What will the store of the future look like? Will we be served by fleets of gleaming robots, using built-in facial recognition technology to adjust each sales pitch to a person’s current mood or past spending preferences? Will there be voice-activated personal assistants, downloading the availability, color and fit of any and every garment to your smartphone? Three-D printing stations? No checkout counters when you leave? Could there even be floating, holographic product displays on the shop floor that change when a customer walks by?
Perhaps shoppers will make all their purchases from their own home, using virtual fitting rooms via virtual reality headsets. Drones will then drop deliveries in the backyard or on the front steps.
As fanciful as these innovations may sound, none are hypothetical. All exist, are being tested and could be rolled out in as little as a decade. But is this the sort of shopping experience that customers really want?
Scores of leading retailers and fashion brands increasingly say no. And in an ever-more-volatile and unpredictable shopping environment, where long-term survival is dictated by anticipating and catering to consumers’ desires (often before they themselves even know what they want), the race to find out how and where people will do their spending has started to heat up.
Last month, for example, Farfetch — the global online marketplace for independent luxury boutiques — held a daylong event at the Design Museum in London. There, in front of 200 fashion industry insiders and partners, Jose Neves, the founder of Farfetch, unveiled “The Store of the Future,” a suite of new technologies developed by his company to help brands and boutiques bridge the worlds of online and offline.
Nevertheless, in a telephone call the week before the event, Neves said: “I am a huge believer in physical stores. They are not going to vanish and will stay at the center of the seismic retail revolution that is only just getting started.”
A corresponding report newly released by Bain & Co. suggests that he might be right; although 70 percent of high-end purchases are influenced by online interactions, the consultancy maintains that stores will continue to play a critical role, with 75 percent of sales still occurring in a physical location by 2025.
What may change, however, is a store’s primary purpose. Forget e-commerce, or bricks and mortar, or even omnichannel sales; according to Neves, the new retail era is one anchored in “augmented retail,” a blend of the digital and physical allowing a shopper to shift seamlessly between the two realms.
For the past decade, sand sculpture artists have gathered here every year for two weeks at the world’s only indoor sand museum to mount an exhibit of improbably intricate tableaus, all crafted from about 3,000 tons of sand.
This year, 19 artists from countries including Canada, China, Italy, the Netherlands and Russia traveled to Tottori to sculpt scenes on the theme of the United States. Previous themes have included Africa, Russia and South America.
Working nine hours a day, the artists — five of whom are from the United States — built, among other things, Mount Rushmore, the New York skyline (yes, Trump Tower makes an appearance), oversize busts of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, scenes from the gold rush and the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
With Japan’s population declining, Tottori officials are mounting a campaign to attract more foreign tourists to the region, and the sand museum and dunes are central to the effort.
Japan in general is seeking to lure more tourists. Last year, 24 million foreign visitors traveled to Japan, a record high. The national tourism bureau wants to increase that number to 40 million by 2020, the year Tokyo will host the Summer Olympics.
Foreign visitors typically stick to what tourism officials describe as the “golden route” of well-known destinations in Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Kyoto and Osaka.
In an attempt to expand that range, particularly among tourists who may be returning for a second or third visit to the country, the government’s Japan Tourism Agency has allocated 1.64 billion yen (close to $15 million) to help develop and market suggested routes through 11 regions, including around Tottori.
Fewer than 500,000 people visit the Tottori sand museum every year. The number has declined slightly in recent years, and it does not come close to the 2 million people who visit the much better known snow festival in Sapporo, Hokkaido, every year.
Local tourism officials acknowledged that Tottori’s distant location remained a challenge but said they had suggested that visitors be allowed to watch the artists at work, or even help knock down the structures at the end of each exhibition.