Retail Isn’t Dead. The World is Playing By New Rules.

Richard (D-Cal) Dacalos

Human beings are terrible agents of prediction. 

I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life researching and understanding human motivations and habits.As a witness to the panic of Y2K, to say that we are overconfident with our opinions is an understatement.

Over the last few years, there have been strong views about the state of retail. With the rise of digital experiences and the convenience of e-commerce, it is easy to dismiss a future where “brick and mortar” retail still has a place.

These are just samples of the headlines you may have encountered:

If I were an everyday reader, I would also be in a panic. Even an entrepreneur might have a difficult time seeing a bright horizon. 

But sensationalism sells. Gloom and doom gets clicks.

I will provide you with an alternative perspective: not the end-all truth but a picture of a world with different possibilities. And that is my job working within innovation consulting. I live in the space between what’s evident in the present and the potential of the future.

The world is transforming exponentially. 

If you want to survive in the space of retail and fashion, you need to understand that we are now operating under a new set of rules.

Rule No. 1: We Must Return to a Human Touch

Businesses can no longer operate as faceless monoliths.

Barely a decade ago, if a customer agent was having a bad day, your online rant about the experience would disappear into the ether.

We live in a world where one tweet from the CEO could have serious global consequences. Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, learned this the hard way when he talked about “securing” funding.

Despite the amount of technology in between us, every interaction is now measured by how human it is.

And the human experience is one of emotion and its entire spectrum. The customer journey now needs a constant awareness of where a person might be, from rage to bliss, from apathy to obsession. Empathy is having a definite come-back. And no matter how big you are, it is personal. Convenience is no longer just an option. It is a standard. And it now needs to be accompanied by a palpable culture of personal service.

One prime example of the rise of this culture is through the startup of Ron Johnson, Enjoy. Ron Johnson is known to be the man behind Apple’s Genius Bar. His newest endeavor is to own the last mile of service for tech retail. In the spirit of the extraordinary customer experience that he created for Apple users, he is now taking it to phones that may not have it built-in. Enjoy sends a specialist with every delivery to ensure your installation and set-up goes well.

In the world of sales, we now even have companies like Callminer that assist in coaching agents on empathy with the use of artificial intelligence.

Rule No. 2: We Speak to Individuals That Are Part of a Mass

The consumer’s access to a brand and the people behind it has drastically changed.

You can now tag a CEO, and if you are lucky, get a response moments later.

Understanding this double-edged sword is critical for any brand. Not all publicity is good publicity, and the viral power behind a single post from a single person means that you are no longer just communicating to a nameless mass.

This also applies to how you package your messages. The age of the personal and the limited is on the rise.We see this with 26-year old brands like Supreme dominating retail sales. With limited releases, customers line around the block. They are sparking even memes around the power of their logo. And even further, this limited edition world has created new markets and e-commerce platforms like reselling. The rarity produces a culture of “craze” like no other.

Beyond just the idea of rarity and limited editions, personalization has taken a new turn with the power of data.Voice-first search through home assistants like Google Home and Alexa is going to be the new frontier of custom suggestions. These services will not just use your web search as a basis, but your voice and smart home choices.

Rule No. 3 The Necessity to Blend the Digital and the Physical

Retailers are discovering that a device can either be a distraction or a tool to convert a customer.

Will you track where they are as they walk through your stores (it’s already happening)? Will you prompt them to take a picture for a discount instead of checking another store’s price?

The journey of online and offline is now a single path with two sides. The question is, “How will you keep a customer’s attention and get them closer to convert?”

AmazonGo seems like an innovative new solution, but startups like MishiPay have been pushing for this seamless hybrid experience for several years.

If anything, Amazon is in trouble. Companies like Walmart already have the real estate and are now taking the cheaper turn towards digital. Nike has even pulled all their products from Amazon in a bid to focus on consumer experience.

Amazon is now in a race to bring back the physical. Even online-first companies like Shopify, are creating pop-up options. Pop-up rental has grown into a new landscape for short-term real estate. Coming and working from Asia, this was very apparent for me. If anything, there is a rise in physical stores around the world with digital integration happening hand-in-hand.

In America, this may even mean a move towards the strip mall instead of the megamall to get closer to the consumer. Retailers have also benefited from in-store virtual experiences through augmented reality. It has proven to increase sales and customer engagement. ) And the list goes on from smart vending to digital shelving and refrigeration. The horizon is bright for hybrid experiences.

Rule No. 4 It is Platforms vs. Pipes

Large brands no longer control the content that customers consume. Messages no longer pass through a single pipe (a commercial or advertisement) straight into a television.

Platforms allow people to curate the content they receive and create. Seth Godin put it best when he called it Permission Marketing. As consumers, we feel like you need our permission to reach us.

And as previously mentioned, it is a battle for attention apart from permission. This is the new warzone.The battle is no longer solely won by who has the biggest ad spend. It is about how you speak and connect with your audience. 

Whether it is by providing sustainable packaging and delivery (See: Loop), handwritten notes (See: Chanel), or creating a retail-speakeasy for families (See: Camp: The Family Experience Store –

These platforms have also provided new avenues for creators and curators. So much so that, now, we even have digital-first clothing (see: The Fabricant –

Rule No. 5 The Why and the How are Just as Important as the What

Sustainable is no longer just a buzz word. 

There are consequences if you approach sustainability inauthentically. Why and how you do things now can overpower what you are selling (even if you have a great product).

Buying power is switching over to younger generations. And these generations have sustainability ingrained in their blood, primarily because the consequences on their lives are clear. As a personal test, take a trip to your local dollar store, and you will probably find sustainably sourced products and non-GMO/vegetarian options. When the dollar store is making business decisions along those lines, you need to pay attention.

Research has shown that 75% of Millenials are shopping with the environment in mind versus 34% of Baby Boomers ( Moreover, 81% of Millenials expect transparency about sustainability in a company’s marketing (

Seventy percent of Gen Z respondents in a study considers sustainability an important factor in their purchases (

Gen Z and Millenials seem to have similar motivations but the most significant difference is that for Millenials “sustainable” and “climate-friendly” was a topic “up for discussion”. This is not the case for Gen Z. They are already feeling the brunt of bad decisions around consumption and production post World War 2.

The business case for sustainability couldn’t be more apparent. 

Retail hasn’t died. The rules have changed. If you want to survive this paradigm shift, you must keep this in mind.These are just some of the prime examples of how the world has transformed.

More than anything, notice that these rules don’t just dictate how we play the game of retail but every other game, this includes politics, education, and relationships.That is an entirely new way to look at the world. And imagine the possibilities? Both good and bad.

Retail isn’t dying in malls. Retail is already seamlessly moving into your home. 

It is not dead. It is living right beside you.