Reclaiming Retail’s Customer Heritage

Reclaiming Retail’s Customer Heritage

Gary Hawkins, CEO, Center for Advancing Retail and Technology


Today will be the slowest pace of change in your lifetime. Consider that for a moment. The ubiquitous iPhone was introduced just a decade ago, and today we take the app store and all the capabilities we have in our hand for granted. It seems like only yesterday that robots were the realm of science fiction, yet today we find them roaming store aisles, autonomous pods delivering groceries, and automated warehouses fast becoming the norm. Even the production of food itself is being transformed as meat is grown in factories and greens are grown in trailers alongside the store.

The fast moving consumer goods retail industry is in chaos and the shift online is only the tip of the iceberg as disruption sweeps across every part of the supply chain. And this disruption is only just getting started. Technologies are converging, triggering even greater growth in world-changing capabilities. And even industries are converging as new technologies, consumer interest, and economic forces come into play.

Many retailers are being whipsawed by the shift online and the explosive growth of innovation, not knowing where to focus next. Amidst this chaos, some retailers are trying to do everything while others are overwhelmed to the point of paralysis. And all retailers are moving too slowly, often not understanding the underlying forces at work driving this new world.

Five year plans, a staple of management, are obsolete before the save button is clicked as new capabilities, new competitors, and new consumer demands arise almost daily. To bring order to the chaos retailers need to focus on the one constant that is ever-present: The customer.

We have entered the Age of ‘i’. This is a time of quickening innovation; expanding intelligence powered by artificial intelligence feeding off big data, and immersive experiences provided by augmented and virtual reality, with all of it increasingly focused on making the world all about each individual person.

Retail in the Age of ‘i’ reclaims the industry’s heritage of customer focus growing from the days of the corner store. Today, retailers have the ability to leverage vast new technologies to once again focus on the individual customer, partnering with each customer as we journey forward.

And beyond technology, retailers have an opportunity to inject humanness into a shopping experience that is at risk of becoming an automated, people-free process of replenishment. The retail industry is rapidly approaching a crossroads. One path is leading to an efficient, cost-effective, yet sterile, shopping environment ruled by automation. The other is positioning technology in service to customers, taking advantage of automation to redirect human associates to engage with shoppers in either the physical or virtual environments, and fostering the personal relationships between the merchant and the customer that were a part of life decades ago.  

“Throughout history, human beings have inherently been social creatures. For millions of years we’ve genetically evolved to survive and thrive through the “togetherness” of social groups and gatherings. Today, modern communication and technology has forever changed the landscape of our human interaction, and as such, we often decline without this type of meaningful personal contact. Today’s highly individualistic, digitally remote, and material driven culture is now challenging all of this, as we turn to science to unlock the mysteries of human connection and wellness in a digitally connected world.”

I believe there is business opportunity in doing the right thing for people and our communities. That people today, staring into their digital screens for hours at a time, interacting via Facebook or Twitter, and being drawn to every new shiny piece of tech, actually covet human connectedness. Retailers, especially food retailers, are in a unique position to deliver this powerful human experience given that people still need to eat daily and, as we’ll see later in the book, the growing connectedness between food and health and wellbeing.

From a business perspective, every customer interaction, whether in the digital realm or the physical store, is vital to acquiring, growing, and retaining customers. Focusing on each individual customer forces retailers to think beyond generalizations - investing in a health and wellness program is good for my shoppers - to focus on leveraging technology to serve the individual; ‘how can I help Sasha improve her life by providing products and services contextually relevant to her?’. This involves not looking at Sasha as representative of a cohort, but - literally - building a relationship with Sasha as an individual. 

Not only is the customer the only constant in today’s world of non-stop disruption, but customers are expecting, even demanding, that the world be made relevant to them. And why not? Consumers take for granted the personalization and relevancy in the digital world, and expect the same from brick & mortar retailers.

An excerpt from Retail in the Age of ‘I’. Available on

About the Author

Gary Hawkins is the founder and CEO of the Center for Advancing Retail & Technology (CART). He can be reached at

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