Smarter living and the future of retail

Blog

January 14, 2019

Written on behalf of Urban Control and published in Smart Cities World and The Lighting Journal 

By Amy Barker – Group Account Director, CampaignWORKS

In order to intelligently plan for the future, it can be worthwhile taking the time to look back at what has been the driving force behind the development of our towns and public spaces and how it has shaped our urban living.

Without a doubt, at the heart of all of it is the need to trade and the desire to socialise. Both of these have ebbed and flowed through our cities over the years, but ultimately, they have always been – and always must, remain at the centre of our decision making as we look towards a smarter future.

We’ll start our journey a hundred years ago when our towns were the centre of socialisation. The daily shop was a chance to catch up on the local gossip and was one of life’s more pleasurable tasks. On the way to pick up your groceries, it’s likely you would have passed through a park full of trees and beautifully kept flower beds – something we’ve got the Victorian’s to thank for. What we now know as the public realm was born out of the desire to escape the heavy smog and dirt that shrouded the cities of the 19th Century.

The Victorians embraced the latest technologies and innovations and lavished upon our open spaces, beautifully crafted benches with elaborate, wrought and cast-iron embellishments.

By day, you could make out the detail of hand-crafted copper lanterns, adorned with crests and exuberant swirls – something we pay a premium for today.

Everything was designed with vigour and energy – with the sole purpose to entice people to stop and linger, and spend time enjoying their surroundings and each other’s company.

But the socialisation didn’t stop in the park – less than a hundred years ago you could walk into a local corner shop and expect a personalised shopping experience. The shopkeeper would greet you by name and knew your shopping list by heart. They would diligently fill up your bag with your favourites and recommend new items that might be of interest.

It was all about the experience and the enjoyment of life’s every-day tasks.

But if we fast forward to the 1950s, it’s less about the experience and all about convenience. Cars are common place and you are unlikely to want to bother carrying your now weekly shop, through the park – instead taking some form of transport. Street lights are no longer admired during the day for their decorative beauty but instead, great concrete pillars help to ensure we can carry on with our daily tasks, well into the night.

During this decade, the rapid transition to the self-service supermarket is largely complete and through this improvement of transport, communication and other technological developments, lives have sped up 10-fold. A visit to a town centre in the mid 20th century is all about ease; a necessary task that retailers and city planners seek to make as easy and as quick as possible.

And so, what about today? Well in many ways we’ve almost come full circle.

Retailers are focused on providing us with personalised experiences from the comfort of our own homes. Previous purchases are remembered, and systems are so intelligent it’s almost like having a personal shopper advising and recommending products.

Convenience has been taken to whole new level which leaves our traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers and our local councils with the challenge of enticing people in for other reasons than their weekly shop.

So, what does this mean for the future of our town centres? Will they continue to shrink in size until it’s nothing but coffee shops and hairdressers? Will independent retailers all but vanish because everything can be done from the comfort of your own home?

If history is anything to go by then the answer is a resounding no.

Technology will never overtake the need to socialise. And it will never remove the need for experiencing the tangible – meaning to a degree, our traditional retailers are safe. Instead, as smart technology infiltrates our everyday lives, we are seeing a return to an enhanced mix of leisure and shopping.

Let’s take a look at Amazon who have just opened their (physical) doors to the first shop without a checkout process. Customers instead pay for the goods they have selected via an app. Using sensors and technology that is found in self-driving cars, the customer’s Amazon account is charged once they leave the shop.

This is the future. Where an online and virtual shopping experience meets a traditional and physical one.

But it won’t just stop there, because when smart technology really takes hold we will be looking at more than just a smart shopping experience, we will be benefiting from smart supply chains too.

Amazon is just experimenting with its own supply chain and ‘shop window’. But we can expect to see the integration of internet shopping with bricks and mortar extending across entire town infrastructures.

Already retailers have digital inventory lists. So, imagine the consolidation of this information from multiple retailers into one mobile app allowing you to search for an item, find out who is selling it and then pop into town confident you know exactly where it is.

Maybe the app can also tell you where the nearest available parking space is and recommend a 2-for-1 offer at a local restaurant. And without out a doubt, our humble friend the streetlight will be the back-bone of this information network – adorned not with crests and swirls, but with nodes and sensors.

But we all know by now that lighting columns make great aerials – what else has all of this got to do with street lights? Well – everything. The need to trade and the desire to socialise should be driving our product road maps and city blueprints. Understanding the end user, their behaviours and needs should be at the heart of our innovations – just as it was at the heart of the Victorian’s.

But now it’s all about the science that is driving developers and designers to push the boundaries of what is possible. No longer are our street lights iron statues, unable to light any more than their immediate vicinity. Instead they are dynamic and intelligent, allowing us to use a full spectrum of light to encourage people to linger and to enjoy their surroundings. In a world where our day doesn’t have to end when the gas lighters and their ladders appear, we, the product designers, solution providers, visionaries and planners have the opportunity to play a critical role in the future development of our urban environments.

Town centres must continue to evolve into enjoyable and inspirational places to socialise and shop. Confident in the fact that the heart of our towns and cities will not only survive in a more connected world, but will ultimately thrive.

 

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