In Retail, What’s Old Is New

In Retail, What’s Old Is New

In this guest post, Simon Porter (pictured below) the managing director of Havas Commerce takes a look at the future of retail, but adds, there’s still plenty of lessons to be had from the past…

We live in a brave new retail world where major corporations develop and control technologies to make our shopping experience easier. A utopian retail future accelerated to the present by technology and the rise of globalisation.

But, really how much has retail changed in the past 200-years?

To paraphrase the American astronomer Carl Sagan, we have to know the past to understand our present and retail future.

On the face of it, retail is simple. People sell goods to others. Arguably society, as we know it, is built on the simplicity of this value exchange.

Now admittedly, retail has taken quantum leaps in the past 20-years driven by aforementioned technology and unrelenting globalisation. But I’d argue the underlying retail principles mirror those of the past couple of centuries when retailing, as we know it took hold.

Let’s take a look at some of our favourite retail ‘trends’ and examine whether they really are new.

Economies of scale

Take the algorithms and artificial intelligence driving the likes of Ocado and Amazon’s warehouses. Truly innovative technology previously unthinkable. But, the principle behind them is the same as Ford’s Model T production line, the supermarket or big box retail. Efficiency, cutting waste, economies of scale.

Buy now pay later

Afterpay is booming. Gen Z’s preferred method of payment. A retail revolution designed by and created for Gen Z. That may come as news to Australians of an earlier vintage who grew up with ‘lay-by’.

Frictionless payment

Amazon Go’s checkout free shopping is revolutionary. Take out the technology though and it’s very similar to my grandparents shopping experience in Croydon back in the 1930s. No payment necessary, it’s all on account.


Talking of my grandparents, back in their day the butcher, baker and local tailor would know you by name and all your preferences. We laud technology that helps retailers tailor preferences to you on a mass scale. But, personalisation is certainly not new and now all a bit impersonal.

Food delivery

Deliveroo, Uber Eats, Hello Fresh – at the forefront of food delivery on demand. Not really that new, when I was growing up the milkman would be delivering every morning with the familiar clank of glass bottles. Let alone when my Grandmother was growing up, one of her first memories, retold to me, was of the butcher delivering their fresh cuts by horse and cart at the end of WW1.

Influencing culture

In the 19th century, department stores like Bloomingdales became fixtures in popular culture, influencing: what people bought and what they felt they needed. In their own ways, power brands of today like: Amazon and Walmart shape culture in much the same way.

Bespoke produce

As counter-culture pushes against globalisation, people look to local curated choices. Field to fork, artisanal, farm fresh. Dress it up however you like but it sounds pretty similar to the way everyone ate before the 1970s. It really is a case of back to the future.

Creating experiences

Every retail expert will tell you creating retail experiences is the key for physical retail survival and I’m certainly not immune. It’s not new though. Stores have never just been about the value exchange of selling goods. They’ve always been at their best with demonstrations, lectures and entertainment events, it’s the basis on which Macys, Selfridges and David Jones were founded.

Many physical retailers are doing an exceptional job but some in the rush to embrace new technology, or protect thin margins, have forgotten their heartland. Retailers that heeded lessons from the past continue to flourish, take the retail experience of Apple stores that baked in demonstrations, lectures and entertainment events – sounds familiar!

Which is why I believe it’s important to constantly strive to analyse the present and predict the retail future, for our clients, by looking to lessons from the past.


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Havas Commerce Simon Porter

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