January is the time to think of the future, to be sure -- although most of us simply focus on the year ahead as we sing "Auld Lang Syne." Here at the Fool, a few of us have taken a moment to think a lot further ahead, to 2016, in fact. I'd like to speculate on what it might be like to go shopping then.
I can't help thinking there's going to be a new emphasis on individualistic, experiential shopping with a socially aware bent. Having the same names in every town, offering a somewhat generic experience -- think of Wal-Mart
The era of the bleeding-heart capitalist may be approaching. Increased levels of higher education and an American workforce increasingly focused on creativity and innovation are trends difficult to ignore. People might argue whether "bourgeois bohemians," or "bobos" (terms coined by David Brooks in his book Bobos in Paradise), really exist, and how influential they are, but I can't disagree with his premise that there is an increasing number of highly educated capitalists who apply more than just a smidge of liberal, countercultural leanings when it comes to the way they live their lives and spend their cash.
A decidedly non-corporate, non-traditional, community-driven flair is increasingly in vogue. Look at Wikipedia, Trader Joe's, and Craigslist, all of which are private entities not necessarily seen as corporate and gained ground through grass-roots means. Social responsibility is another draw. Think of Starbucks and the lesser-known Ten Thousand Villages and fair trade; American Apparel and its no-sweatshop angle; Whole Foods Market and a company I only just heard about, Dancing Deer, with employee-friendly policies; and Ben & Jerry's, pushing environmental awareness through funky-named ice cream. (Hold your emails: Most of these names aspire to more than just one of these socially redeeming elements. Case in point: Whole Foods' recent support for wind power.)
On the other hand, consider the vitriolic reaction that Wal-Mart often receives from some communities. Although it's arguable that Wal-Mart and its falling prices will always survive, there are also loads of people who will refuse to frequent a retailer that they perceive as not supporting their values.
So long, Generica
Even as I make this prediction that in 2016, certain types of companies might struggle to re-create themselves in a new era of retail, I'd like to venture a guess as to a few that stand a good chance of thriving with such a sea change in public opinion, despite rapid expansions.
Starbucks probably springs to mind as a company whose store-on-every-corner strategy might turn some people off. However, Starbucks' corporate philosophy -- indeed, head honcho Howard Schultz said in Starbucks' 2004 annual report that a company "can do good and do well at the same time" -- should insulate it from such a backlash. Plus, Starbucks may be everywhere, but each store seems to give off an air of individuality within -- same coffee, different atmosphere.
Yet another company well-positioned to survive such a climate is Urban Outfitters
These are just examples of the types of companies that might take elements of these trends and put them to use as retail evolves into its future.
The rebirth of the mall
In 2016, will the mall be dead? Some people have dire predictions about its future. It might not be doomed, but it's definitely changing; even now, there are signs.
I'd imagine that the upper-echelon malls will continue to thrive even a decade from now. In the present, though, one can easily see that lower-rung malls face real pressure from the discounters. Soon, lower-quality malls could be a thing of the past, knocked down to create some of the meeting places of the future. Think of those "fancy lifestyle" centers that are just beginning to crop up -- they could represent the future of the mall.
The movement's called "New Urbanism" -- its mission is to create "livable, sustainable communities." You have probably run across a few such communities in urban and suburban environments, considering that this is an idea that has been fermenting for a while. These are areas that merge residences, shops, and green areas; they tout a neighborhood feel, hidden/underground parking lots, and an emphasis on walking instead of driving. (The Mississippi Gulf Coast area, devastated by Hurricane Katrina, may be rebuilt with such growth in mind.)
Regardless of what you might think of such "smart growth" (and there are plenty of critics), some of the savviest retailers are taking up residence in such areas. I know of one near Fool HQ that houses Apple, Urban Outfitters' Free People, Chico's
Signs point to yes
Thinking 10 years ahead can end in folly, since none of us can know for sure what the future holds. (I'm betting the closest most of us are to psychic involves blowing the dust off the old Magic 8-Ball.) That doesn't mean it hurts to contemplate the changes -- and the companies that might capitalize off them or suffer. Growth investors -- like the ones who make up the community within the Motley Fool Rule Breakers service -- embrace change and think critically about future trends, not in the new year, not in two years, but in the many years ahead.
Will my thoughts on the retail landscape be wrong, once 10 years have transpired? It's quite possible. Check back with me in a decade -- perhaps you will be able to tease me about what I thought might come to pass. For now, though, let's bear in mind that no matter what, change is coming, and let's make our resolutions to seek out the big trends and try to get a feel for tomorrow today. Talk about the future, current forces, and potential disruptions with others in our Rule Breakers service by taking a 30-day free trial (for a limited time, a subscription gives you a copy of Stocks 2006 for free), or feel free to email me if you have thoughts on the future of retail. I'd love to hear them.
Whole Foods Market is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection.