The Serendipity App

This article was published in the October 2016 issue of STORES Magazine.

Technology removed the magic of discovery from retail. Can it bring it back?

The opening keynote at NRFtech 2016 was delivered by Trevor Hardy, CEO of The Future Laboratory, a consulting firm that tracks trends and helps brands better understand what’s coming next — and what to do about it. The topic of Hardy’s discussion was serendipity and the effect modern technology is having on people’s ability to experience it.

“All of the stuff tech has promised to solve is not coming off as great as it should be,” Hardy said at the August conference in San Diego. “While it’s created amazing shortcuts and amazing efficiency, it’s robbed us … of serendipity, of discovery, of revelation.

“I say this with some hesitancy, because I’m speaking to a gathering of people charged with the technology leadership of amazing brands — but the digital revolution is robbing us of our humanity.”

Turning to retail, Hardy asked, “Are we going to dictate to consumers what they might want, or are we going to allow more interaction? This question is really changing the way retailers think about technology, the customer experience and their offering. It forces us to think, not just as businesses but also as individuals, about how we might encourage wandering at random in a world where the ability to wander at random is vanishing.”

Retailers might ask themselves one important question, he said: “How can we help consumers find things that they didn’t know they wanted, or things they didn’t even know existed?”

Who’s in charge?

The online customer experience is not designed to let consumers wander randomly. It’s designed to guide them through a series of structured choices and bring them to a buying decision.

But whatever retailers do takes place in a world in which technology plays an increasingly central role. Over the 20 years or so that the digitization of daily life has taken place, technology has shown a strong predisposition to control: systems aren’t just built to help, they’re built to run things.

What’s more, people are astonishingly willing to allow themselves to be controlled.

“One of the biggest things happening now is people’s growing recognition that we live inside a filter bubble,” Hardy said. “We are living with all of our information, all of our entertainment, all of our communications, in our pocket. … We’re outsourcing some of what it means to be human.”

Nearly half of young U.S. smartphone users do not use their phone — a device intended for communication — to communicate. They use it to avoid people. And nine out of 10 U.S. adults use their device for navigation purposes.

“There was a time when we knew people’s phone numbers,” Hardy said. “Then we all started using programmable phones, and we started forgetting people’s phone numbers. Now it’s happening with direction. People don’t know where they’re going. They can barely get from Point A to Point B without consulting their phone. So we’re completely outsourcing going to places.

“Soon we’ll be outsourcing the things that come between Point A and Point B, leaving it up to that device, and the people behind that device, to get us through life.”

What is truth?

The filter bubble mediates a great deal more than geographical information. “Five apps today control almost two-thirds of U.S. mobile app traffic,” Hardy said. “Everything we see, hear, learn or experience could conceivably be controlled by Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, Instagram or Snapchat.”

Almost 50 percent of adults in the United States use Facebook as their primary news source, he said, and just 9 percent access five or more news sources. “As tech becomes more predominant, the amount of perspective we get becomes less and less.”

As an example, Hardy displayed a screenshot of search results from Google Image for “CEO.” All but two of the first 50 images were of middle-aged men, all but one of them white. The first woman’s face to appear was that of a doll, CEO Barbie.

“That’s what the worldview is now, and that’s definitely not what it should be,” he said. “If you look at the world through a certain lens … you get a certain view of the world.”

In Hardy’s view, the public has made something of a devil’s bargain by acquiescing to the business structure of Facebook, YouTube, Google, et al. These companies provide free services in return for which they acquire as much data on their users as possible, package it and sell it as ad space.

“We have allowed our attention to be monetized,” he said. “Or as [Canadian artist and novelist] Douglas Coupland put it, ‘If you don’t pay for the service, you are the service.’”

Fighting back

Hardy doesn’t have easy solutions for any of this, but he did cite some ways serendipity is being introduced into apps. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has an audio tour app that uses the phone to sense where the user is in the museum and discuss whatever they are looking at.

“The ideal audio tour adapts to spontaneity and doesn’t prescribe a predetermined path,” he said. “That’s a pretty big ask, but it’s something the museum is actively working toward. In the meantime, this app is a giant step in the right direction.”

On the bricks-and-mortar side, he cited a fragrance retailer called Illuminum, which has no bottles on display in its “gallery” — just glass orbs hanging from the ceiling, each with a scent inside. Shoppers wander through the gallery and pick the scent they like the most. “You don’t choose the brand,” Hardy said. “You don’t choose the packaging. You choose the thing you love.”

People aren’t going to relinquish their phones, and e-commerce isn’t going away. What’s needed is a digital equivalent of what Illuminum is doing.

“It’s a question of allowing the digital age to find ways to mimic the great things that bricks-and-mortar retail allowed us to do,” he said. “How do we create an explorium rather than an emporium? How do we create a place of wonder, not just a place of buying?”