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Editorial Comment: The Frog in the Well Knows Nothing of the Great Ocean

On the basis that we create the future we have seen, Ian Jindal wonders whether we are spending enough time forging motivating and radical futures for retail.

January is a time to take stock, to learn lessons, distil our ambitions and gird our loins to act in pursuit of our aims. We reflect on the change in our state from the last new year, consider the passing of time, and imagine the changes we expect to deliver in the coming year.

However, when speaking with retail professionals, customers and small-ish children alike, there seems to be a ‘lack of future’. This is not to say, of course, that they expect the world to end imminently, but rather that the quantum of anticipated change is limited to incremental and steady improvement. There is an expectation that the future will be just like the present, but a little better: an iPhone 10 rather than the 5, better surgical outcomes, but no Martian colonies or Utopian social vision.

In my childhood we had a real feel for a transformational future. The space race had ignited a new pioneering front, with Star Trek boldly going where no man had gone before. We had Space 1999 and moon base Alpha, bringing a darker, British view to the tribulations of space – but at least we were in space – with Lycra ‘onesies’, phasers and transparent aluminium.

The impact of those early series, presaged by the science fiction writing of the 1950s and 60s, helped invent the Motorola Startac flip-phone, the iPad and Microsoft’s Surface (indeed the deck of the USSS Enterprise was like an Apple store prototype!). We’re still ‘owed’ the transparent metal, the anthropomorphic ubiquitous computer (no, not Siri) and teleportation. It’s fair to say that many of the technological advances of the last 20 years have grown from the seeds imagined and prototyped in the fiction of the ’60s.

Modern digital stores are improving due to the mix of mobile and tablet technology meeting the effects from the film Minority Report and the ongoing meeting of data and location delivered personally to the customer. However, not only is this an incremental rather than radical change, it’s also no more than the customer ungratefully already expects.

I was reminded of the Chinese folk story of a frog in a well, feeling entirely king of his domain, with food aplenty and the other denizens of the well no match for him in size, strength or capability. All good, until one day a passing turtle catches its foot in the well and in chatting with the frog tells him tales of the wide ocean, its extent, depth and creatures. The frog is discomfited to realise the extent of the wider world and the wonders he’s missed: his earlier confidence was ill founded.

Retailers in general work to establish a broader view. They draw from social interaction, science, technology, materials developments and wider trends – as well as contributing in turn to these phenomena. We sell internationally and at scale; adoption of mobile and the digital store has turned ‘ecommerce’ into ‘multichannel’ and the quest for customer insight and focus is driving new levels of personalised service. There is also point innovation that changes customers’ experience of shopping from click and collect blurring the notion of the store to Amazon’s Subscribe & Save, offering us product-level relationships.

However, this is still just Shopping 3.0 or 4.0. The parabular Frog reminds us that even as we succeed we need to be active in our quest for inspiration and open to sources of ideas; to reach beyond our current realms of experience and dominance. Our most dangerous competitors may not be those companies traditionally seen as ‘in our sector’ – consider how Apple’s stores changed retail, and how a luxury brand like Burberry has embraced social and digital, and Amazon’s becoming the Merchants General of the web on the back of logistics dominance and data.

Throughout 2013 Internet Retailing will be charting the successes of retailers who moved beyond incrementalism and optimisation to a radical reshaping not only of our retail present but our retail futures. We wish all of our readers every success in 2013 and beyond. May the turtle of insight stumble into your wells, and may visions you perceive and communicate be ones to mobilise a generation.

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