[Image: Photo by Gary Butterfield on Unsplash]
2030: How Covid saved the high street
The high street had been struggling for decades [grave voice]. Out of town retail parks and online shopping had pulled shoppers and spend away, and when the virus came along in 2020, everyone switched to online shopping. The end.
But is it possible to trace out a possible future in which Covid saves the high street?
- Covid forced many organisations into Working From Home. The lockdowns paused lots of retail, with many unfortunate job losses and business failures.
- Organisations learned that Wfh works ok, particularly if they avoid doing back to back video calls all day.
- But because many towns are organised around commuting, shops and other commerce in urban centres were struggling. The Confederation of British Industry warned of ghost towns if offices stay empty, and the UK Government encouraged workers to get back to the office to save the “office economy”. Perhaps companies that had optimised for commuting and city-worker sales were most exposed: Pret A Manger cuts 2,800 jobs as sales sink to lowest level in 10 years.
- Despite the government pleas, companies decide to delay returning to their office. “Fifty of the biggest UK employers say they have no plans to return all their staff full-time in the near future”. Recent research found that 9 out of 10 office workers want to continue Wfhoming in some way.
- Companies start exiting big “head office” leases in big city centres. Capita to close over a third of offices permanently. Pinterest cancels plans for a massive San Francisco campus, citing remote work shift from coronavirus.
- Organisations start switching to multiple regional offices. Eg: suburban bank branches find new use as alternate office space for staff reluctant to commute to big HQs in city centres. They find it more resilient, lower cost. The people costs (communication, co-ordination, productivity, team health) start to improve as organisations get better at it.
- Large retailer and product brands move toward online-and-delivered shopping propositions. And shopping behaviour continues to shift: online is for things that you already know you want, or that you don’t need to inspect, or that need to be cheap. Offline is for things that you need now, or didn’t know you needed until you saw them, or for experiences.
- Commuting drops because people are staying and working more locally. “Cities will not die, but their benefits could become more diffuse, with well-paid workers spread further into the rest of the country.” Their offline spend correspondingly stays more local. This means that local services and high streets see a regenerative effect, particularly where local authorities support reinvention rather than conservation. The high street is revived: a mixture of “convenient and now” and “experiential” retail.
- The emptier central business districts in cities are eventually re-colonised by residential and smaller/independent retail. They eventually look like new high streets too.
Asda is doing parcel collection and returns in 600 locations with To You. It’s not 100% clear whether it uses staff or is an automated locker thing, and it looks like it might be certain retailers/brands only. Finding new uses for existing space is interesting...
Amazon is trialling same-day delivery from Morrisons supermarkets - a trial in Leeds.
New apps use your phone to record your dimensions and recommend what size to buy at shops - it might be useful if the shop itself did this, tuning the measurement to their own sizing regime.
Price of single-use plastic carrier bags in England to double - 10p in April 2021.
Bread price may rise after dire UK wheat harvest.
“To see the fast-food chain of the future, simply walk to your car, open the door, and take a seat. Because you’ve just arrived.” Fast food restaurants are redesigning for faster drive through and click and collect. Drive through was always about convenience, but these days your car is also a safe way to shop and a safe place to eat. If the car is a Covid-safe place, how will it be redesigned in future? How will towns and cities change so you can stay in your car?
Perhaps this is how: here’s a self-driving taxi with some interesting features. First, Covid safety: “ambulance-grade U-VC lighting”. Will this kind of thing will be used in all public transport in future? It would be helpful if shops and other public locations and forms of transport were able to visibly prove or demonstrate they were clean and safe. And maybe that UV blue (or face mask green?) will be the colour that signals “Covid-safe.
(The second interesting thing about the taxi was, the AI stuff: a careful separation between the self-driving bit and the safety bit. No doubt that is the Right Thing To Do but naively it sounds like they’re saying that there is a fair bit more work to do on self-driving.)
But if a car is *self-driving*, you might see shops that come to you. Convenient and safe.
Facebook just figured out how to make MRIs four times faster - the breakthrough, made with scientists from New York University, could transform medical imaging.
Amazon’s new $100 ‘Halo’ health band measures body fat, voice tone, sleep quality, and activity. Using AI “to help customers understand how they sound to others, helping improve their communication and relationships” sounds like great fun.
Spreadsheet error led to hospital opening delay - humans make mistakes.
“Spoiler: it didn’t go to plan” - Co-op Digital’s Charles Burdett on launching a side project, Workshop Tactics.
“Trying to know ourselves through platform data tends to yield partial and contorted accounts of human behavior that conceal platform interventions […] Measurement is thus a product of the social and institutional context”. Feels correct.
“Companies including supermarkets and fast food retailers must make full transparency of supply chains a condition of trade" - Greenpeace comments on a proposed UK law that would make it illegal to use products that fail to comply with laws to protect nature in those origin nations. (Imagine the depth of supply chain reporting needed.)
“Now it’s up to us to seize the means of computation, putting that electronic nervous system under democratic, accountable control.” - How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism (long read).
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