Did You Know Lionel Richie is a Retail Nostradamus?

Lionel Ritchie, Malcolm Gladwell, Bicycles, and Ecology all intersect in this platform is burning look at the future of retail.

Back in March, at ShopTalk 2017 in Las Vegas, the great Lionel Richie (yes, you heard me right, that Lionel Richie) opened the conference by saying, “Life begins on the edge of your comfort zone.” His words hit me like a kiss at the end of a wet fist that day.

Last week Richie’s words came roaring into my head once again. His words kept reverberating in my head, hanging in the air, like “Hello, is it me you’re looking for?” I guess Lionel just has a knack for that sort of thing.

You see last week I attended a panel discussion at a local Minneapolis innovation and design agency, Zeus Jones, here in town with some friends. To kick off the event, the panel moderator shared a few words. She relayed how she was studying ecology, and specifically ecotones, the point where two ecosystems or biomes intersect, like where a forest meets a grassy plain, for example.

Ecotones are fascinating to ecologists because they are a petri dish for adaptation. The intersection of two completely different ecosystems forces the species of each system to adapt, or else they die. The species of one system, say a forest, are completely accustomed to life in the forest, and once they find themselves in the intersection of a plain and a forest, they need to develop a whole new set of skills to survive. Species, acculturated to one climate, are in essence, within ecotones, forced to interact with species of other climates. Ecotones therefore become the locus for biological transformation. They are evolutionary ground zero.

Or, said another way, ecotones are where species are forced to coexist and flourish at the “edge of their comfort zones.” Yes! Loop of the analogy closed, let’s all now dance on the ceiling!

Rest assured there’s a madness to my methods. Lionel Ritchie? Ecotones? Adaptation? Yes, they all have something to do with retail. The commonality is that we are all now sitting within and learning to survive inside a new ecotone of retail — the omnichannel ecotone.

Venn with arrows

As you can see from the above two circle Venn diagram (sorry to short change the traditional third circle of the Venn for any of my consultant readers out there), bricks-and-mortar retail and e-commerce retail have historically occupied two almost completely isolated ecosystems. Now, mainly because of the rise of mobile technology, accompanied by major demographic shifts, these two business model ecosystems are about to press against each other. They are about to merge into something we have never seen before. Both sides will be forced to adapt and the creature of that adaptation will be something novel, and, yes, even scary.

Scary because while new species will emerge out of this omnichannel ecotone, many others will die off. This “die off” will have drastic repercussions across our national landscape, hitting specific locales and demographics hard. Want further proof — check out this article in Business Insider to get your mind going — The Death of Big Box Stores is Speeding Up Suburbia’s Slide into Poverty.

Cities and states with large-scale bricks-and-mortar headquartered operations may one day be flooded with out-of-work retail employees who once knew how to survive in the old world bricks-and-mortar ecosystem, but instead will be unequipped with the digital skills required to thrive inside the new omnichannel ecotone.

Similarly, and what’s even more scary, is what could happen to the hundreds of thousands, or nearly millions, of mainline store employees working at these same retailers in suburbs and malls throughout the country. Even if “physical shopping is here to stay” (which it is), physical shopping will look quite different within the omnichannel ecotone. The skill level required to work in a physical store will be heightened, requiring the entry-level retail employee to have more technical know-how and training than ever before. Gone are the days where the core functions of John and Jane Doe retail associate were to stock shelves and check people out behind a cash register. Soon these activities will be replaced by activities that require a working knowledge of all things digital — social media, mobile technology, messaging, etc. The blue-collar retail job and wage will in essence still be blue-collar but the entry level skill required for the job will be far greater than it is now.

Yeah, holy shit.

I will say it again. This IS scary. But there is still hope. A new model of retail can emerge, where physical locations are still pillars of importance for our communities, whether suburban or urban. A new model of retail can emerge that is powered by a different engine than we know today. A new model of retail can emerge that requires less working capital (i.e. through less inventory), that generates higher productivity (i.e. through automation and technology), and that brings traffic back to the store (i.e. through social and physically tangible experiences that cannot be simulated online). This new model of ecotone retailing can and will emerge from the intersection of the bricks-and-mortar and e-commerce ecosytems that we know today.

But the road will not be easy. If you have followed this blog since its inception, then you may have realized that its posts have been an exposition — the seminal makings of a blueprint to remain an evolutionary survivor of the ecotone. The blog has been relaying a recipe book or an Alcoholic’s Anonymous-like plan to get retailers back on the wagon:

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