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Blog / Jan. 02

Retail’s Coming Decade: Waiting for Michelangelo

Dave Bruno

It’s that time again: the time when we look into our crystal balls and try to predict what the next year will hold. But this year, as we cross over into a new decade, I decided to look beyond the next 12 months and take a shot at predicting what the next ten years might have in store for retail. This turn of the decade is particularly poignant for me as it marks the fifth, and most likely final, turn of a decade in which I will be an active member of the retail industry.

Over the course of my 40+ years in this amazing industry, I have had the great privilege to be both a witness to and a participant in the most dramatic revolution since Harry Selfridge introduced open-aisle displays – where shoppers could actually (gasp!) touch and inspect products without a salesperson’s assistance – more than 100 years ago. I have been lucky enough to bear witness to the rise of the shopping mall, the ascension of big-box retail, the inexorable spread of the suburban strip mall, the dominance of Amazon, and the (painfully slow) recognition of the value of integrated omnichannel retail.

No sign of an apocalypse

What I have not borne witness to, however – despite countless news reports announcing it – is a retail apocalypse. Yes, retail is changing. And thanks to technology, it is changing faster than it ever has before. But retail is not dying. Nor is retail in the midst of an apocalypse. Not even close.

Why anyone would suggest that retail is in the midst of an apocalypse continues to baffle me. Was there an “art apocalypse” when da Vinci and Michelangelo ushered in the Renaissance? Obviously not. Instead, art, and the artists who created it, evolved as people’s tastes and expectations changed. Which is exactly what I believe will happen to retail in the 2020s. I am convinced that retail will undergo its own renaissance, and when all is said and done, the stores of 2030 will look markedly different from the stores of 2020.

Just as Renaissance masters understood how light could add depth, dimension, and drama to previously flat, one-dimensional paintings, retail masters will learn how carefully curated experiences can add collaboration, community, and connections to previously flat, one-dimensional shopping experiences.

The new retail masters will completely redefine how we think of stores. In many cases, we may not even recognize them as stores. Instead they will become places we go to for experiences that also just happen to sell stuff.

A glimpse into the future

During Aptos’ recent guided walking tour of the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, we caught a glimpse of what I think the store of the future will look like. During the tour, we visited a place called Rough Trade Records, ostensibly a record store selling punk rock records. But they are so much more than a place that just sells records. They are also a coffee shop. And a concert hall. And a ping-pong venue. And a place to experience pop-up shops related to the punk music scene. Selling records is almost an afterthought, as they have become a “third place” for Brooklyn-area punk music fans.

A pop quiz

So, is Rough Trade a store or a music venue? Select the answer below that you think best describes Rough Trade Records:

a) Store
b) Venue
c) Both
d) It doesn’t matter

The answer, of course, is d. For Rough Trade customers, it just. doesn’t. matter.

Rough Trade is simply a place they go to. It’s a place they go to find people who share similar tastes in music. They go there to argue about that music and they go there to listen to that music. Heck, they even go there to play ping-pong while listening to that music. Oh, and yes, they actually go there to buy vinyl recordings of that music, too.

Which is exactly what I expect of the next decade. I expect winning retailers to create places and spaces that obliterate the lines between shopping and experience. Retail’s new masters won’t design these places as “stores” but instead will design places that engage and build community. The new masters will shed light on the opportunity inherent in community-building spaces. They will banish terms like “racetrack design” from their vocabulary. Price lists will be replaced by event calendars and seating charts. Sales associates will be replaced by teachers and tour guides.

And unlike the art world of the Middle Ages, we don’t need to wait for Michelangelo to usher in our renaissance. We already know what people want from us. We already have examples to follow. And we have thousands of stores to serve as our blank canvases.

We just need to grab a brush.