The year is 2022. Towering over Birmingham’s red brick terraces, dominating its Victorian warehouses and canals, a bright glass building shimmers in the setting sun, crowned with wind turbines and coated in solar panels.

No-one lives here, and only a handful or people work on its eight floors.

It used to be a high-rise car park. Now it’s a farm.

A vertical farm, to be precise: a shining example of the new urban agriculture - climate-controlled, filled with fruit, vegetables and even a few pigs. It generates all its own energy, harvesting its water needs from the rain that falls on the roof. On the ground floor, there’s a marketplace where local people buy its produce and that of other nearby farms.

That’s one vision of 2022. Here’s another: an intelligent web-based advert for hand cream, making its way around the world from network to network. As it does so, it adjusts itself to appeal to the different people and groups it meets, talking with them, learning new information to help persuade its audience to buy the product.

The advert discovers from one conversation that the company producing the hand cream has provided false information about safety tests. The advert checks this new information from other sources, verifies it, and begins a new campaign of its own against the company which developed it – forcing it to mend its ways, while at the same time earning it brownie points for allowing such open source-style auditing of its activities.

Then again, in a parallel 2022, people have stopped shopping altogether – at least for everyday staples. Instead, milk, bread, pasta, washing powder and toilet tissue simply turn up in their porch whenever they are needed, triggered by messages sent automatically to the retailer direct from their cupboards and fridges.

These are three visions of 2022, each providing a glimpse of the future in which UK retailing will have to operate. They’re not science fiction: each of them could really happen by 2022.

Supported by Tesco and Unilever, we’ve conducted a wide-ranging exercise to ask what the future could hold for UK retail, focusing particularly on fast moving consumer goods (FMCG). We’ve carried out a thorough literature review, staged workshops and interviewed more than 50 people. This has allowed us to develop four distinct scenarios that describe radically different possible futures for UK retail, and their implications for sustainable development.

Why did we develop these scenarios?

With these scenarios, we hope to:

  • describe robust and credible futures that are relevant and applicable to the retail sector;
  • illuminate the major sustainable development issues for UK retail now and in the future;
  • provide tools for the sector as a whole to consider its future, and to test potential new ideas, policies, products and formats;
  • stimulate a progressive and far-sighted response to the challenges and opportunities of sustainable development, and so accelerate the move to a more sustainable retail sector.

In this report, we look briefly at past developments in the UK retail sector’s efforts to come to grips with sustainability, then review the factors that are likely to shape its future over the next 15 years.

We then present the four scenarios - ‘my way’, ‘sell it to me’, ‘from me to you’ and ‘i’m in your hands’ - and end with an analysis of what the scenarios could mean for retailers looking to a more sustainable future.

Read more about the scenarios

Listen to the Retail Futures podcasts

Find out more about our methodology

Download the full report here

Since publication...

Two years after the launch of Retail Futures, we've already seen some weak signals that we identified in one or more of the scenarios. For example, in our 'From Me to You' scenario, we said that "individuals trust only they are close to. With the economy struggling, they depend on their communities for everything - from homegrown vegetables to peer-to-peer mortgages".

The BBC article Dorset Bakery flourishes in hard times talks about a growing trend towards authenticity, which the article claims is epitomised by the Dorset bakery that forms the focus of the article.

In its Retail Futures report, sustainability consultants Forum for the Future predicts that tomorrow's consumers will "search for…. products that are more 'natural', local, healthier and greener". They advise that this desire for "authenticity" will become a "mainstream retail issue".

Whilst the scenarios are not intended to be predictions for the future, it is interesting to see which scenarios we are moving closer towards and important for retail businesses to think about what that means for their strategy. Retail Futures still has great value. We'd urge organisations in the sector to use the scenarios to test how resilient their strategies really are and to explore what the key sustainability risks and opportunities are for them over the next 10-15 years.

Media coverage

BBC, 1 June 2009
Dorset bakery flourishes in hard times
The Guardian
, 8 Sept 2007
The future of shopping

Introduction to the scenarios

Each scenario is a different version of what the retail sector and its operating context could look like in 2022. None is intended to be a prediction, or to be seen as better or worse than the others.

Each scenario is intended to be a plausible, internally consistent, possible future in its own right, reflecting combinations of the desirable and less desirable outcomes that will be a feature of most future trends.

The scenario axes

Why these scenarios and these axes?

The similarities between the scenarios – that they all exist in a world of climate change, resource depletion, global economic and demographic shifts, for example – reflect what we can be more certain about over the next 15 years.

The differences between the scenarios exploit current uncertainties about the future. These uncertainties are indicated by two major axes, as shown in the diagram. The vertical axis exploits economic uncertainties. Thus in ‘From me to you’ and ‘I’m in your hands’ growth has been slower. Both worlds are affected by a decrease in consumer confidence and lower levels of household disposable income, whereas in ‘my way’and ‘sell it to me’, growth and confidence have been more sustained.

The horizontal axis exploits uncertainties about ideology and outlook. There are strong trends within the retail market towards taking companies an enhanced role in consumers’ lives, through providing customised products, ready-meals, convenience stores or one-stop retail villages. Many consumers are asking for this.

There are also strong trends that suggest consumers want more power to do things for themselves: the demand for more information about products, the desire for a personal link with the products they consume, or a willingness to trade with peers on the internet.

We do not know how these divergent trends will develop in the future, but the impacts on retail and how it tackles sustainable development are profound. Thus in the ‘Do It Yourself’ scenarios, ‘my way’ and ‘from me to you’, consumers are less willing to trust that business will act in the interests of society and would rather take responsibility themselves, while in the ‘Do It For Me’ scenarios, consumers want business to take a greater social role.

Read the scenario summaries

Listen to the Retail Futures podcasts

Find out more about our methodology

Download the full report here

Podcasts

To help communicate what it might be like to live in the world of each scenario, we commissioned Kilter Theatre Company to write four short plays.

These engaging and informative plays were originally used at the launch event in September and they are now available here as podcasts. They capture the mood of each scenario and demonstrate some of the pressing concerns for society as well as containing some of the latest products and services for each scenario.

Scenario One - 'My way'

Scenario Two - 'Sell it to me'


Scenario Three - 'From me to you'


Scenario Four - 'I'm in your hands'


The scenarios

Scenario One: ‘My way’

This is an individualistic society, in which the internet and other technologies are held in high regard, and consumers are demanding and unpredictable. Local government is stronger and central government weaker. In general, there is an atmosphere of optimism, even in the face of a changing climate and a resource-constrained world, though society is deeply divided between haves and have-nots.

This is a dynamic economy, characterised by a high level of entrepreneurial activity, forcing large, established companies to innovate constantly to maintain their share of the pie. There is more community-based trade – even between communities in different parts of the world – sometimes bypassing traditional retail supply chains. Brands are less powerful, and traditional advertising less effective. Local communities in the UK are more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable, but less attention is paid to the wider impacts of retail beyond the UK.

Listen to the podcast

Scenario Two: ‘Sell it to me’

The UK’s economy is buoyant and its people are confident. They are happy for big business to play a lead role in meeting their needs and expectations, rather than take personal responsibility for doing so. They expect businesses to invest in the centralised infrastructure required to solve environmental and other problems, and don’t feel a duty to change their ‘pleasure seeking’ lifestyles in order to do so.
Consumers are spending heavily with trusted brands, but have high expectations for the best in personalised products and entertainment. They expect shopping to be a pleasure, not a chore.

They trust business with large amounts of their personal information. Environmental and social concerns are mainstream, up there with health or effective public services. There is confidence in international institutions to help solve the world’s problems. Income inequalities remain high. Combined with strong consumer-based affiliations, this leaves geographical social cohesion relatively weak.

Listen to the podcast

Scenario Three: ‘From me to you’

The economy is rather subdued and uncertain, and fear about climate change and severe weather events has increased. Most people don’t feel a great sense of connection to large companies or government. The wider public realm is increasingly neglected and there is a preference for home-grown solutions, which are perceived as better, cheaper and more efficient.

The ‘wellbeing’ agenda dominates public and policy discourse. The personal debt crisis persists. Younger people tend to accumulate large amounts of debt at an early age, while 50- and 60-somethings are facing the prospect of elderly life without a decent pension. This means less disposable income, and consequently a contraction in the retail sector. ‘Grow your-own’ produce and urban farming have both undergone a surge in popularity, as have peer-to-peer services for swapping and selling goods. People often club together to buy collectively using the internet as a tool to deliver co-operative buying power. Co-operatives are on the rise, offline and online.

Listen to the podcast

Scenario Four: ‘I’m in your hands’

Consumer confidence is low, and people look to government and large businesses for security and solutions. Business focuses on providing low cost options, achieving efficiencies of scale, bundled products and services, long-term tie-ins, hire purchase arrangements and conservative, reassuring options. Paternalistic, trusted brands have survived and prospered.

It’s a more structured, centralised and supervised existence. There’s more surveillance and more CCTV, which is generally welcomed as being in the public interest. Environmental behaviour change is achieved largely through sweeping regulation. Patio heaters and other undesirables have simply been banned. Some pressure groups object to what they call a threat to civil liberty, but they lack credibility in the mainstream and get little favourable media coverage. This is a more egalitarian society, with a smaller gap between rich and poor. There is a strong sense of community, a feeling of affinity with nation and a more established politics of consensus.

Listen to the podcast

Go to podcasts page

Download the full report here

People involved in this project

Partners involved in this project

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