person holding phone showing augmented reality in shopping
From cashless commerce to augmented reality, the retail trends of today are transforming the way consumers make their purchases. — Getty Images/hakule

Not long ago, retail analysts and reporters warned of the impending collapse of retail stores — a “retail apocalypse” that would render brick-and-mortar stores virtually obsolete. Those claims turned out to be a tad hyperbolic, as physical stores still command nearly 90% of U.S. retail sales. However, it is true that retailers are working ceaselessly to woo today’s ever-connected consumers — and this makes for some interesting (and, sometimes, downright weird) retail trends.

From in-store digital ads that track your irises to trendy shops that vanish without a trace in 24 hours, here are seven trends to look out for on your next shopping trip.

Futuristic in-store experiences will become more common

At Walgreens’ Union Square store in Manhattan, a shopper stands in front of a glass-doored cooler full of drinks, but she can’t see through the glass to the cold drinks beyond. No, what the shopper sees is a digitized representation of all the drinks inside the cooler, displayed on a screen built into the cooler door. While she gazes at the screen, cameras scan her face, estimating her gender and age. Then the screen changes, displaying a beverage advertisement targeted toward her demographic. Iris-tracking technology measures her reaction to the ad. Retailers like Walgreens are flirting with responsive in-store technologies, such as interactive shelf displays and artificial intelligence-powered virtual demos, to bring products to life in new ways while amassing valuable data on shoppers’ in-store behavior to continually enhance the experience.

The mall will be cool again

E-commerce brands — like Warby Parker, Casper and Wayfair — that launched without any plans to set up shop in actual stores, have been quietly exploring and expanding into all kinds of physical spaces, even in (gasp!) malls. Commercial real estate analysts at real estate service firm JLL confirm there’s a growing trend among these brands. For instance, women’s lingerie purveyor Adore Me recently opened two locations in New York and New Jersey malls and plans another two mall locations for early 2019 along its way to adding 300 more stores in the next five years. Wayfair, the nation’s biggest online furniture retailer, just announced plans to open its first permanent store in the Natick Mall later this year.

You’ll see more of what you want, at the right price

Teen fashion retailer rue21 has been working with technology provider First Insight to apply predictive analytics to the evaluation of potential new items and their optimal price points before bringing the items into stores. Historically, retail apparel merchandisers have relied on a combination of in-store testing and intuition to make decisions about what items to carry and how to price them — which can be time-consuming and often costly, when items that miss the mark with customers need to be marked down. Predictive analytics, as the term implies, uses data mining, machine learning and other tools to forecast potential business outcomes. Vendors’ use of this technology should mean that shoppers see more items in stores that you actually want to buy at prices that they deem fair. It’s a win-win for all parties.

The push toward cashless stores stems from the overarching desire of retailers and brands to refocus the in-store customer experience on one thing: convenience.

You’ll leave your wallet at home (on purpose)

Grab and go. Tap and pay. Heck, just take some things off the shelf and walk right out. It’s possible to shop this way in many cities, whether you’re in a store with no checkout lanes or stepping up to the register at a Starbucks. The push toward cashless stores stems from the overarching desire of retailers and brands to refocus the in-store customer experience on one thing: convenience. But are retailers really headed toward a cashless future? Some experts point to data indicating that they might be: Consumers making all or nearly all of their purchases in cash fell to 18% last year, down from 24% in 2015. Others in the retail industry are less sure about how in-person payments will factor into our future.

Some of your favorite stores will disappear overnight

What do pop music sensations, YouTube stars, celebrity chefs, Google, Amazon, Nike and about a gazillion startups you’ve haven’t heard of (yet) all have in common? They all play the pop-up store game — opening temporary retail spaces to amp up excitement. Off limits to no one, pop-up stores — some open only a few hours or days — have become a marketing mainstay. Their fleeting presence stokes curiosity for what may be a whirlwind romance or the beginning of an enduring relationship. The universal thread linking all pop-up retailing initiatives is the drive to learn about consumers’ evolving desires and to test new retail concepts, sites, markets and products – a low-risk, low-cost proposition. And the fiscal and practical conditions fueling the adoption of this trend could not be better.

What’s old will become new again

Remember a few years ago, when meal kit home delivery services (like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh) seemed poised to transform the way you shopped for food? No more Sunday trips to the grocery store! No more buying too many scallions! Now fast forward to the present, where those very same meal kits are still a popular commodity, but in a different and somewhat surprising context. Meal kits have moved to ... grocery stores. Brick-and-mortar retail outlets rang up $93 million in meal kit sales in 2018. A who's who of food retailers — Walmart, Amazon (at Whole Foods), Publix and others have introduced meal kits in their stores. Even drug chain Walgreens is offering Hello Fresh meal kits in some locations. It’s one example of how food retailers — and also food brands, like Kelloggs’ and General Mills — are evolving in the e-commerce age.

You’ll make the products you want to buy

As everyday folks craft their own personal brand on public platforms from Facebook and Instagram to LinkedIn, retailers are inviting shoppers to take part in crafting the products they buy, too. Merchants are facilitating in-store personalization experiences, from designing one’s own dream closet at the Container Store’s “next generation” Dallas flagship to customizing their jeans at Levi’s Times Square store. At the brand’s largest store worldwide, direct-to-garment printing enables shoppers to customize Levi’s apparel with photos, images, logos and text designed by local New York artists. Inviting shoppers into the design process allows them to “create an extension of themselves that ties to the brand,” one industry expert told CO—.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Published June 24, 2019