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I’ve been to Shoptalk and I’ve seen the future of retail.

In the future of retail we are going to be talking to robots in stores, getting e-commerce deliveries almost before we order them, talking to robots online, trying on clothes without getting off the couch, going to the store as much to hang out and have a beer as to pick up a gallon of milk and receiving instant personalized recommendations every time we search for a product online.

Or not.

In the future of retail we will never go to a brick-and-mortar store. Or we’ll go to brick-and-mortar stores more than ever.

So, what is the future of retail? It’s a trick question.

Mark Lavelle

For two days, the 3,000-plus attendees at Shoptalk have been talking, debating, speculating and predicting where retail is headed in the future. The industry, which is a key economic driver in the United States, is undergoing radical disruption.

Consumers, armed with smartphones and conditioned by search engines that seem to know exactly what they want, are empowered like never before. A recent series of earning reports tells the story of a move away from traditional department stores to online shopping.  

But nothing seems set in stone and everyone seems to wonder what’s next. A safe bet: The disruption will continue. Some choices are false choices and retailers may be saying yes to multiple strategies. Sure, we’ll talk to robots online, but people will be available, too.

And I cheated. Some of the future scenarios at the beginning of this post are things that are already happening in some form or another. All that to say that it’s not like flipping a switch. Our retail future will evolve, different retailers will have different priorities. Some advances will undoubtedly take longer than we might imagine.

Mark Lavelle, CEO of Magento Commerce, summed up the challenges nicely in a session aptly called “Executive Perspectives: The Future of E-Commerce.” He was talking particularly about the demands of Gen Z, but he could easily have been speaking about consumers as a whole.

“You’re going to have to really, again, keep up with that expectation of an ever-increasing experience that delights you,” he said. “Something new all the time. Certainly digital first. And it’s going to be a challenge. But I think in a way, we’re getting ready for what’s happening in commerce right now.”

No doubt, the thinking, the innovating, the strategizing, the keeping up, will all be clearly focused on the customer experience. The idea of speeding up delivery or giving consumers more ways to pick up packages or have them delivered; the work on making it easier to search and buy on smartphones; all of it is aimed at improving the customer experience, and as a result, increasing revenue and presumably profit.

All good, but a number of speakers pointed out that often there are steps along the way and it’s best for retailers to take the steps they can now, rather than set their sights on building the ideal customer experience all at once, which might take years and many millions.

Raj De Datta, who is the CEO of BloomReach, raised the point in the context of  a panel discussion on new approaches to personalization. While in theory it might seem ideal to build a system that collects in one spot data from the retailer, from the retailer’s partners and from enterprises that monitor consumer behavior and spending, that would indeed fall into the years-long and many millions category.

The better approach would be to build a data foundation in tandem with applications that provide an immediate return on investment.

PersonalizationPanel

“It turns out that you actually don’t need a tenth of that data to have those apps deliver an interesting, personalized experience,” De Datta said of the data required for the ideal, all-at-once system.

The panelists at the session, “New Approaches to Personalization,” also took the opportunity to provide predictions for the future of personalization.

Michael Klein of Adobe, was firmly in the talking to robots camp.

“Conversational commerce is here to stay,” he said in response to a question calling for predictions. He mentioned Facebook Messenger’s work with chatbots and Amazon’s Echo.

“The fact that I can now communicate with a device. I can build my shopping list verbally and have that on-the-go when I walk into the store — I think conversational commerce is going to be a big piece of retail as we move forward,” Klein said.

For his part, De Datta predicted the rise of the merchandiser.

“The merchandiser is coming back,” he said. “This last 15 or 20 years has been the era of internet marketing. And the next 10 or 15 years, data science is going to do the algorithmic optimization of sites and acquisition campaigns and so on. So, to stand out, the new merchandiser is going to be a data optimizer. You’re going to take large sets of data and couple that with gut, feel and intuition, combine those things together and create unbelievably valuable experiences for customers.”

The panel appeared to be in agreement on the notion that these are very early days in the field of personalization. And there is no doubt that retailers are determined to do personalization right.

All of which means this will be worth watching. The fun is only beginning.

Photos by Mike Cassidy.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.