The Journey From Stuff To Satisfaction, Retail’s Greatest Opportunity In A Generation

When you think of retail, what springs to mind? Queues at the checkout? Boarded up shop fronts on your local high street? Perhaps the next white van turning up with your latest online delivery? Or could it be that you think retail is dying, the retail apocalypse and the death of the high street?

Well, all the above might perhaps be expected. But what about; a great afternoon’s entertainment? Or your favourite place to spend time? Or maybe, somewhere to spend time with friends? Or even, your digital self immersing itself in the retail metaverse?

Let’s face it, many column inches have been dedicated to retail over the years, and especially now, as we emerge from the pandemic and the challenges facing the industry are laid bare. But for me, most if not all are merely scraping the surface of what we’re really witnessing. And to understand why, we first need to understand the nature of retail as we have known it for decades.

Stripped back to its essential elements, retailing is nothing more than one party (the retailer) buying from another (the supplier) and then adding a margin before selling to a third party (the customer).

And of course, the retailer traditionally built things called shops in which to curate their products and keep the rain off them, so that their customers could come and look at them before buying. And that, fundamentally has been retail for generations.

Even with the advent of the internet, smartphones, social media and online shopping, the building blocks of retail remained the same. Curate the product in the most appealing manner, and customers would come flocking to buy.

Sadly, some retailers didn’t quite get the mix right and they didn’t survive, miscalculating that if they continued to stuff their shops with products, people would continue to come and buy them.

However, a combination of events of epic proportions meant that the people began to take a different view of retail. Rather than the gift that kept giving, the people slowly began to realise that retail was in fact, the cause of much harm to the planet. And they wanted retail to recognise this and do something about it. And, truth be told, retail had become a bit, well, stale and boring.

But such was the nature of retail that it didn’t realise this, constantly needing to be sated, desperate to sell more and more stuff to the people, who would consume it and then go back for more. Again and again.

Unfortunately, the people didn’t realise that it was they who kept feeding and encouraging retail to deliver more, faster, quicker, cheaper. And retail willingly obliged.

And then one day, the people realised what they were doing, they were no longer satisfied consuming all that stuff, and there was a terrible rebellion against retail. As a consequence, retail suffered badly, but the people didn’t mind because they knew they were saving the planet for their children and their grandchildren; this being the single most significant cause they’d ever believed in.

Retail was badly wounded, but thankfully, not mortally so, because the people also realised the good that retail did and that the people’s communities and way of life greatly depended upon retail.

After a while, retail asked the people, “what should we become?”. And the people told retail that what they needed in their lives was a purpose, a sense of community, a way of escaping — even momentarily — their anxieties and stresses. They had come to realise that continually collecting more stuff didn’t satisfy them anymore.

They wanted to be entertained, informed, they wanted retail to know, recognise and reward them. And above all, they wanted to experience retail. After all, retail had all this information about the people but strangely didn’t use it.

Well, retail thought about this for a while, hadn’t it been doing all this for so many years? But the people were unrepentant, retail had to transform itself, become a part of their lives far more than simply providing more stuff whenever the people felt the urge to consume yet more.

The people urged retail to rethink its fundamental role in the world because not only did retail need the people, but the people needed retail just as much.

And gradually, retail came to realise that it wasn’t in the business of stuff, because stuff no longer satisfied the people, it was merely a by-product of the experience retail actually offered the people: fulfilment.

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Andrew Busby

Andrew Busby

Global Industry Leader Retail at Software AG, founder Retail Reflections, best selling author, former Forbes contributor, global retail influencer.