“8 disruptive technologies for retail”


In January 2017, the World Economic Forum has published together with Accenture, an interesting report about a very controversial and hot subject: The future of retailing.

After the “empowered consumer” (part 1) the second trend highlighted by the report is about “disruptive technologies”. Eight of them are specifically affecting retail:

  1. Internet of Things (IoT)
  2. Autonomous vehicles (AV)/ drones
  3. Artificial intelligence (AI)/ machine learning
  4. Robotics
  5. Digital traceability
  6. 3D printing
  7. Augmented reality (AR)/ virtual reality (VR)
  8. Blockchain

See also 133 startups disrupting retail.

Before entering more in details we can regret that this “disruptive” chapter do not approach the already existing technologies and the new ways of working that are already affecting both operations and consumer experience. It would be good for example not to forget the NFC (Near Field Communication) that affects payments or the Amazon Dash Button that is potentially a new sales channel.

Each of the disruptive technologies is looked at from 3 different angles:

Business benefit – What can each technology do for the business?

Readiness level – What is the maturity of each technology, now and going forward?

Transformational effect – Which technologies will be truly game-changing for the business?

Looking at the business benefits can be done from a customer perspective or from a retail industry perspective, which is the case in this report. Both are not necessarily compatible when a higher customer personalisation will only drive higher costs for the retailer. It would be also very interesting to try to quantify the possible impacts even though this exercise may result very complex. I will take only a three examples and comment on the 3 dimension above, the others can be found in the complete report.

1- 3D printing

By moving the production closer to the consumers (even at their home) the main benefits will be the reduction of movement of goods and raw material but also the endless possibilities of personalisation. The supply chain will also be completely disrupted by the elimination of overstock (as good are produced on demand) or by transforming completely the trendy challenge of the last mile as examples. The packaging will not be needed anymore (at least for the personal 3D printers). If the potential business impact is huge,  the readiness is still consider as medium (or long) from a retail time perspective (6 to 10 years) but  could be perceived as short when looking at it from a supply chain angle.

With the third dimension, the transformational effect, the report tries to evaluate the most impactful (4) of the 8 disruptive technologies and do not include 3D printing within the short list. Here again it would be good to evaluate the potential of local production (small companies / homes) looking at industries like home decoration and accessories, furniture, textiles (already in the market the first running shoes printed) etc…


“what business impact behind each disruptive technology?”


2- Internet Of Things

The benefits of the IOTs are divided into three categories. On one hand, the enhanced customer experience via personalised services adapted to individual needs including new insights and possibilities to act on them (sports trackers are an already good and well-spread example). The second benefit will come from the opened new sales channel, offering complementary or associated products. Finally, the third benefit will come from the data collected, having in mind that the ownership of these data will probably be a sensitive topic and its solution an answer to the level of the final business impact.

In the case of IOT, the readiness is considered between  2 to 3 years. We have to consider that there is a need for price adjustments to really turn the trend into a massive consumption habit, that the offer that is covering today from weight balance to toothbrush should be simplified (not everything can nor need to be connected) and finally that there is a need for data security and global standards for data collection.

3- Artificial Intelligence / machine learning

If AI is not new it seems that its potential usage is accelerating exponentially. There is not a week without a worldwide announcement of a new self-driving car or a CEO deciding to replace himself by a machine. We know since years that machines are controlling the stock market (and amplifying its variations) and the last years have seen a lot of small innovation entering retail´s daily routine to simplify it but also challenging its organisation and ways of working. Machines are much quicker and more precise that humans and replace them in all the predictable tasks. A good example is the RFID tag and its technology transforming annual inventories and stock inaccuracy into a forgotten nightmare for retailers. However, before it reaches its full potential there are still some steps to take, quite similar to the IOT and the readiness is evaluated between 2 to 5 years.


The  10 disruptive technologies listed in the report “The future of retail” will for sure impact sooner or later all the industry. The analysis was done considering the business impact, even though limited, give a very good first approach to start or continue a necessary reflexion in the different parts of the retail industry. If the readiness will also vary depending on which kind of retail we look at, the whole industry will anyhow be disrupted. Therefore it is better to lead its own disruption to control it (and understand it or vice versa) considering that “it is better to shoot yourself in the feet than in the head”!

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