Retail stores of the future will entertain first, and sell later

As cheap e-commerce fills our need for everyday items, retailers will have to make in-store shopping something special

Shoe-shine station at Holt Renfrew men's boutique

Holt Renfrew’s men’s store, opened in fall 2014, offers complimentary shoe shines and acts as an art gallery in addition to a retail space. (Vince Talotta/Toronto Star/Getty)

A few weeks ago, I was at the opening of the new wing to Sherway Gardens, a mall in the west end of Toronto. The 210,000-square-foot, $550 million expansion is adding 50 new stores to the mall.

The most notable part of the expansion is that many of those stores will be high-end, luxury retailers, including the likes of Saks Fifth Avenue, Harry Rosen and Holt Renfrew.

It reminded me of a recent conversation I had with Mark Rolston, a designer at Austin, Tex.-based Argo Design, for a story I was working on about what we’ll be shopping for in 2020.

Rolston believes we’re heading for a future in which shopping will be a purely pleasurable activity, where we’ll only go to stores to buy highly individualized items. They’ll probably be expensive as a result.

Fulfilling our daily needs—the mundane things we shop for now, like laundry detergent and groceries—will be automated, and cheap.

It’ll be similar to horses, he said, where they used to be necessary for several aspects of daily life, including field labour and transportation, but now we only ride them for fun.

“We will shop for the most artisanal expression of certain aspects of our lives,” Rolston said. “We will identify ourselves, much like we do with fashion, by the artisanal things we buy.”

Technology companies, especially Amazon, are indeed pushing in this direction. The online retailer is testing all manner of methods to speed up shopping, from aerial drones to one-push“Dash” buttons that place instantaneous orders to hiring part-time drivers to make Uber-like deliveries.

The upmarket move by malls, at least in Canada, seems to also point in this direction. The shift might not reflect just good economic conditions, but also a cultural transformation toward the fetishistic shopping future that Rolston envisions.

Pleasure shopping? That sounds pretty good, especially considering the mad Christmas rush we’ll all be experiencing soon enough.