Most predictions for the future of business include a lot of technology--maximizing connectivity, mining data, and increasing instant satisfaction. While these trends will surely continue, I actually think the future promises a return to "retro" methods of contact, communication, and curation.

Sure, online has changed the way we purchase because it has increased both the choice and availability offered to most of us. I'll be the first to confess I would rather shop virtually and have my household cleaners delivered, for instance, instead of schlepping them home from the store myself. But I will also admit there are certain things I refuse to buy online. Purchase a new stereo without hearing the sound quality? Nope. A piece of jewelry with expensive stones like diamonds whose cut and carat can vary wildly? Not likely. Even a dining room chair I'll pass up purchasing on the web because I need to sit on it to know if it's comfortable. Not only will choosy customers like me continue to be reticent about purchasing certain categories of goods online, the consumer population in general will also be fed up with receiving products that are not what they seemed digitally (like the baby clothes I bought last week that were not at all "soft and cuddly" as the description said). As the range of products offered online continues to grow, I am convinced that the wave of the future for online retailers will be to retrofit their businesses with an old concept: showrooms. Whether they have their own dedicated display zone or take space in shared showrooms which showcase multiple lines/products, they will need to have a physical place where customers can touch, scrutinize, and confirm the quality of the goods they are considering purchasing.

Customer communication is also an area that will need to return to its roots. Sure some of the new technologies are convenient. For example, I like getting a text message to let me know there might be a fraudulent charge on my credit card. But any kind of communication with customers should include a dose of live person-to-person interaction at some point as well, because once I have been alerted to the potential fraud, I want someone to speak with me and help resolve the issue. Unfortunately, over the past few decades, a lot of companies have tried to save money by skimping on the human component and gone the route of quasi-total automation instead. In 2020, consumers will choose to work with companies who use technology to enhance their accessibility rather than supplanting real customer care with nonsensical nuisances like auto-attendants, auto-replies, and auto-assistance. Businesses that relegate customer concerns to FAQ pages, email-only responses, and troubleshooting threads in the future will be committing corporate suicide.

Standardization is another concept that will need to make room for the retro ideas of personalization and curation. In the fight for market share, companies have tried to be everything to everyone, but the way of the future is to reserve standardization for processes, not product offerings. In the past, local stores were able to stock the right items for their customers because they took into account their means, their surroundings, and also their individual backgrounds. The kind of winter coat I need as a New York City resident who walks a lot is very different than the coat my mother who lives in the Midwest and drives everywhere will pick, even though our weather is very similar. Heading into the future, the most successful businesses will be those that find ways to present a customer not only a selection of products that seems curated especially for him, but also gives him the feeling of a personalized experience. I shop at an organic grocery store during the week, but when I can go to my local outdoor farmer's market instead, I do so every time. Both places have a lot of the same products, but at the farmer's market, they call me by name, and set aside for me certain items they know I want or will be interested in trying. While it's great to standardize certain aspects of a business--pricing, delivery, and quality, for instance--standardization has no place in a company's merchandise mix or customer experience in 2020.

Published on: Feb 28, 2015