I watched live television as a looter emerged from a Starbucks store downtown. He was holding one wrapped package of cheese and ham slices. You could see the disappointment on his face, which seemed to say, Is this all there is to loot? A lousy cheese and ham slices package?
Welcome to retail 2.0. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic points out that e-commerce was 1% of retail when it started. It had grown to 18% before COVID-19. But, in the last eight weeks, e-commerce has jumped to 28% of retail.
Soon, there will be nothing to loot because there will be nothing left to buy, at least in the physical sense. After COVID-19 and civil unrest, the future of small business is not the neighborhood retail store. The future is Etsy, Shopify, and virtual reality shopping.
Kevin O’Leary of “Shark Tank” agrees and said as much on CNBC on Tuesday. 5G will make virtual reality a reality. I witnessed an early version of virtual reality at a small clothing store located in a hip Santa Fe, New Mexico, shopping district this past January. A young employee used her iPhone to show items to a remote customer. She made the sale.
In this future, a small business owner will be able to use 5G technology to forego high rental costs and work out of a nondescript building in a remote low-rent industrial center. A looter doesn’t get very far if they take a brick or crowbar to a home page.
It doesn’t have to be this way and it shouldn’t. Physical retail shopping is vital to a community. Not only because it is a form of entertainment, tourism and discovery.
In places like a revived Old Town Newhall with its Walk of Western Stars, small retail stores are the artistic expressions of their owners. We step into paintings, some of them beautiful works of art, and often discover items we’ve never seen before or even imagined. There is a sensory experience to physical shopping that doesn’t exist online even if virtual reality soon allows us to “appear” inside a store.
The virtual experience does not engage the majority of our senses. We cannot smell a candle or soap online. We cannot try on jewelry to see how it looks against the shade of our skin. Will those shoes really fit? We cannot feel the texture of new bathroom towels or smell the cooking demonstration at the kitchen store. There is no nearby café or bar in virtual reality where we can eat real food and have a real drink with friends, family or a date.
At the rate e-commerce is growing, we will wake up to American retail 2.0, where the physical shopping experience will consist of Costco, Target, Walmart and a few other big-box stores with their enhanced security.
In this dystopian retail future, the small businesses who do survive will exist in a Matrix-like virtual reality world. There will still be things to buy, but nothing to loot.