To Predict the Future, Look to the Consumer

New tech is only as good as its actual uses

Any time a new technology is greeted in the marketplace, it is immediately met with predictions of how it will disrupt all that has come before it. Marketers are tasked with determining how this new technology will change the ways consumers read, think and buy. And before you know it, preparations are made for a future that is likely not going to happen, or at least not happen in the way it is currently forecast. 

Take, for example, predictions that the car industry will be entirely autonomous in the not-too-distant future. Or the prediction, based on the success of a few scan-and-go brick-and-mortar Amazon stores, that all retailers will shed cashiers in the next two years. Examples of extreme predictions can be found everywhere. 

These forecasts take predictions to the extreme. 

While a new technology might inspire theories on where these advances will lead, there are so many variables involved as consumers adapt to new realities—how many people will adopt it, how quickly they adapt, how they decide to use it—that no one can say with any certainty how it will play out. Take, for instance, advances in media: When TV was introduced, some thought that was the end of radio. When digital forms of video came online, some declared that the demise of TV was imminent. While both TV and the internet were disruptive to older forms of media, they have not displaced what came before. 

Acceptance of new technologies (and societal change more broadly) plays out over time. 

During that time, how that technology gets used will evolve. A forecaster might predict that virtual assistants will replace salespeople in stores. But before that happens, consumers will indicate to retailers how much of this new technology they are willing to accept, and retailers will develop experiences that respond to consumers' needs. 

The upshot of this evolution is that the state of the future, whether in retail or automotive or other sectors, will lie somewhere between the most extreme scenarios. 

We will live neither in a world completely absent of self-driving cars nor in a world where cars all drive themselves. There will be subscription driving services, self-driving taxis, cars with self-driving features that will fall short of full information, vintage sports cars with not the slightest hint of post-1980 technology. Every driver will choose the solution best suited to their needs. A family might have a vintage sedan in the garage, an electric car in the driveway for commuting, and a subscription to a service to help get the kids to school. 

In retail, we will still be able to pay cash or credit, use mobile payments, and probably some additional, yet-to-be-invented options as well. Sometimes we will interact with a cashier and other times with a machine, or through an app with no physical point of sale. Checkout-free stores with only robots to offer service will no more take over physical retail than e-commerce will totally replace physical retail.

The job of marketers, when trying to understand how to prepare for the future, is to tune out the extremes and get a good grasp of all the possibilities in between. The key is to understand customers' needs. If marketers understand that, those insights will inform the strategies to solve for those needs. That mix is what they should prepare for. That is the best preparation for the future. 

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Will Burghes
Will Burghes is executive director of data and analytics at Forsman & Bodenfors New York.

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