The rise of digital commerce has been a defining feature of the last decade; since smartphones began serving as magical portals to digital realms we have seen the emergence of new roles, new business units and entirely new businesses capitalising on the commercial potential of the new cyberspace in which people were increasingly spending their time. Now the retail landscape is evolving dramatically, accelerated by this period of disruption which has thrust us into virtual cocoons and intensified our reliance on digital infrastructure and delivery services.
As we journey deeper into the next decade, we will see many of the widely-held assumptions related to ‘digital commerce’ challenged and upended – to quote Peter Drucker, “the greatest danger in times of turbulence is to act with yesterday’s logic”. Designing future-fit commercial strategies may require reframing and updating our understanding of three critical concepts, so as not to fall victim to “yesterday’s logic”:
This year’s World Economic Forum agenda stated that “3G and 4G were designed to put the world in the palm of our hand… 5G is designed to take our hand out of the equation”. Whereas digital has been understood as another space, separate to our physical existence, looking ahead, that line between ‘digital’ and physical disappears completely. The Spatial Web will coat our physical environments with invisible layers of intelligence, and tangible, physical things will be recreated in virtual spaces, all without conscious engagement with handheld or wearable devices.
The evolution of ambient digital intelligence implies that any and every space, physical or digital, has commercial potential in 2030. Firstly, this calls for us to reevaluate the role of physical space in retail, which should increasingly be seen as a point of contact, fulfilling social and emotional expectations – not just a functional point of sale. Secondly, when every space has commercial potential, it is the job of marketeers and retailers to work together to optimise and ease the path to purchase, which might mean enabling access to new kinds of marketplace, new payment or ownership models, or even authenticating transactions. Retail is about service provision in 2030, not just sales.
Even the label of ‘consumer’ (which implies passively receiving, and unknowingly assuming responsibility for the outputs of a linear supply chain) is becoming outdated. Connectivity, social values and regulatory pushes flatten the information landscape and democratise access to the marketplace. We can therefore anticipate a 2030 in which individuals are ‘nested’ within human-centric ecosystems and ‘closed loop’ supply chains, in which people contribute as much as they consume, and in which value exchanges are better understood.
Big Tech players are the frontrunners in serving ‘citizens’, not consumers – they invest heavily in understanding people based on their interactions with their community and the world, not just through their purchase histories. Digital citizenships (i.e. subscribing to Apple or Amazon or WeChat’s constellation of services in exchange for data and fees) are fast becoming more influential in our daily lives than our national citizenships. It’s not hard to imagine a future in which those subscriptions provide us with more personal value than our taxes afford us from public services.
The terms that we probably all use multiple times in our working day – digital, retail, and consumer, are packed with assumptions that limit our ability to consider futures that are more holistic, more nuanced and more honest (or less hackneyed!). It is the ambient digital wrapper around our societies and spaces that will allow for smarter ecosystems of service provision. And advanced digital infrastructure will make any space a commercial opportunity for established brands – but also for people, who will be making, marketing, selling and sharing in myriad ways. Designing commercial strategies fit for 2030 requires this critical reframing of digital as ambient, retail as a service, and consumers as citizens.