Retail and automotive worlds are about to collide. Are you ready?


Every single market has a forum, a conference and a series of businesses running ‘global’ events in that subject. The conference trade booms every time a new industry problem arises.

Take this one: Customer Experience Management (CEM). CEM is that thing you suffer when you call a company and get routed to a resource that provides an answer to your question.

Industries that use CEM technology tend to do so because they receive such huge volumes of consumer traffic that it’s inefficient and expensive to handle all calls with a person. So you are routed, and talked to by bots, and deferred until there is no option but to talk to you.

I’m not passing comment on this, just saying it’s out there and that, maybe, the insight delivered by real consumer contact could be used to resolve frequently occurring issues. It’s not a subject I’ve heard discussed at CEM conferences: dealing with the cause of an issue isn’t as exciting as investing in AI to juggle the call volume.

Anyway, the activity of listening to companies and consumers separately is endlessly fascinating. Listening to brands that sell through retail and to companies involved in automotive technology has proved to be a similar experience.

Retail is under threat. UK news feeds this week feature ToysRUs and Prezzo about to close @200 stores between them. Toys and eating out: low cost desirables, and sectors you might have expected to offer more security. We’ve also commented on the trend for AirBnB-type companies making unused high street retail accommodation available on a day-by-day basis. Seeing a trend yet?

Whichever way you cut it, and even ignoring Amazon Go and reports like ‘The Digital Shop of The Future’, it’s hard to deny that the landscape is changing. In my small market town this month we‘ve seen a butcher’s shop, established 100 years ago, close down, and two more barbers set up shop. We’re up to six now, plus unisex salons and ladies’ hairdressers. Product-based offerings losing ground to services. I don’t think we’re unusual.

So to automotive development. I’m lucky enough to live close to the world-famous Silverstone racing circuit. On its doorstep is a technology park, where very clever people work very fast to make things to service that industry. Some of the components they make as development ideas for F1 and other race series, like Formula E, will eventually filter into mainstream production.

The current hot topic is electric vehicles (EVs) and the effect on the internal combustion engine (ICE). In a nutshell, if the UK government follows current policy, the market for new ICE-driven vehicles is in terminal decline, and EVs are in the ascendance. Of course, there won’t be a sudden switch from one to the other. Over time, the market will taper out of the old technology into the new.

As a component supplier to the car industry, unless you are rooted in heritage vehicles, your market is contracting. You may not have felt it yet, but that’s your new reality. Think of it like the comfortably numb lull between interest rates going up and the first higher mortgage payment.

All those EVs, some running around autonomously. Less demand for car parking and lower still for fuel stations. Charge points will be in high demand, but we may enjoy fast charging one day.

What we do know is that there hasn’t been a fuel station yet that has been converted into a new use that doesn’t still look like a converted fuel station. What will they be?

What will the oil companies do with all that real estate? Who will be our convenience outlet for groceries, confectionery, cheap flowers and barbecue charcoal? The high street perhaps? But what will the guys who make antifreeze do? Who’ll need engine oil? If cars are autonomous, will we even need screen wash?

With all this in a 15-year horizon, it’s the graduates learning to be design engineers now who are working it out.

The tapering out of the current supply chain has begun. Companies that fit out forecourts, make carburettors, produce lubricants, cast engine blocks, extrude fan belts, machine, grind, re-seat, and so on are in trouble – unless they’ve run scenario planning exercises and have an innovation strategy in place.

When you supply a service to a tech sector, it’s always worth looking ahead to see what’s coming; to know what you can do now to future-proof yourself. Whether you get it right or wrong, changes can be made, but it’s better to be roughly right than have no idea at all.

One last question: where will I be able to buy a Snickers and a pork pie without my wife knowing?

Future thinking. Future proofing. It’s what we do.