giants adapt to Amazon and other online entities moving into brick-and-mortar.”

– Jake Rheude, director of marketing, Red Stag Fulfillment

14. Product discovery will happen in stores

“The store of the future has evolved beyond being purely a point of product distribution. It’s not about offering the cheapest price on a product. It’s about giving customers an experience that they can’t get on, a place for them to touch and discover products, talk to associates and ask questions, and experience the physical embodiment of a brand.

Not surprisingly, brand consistency-across stores and digital touchpoints-is more crucial than ever. Retailers need to know exactly what their brick-and-mortar locations look like and measure the effectiveness of their displays, so they can provide a compelling, irresistible in-store experience to lure shoppers off their phones and couches.”

– Marc Gingras, CEO and founder, Foko Retail


What do you think the future of retail beholds? How are you future-proofing your business?

About Francesca Nicasio

Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.