Is Retail Facing Tectonic Upheaval?

“I am not a number, I am a free man.”

That defiant declaration was enshrined in pop culture in the late 1960s, courtesy of the British cult TV series The Prisoner and its main character, Number Six, played by Patrick McGoohan. The show was remade as a miniseries that aired in 2009.

The show came to mind while reading one of 2013’s most provocative predictions about the retail industry from futurist and consultant Doug Stephens, who uses the moniker Retail Prophet. (The most provocative of the year, hands down, was tech investor Marc Andreesen’s claim that physical retail stores are destined for death. We’re not sure we can side with him but love the debate.) 

Stephens, author of the 2013 book The Retail Revival, wrote in a blog post that a revolution is coming in retail, a revolution moving at “a velocity and scale that I suspect will be incomprehensible compared to all that came before it.”

He prophesied an era of “massive customization.” It will transcend, according to Stephens, the accelerating adoption of mass customization in which consumers partly customize mass-produced goods to meet their individual preferences and aesthetic tastes. Nearly 1,000 companies offering limited customization, representing 17 industry sectors, are listed here.

Stephens foresees a technology-fueled transformation of the manufacturing and retail landscape in which “virtually anything I want can be made for me. Just me.”

Stephens elaborated in an email exchange with Embodee:

“The primary reason I see this change moving faster than anything previous to it, is that unlike past revolutions, we are no longer bounded by the pace of industrial capacity. And this is what is freaking so many businesses out right now. We are, in essence, leaving the industrial era which tended to be very incremental and predictable in terms of growth and entering the digital era, which as we all know only too well, is exponential and tangential in nature.  

“Therefore, the unprecedented capacity for consumers to source, create and design according to their personal preferences, matched with the ability for companies to produce single units of those goods efficiently, will come faster and more profoundly than any previous consumer revolution.”

If such sweeping changes indeed happen, marketers will have to rethink mass-categorizing consumers into broad niches based on demographics and income.

In the dark fictional world of the The Prisoner, McGoohan’s Number Six repeatedly asked, “Who is Number One”? In the real and brighter world Stephens envisions, there is no mystery.

The advent of massive customization means each of us will be free, free to buy whatever we want and the precise way we want it. Each of us will be Number One. Or to use Stephens’ marketing parlance for the future of retail, our own unique Segment of One.