retail news in context, analysis with attitude

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Hi, I'm Kevin Coupe and this is faceTime with the Content Guy, coming to you this morning from Chicago, where I am attending the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Connect and United Fresh shows. Behind me is what is billed as the Retail Experience of the Future, which to my mind is interesting mostly because it illustrates just how difficult it is to predict the future.

The emphasis here is on what the store and shopping experience will be like in 10 years, but that's really hard to predict, especially because change happens so fast … and to be honest, many of the innovations show already exist in various iterations, or on the verge of existing; very little seemed to me to be a decade away.

For example, there's a presentation about frictionless check-out…but when you think about it, IBM did a TV commercial about that concept a decade or so ago. There's also a presentation about mobile applications, and how smart phones will be able to customize lists and buying experiences based on preferences and past behaviors, but that hardly seems like a radical notion. The use of iBeacons is one of the more exciting ideas presented; they allow retailers to target consumers when they're standing in front of a display, giving shoppers targeted messages and deals based on proximity and demonstrated interest … but they actually are being today by MyWebGrocer. (Full disclosure: MWG is a longtime MNB sponsor.)

I don't mean to sound critical here. In fact, I think this is mostly good news, because if it points out how hard it is to predict the future, it also suggests that there are a lot of tools out there that can help businesses be a lot more efficient and effective. But it seems to me that the real issue is not when technology is available, but how quickly and enthusiastically retailers are willing to embrace these possibilities and opportunities, to disrupt their businesses from within.

They'd better. If they don't, someone else will. That "someone else" is called competition.

Even some of the folks responsible for this installation imply in conversation that, to quote Shakespeare, the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves … or, in other words, that the biggest impediment to retail disruption is food retailers' unwillingness or inability to believe that fundamental disruption can affect this industry. These experts worry, if I get their gist, that many food retailers essentially believe that if they can get their horses to go faster and straighter and longer, people won't really need cars. And we all know how that worked out.

One other thing. I think that it is critical, as retailers consider all these possibilities and opportunities, that they not allow themselves to be distracted. For example, if there's one question I've been asked the most while in Chicago, it is what I think about the rumored acquisition of Whole Foods by Publix. What I think is that it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, and in fact strikes me as the kind of deal that was dreamed up by some analyst with little understanding of retail fundamentals but a very large craving to end up on CNBC.

The same goes for the other one I heard - that RadioShack's terrible numbers create an opportunity for Amazon to come in and buy the company and give it a bricks-and-mortar presence. This strikes me as absurd … that the last think Amazon would want is to be anchored to earth by such a fleet; I had the same reaction a few months ago when there were rumors that Amazon might be Sears.

Disruption, not distraction. That's what people ought to be focused on, and that's what is on my mind this Thursday morning. As always, I want to hear what is on your mind.

KC's View: