Consuming Issues: What the future holds for the consumer of tomorrow


For almost 40 years, viewers of Tomorrow's World were given tantalising glimpses of the future. From pocket calculators to cash machines, CDs to supermarket barcodes, the programme showcased the extraordinary advances in technology that have transformed the way we live. (Other advances have been less influential: generally Britons do not eat soya instead of meat, or whizz round in Sinclair C5s.) The BBC show left our television screens in 2003, and though I may not have the same foresight of Tomorrow's World, I have tried to imagine how we may be shopping in the next 10 years...

The decade leading up to 2020 has been dominated by technology, but also, increasingly, by the environment. Half of all shopping is done online and "e-tailers" influence many high-street sales.

Traditional "bricks and mortar" shops have moved away from their role as browsing depots and have become entertainment centres, offering a spiritual, practical and cultural experience – as well as physical goods.

Concerts, talks and tutoring have replaced much of the shelving, with motivational coaches holding forth on stages in department stores, hypermarket chefs giving demonstrations on how to cook, and fishmongers offering trips on trawlers.

Tesco, still Britain's biggest retailer, accounts for 48 per cent of sales, but, like a handful of other retail behemoths, has become a "one-stop life shop", offering a no-need-to-shop-anywhere-else range of food, clothing, rental property, mortgages, current accounts and gas and electricity.

Consumers interact with Tesco and these other "whole-life providers" by speaking into visual pods dotted around the home – called hubs – where "one-stop shop" internet concierges pop up to arrange delivery of flowers, an alteration of direct debits, or other services such as the calling of a boiler engineer.

As these multi-purpose retailers have grown, small independent butchers and bakers have slid further into high-street history, with newsagents in particular disappearing en masse, damaged by falling newspaper and tobacco income.

In the ongoing hand-held gadget revolution, mobile devices are used routinely for everyday transactions, with internet banking and the booking of restaurants and cinemas online now considered the norm rather than the exception. Arts fans can also download whatever song, book or film they want, though it's not theirs to keep – it vanishes after a set period due to digital rights management.

Many of the entrepreneurs that run the websites that dazzle home audiences are still at school or in FE colleges, running multi-million pound empires from playgrounds and bedrooms because they have been forced to continue their studies.

On the environment, increasingly frantic steps to limit climate change manifest themselves in every corner of our lives.

By 2020, all individuals are watching how they can stay under their annual carbon allowance. The carbon value of every product over £50 is recorded on a central Enviro Ministry database. Along with the recording of every commercial transaction in a near-cashless world on the Central Police database, this continues to raise concerns about privacy and the balance of power between citizens and state.

Air travel has doubled in price due to higher eco taxation – the introduction of kerosene taxation, carbon pricing and higher air passenger duty. Destinations such as Australia's Great Barrier Reef have started to appear on "must-see-before-they-disappear" lists in glossy magazines, and are touted by a new brand of aggressive eco travel agents.

Electric and hybrid cars are more common, but, much to the irritation of green groups, they still represent fewer than one in three new models sold. Petrol engines have become 30 per cent more efficient.

The average energy bill has hit £2,000, inflated by rising global demand for diminishing fossil fuels and the cost of paying for new renewable energy. The impact, however, has been partly offset by higher levels of energy efficiency in homes, which are visited by door-to-door efficiency squads paid commission by the Government; wasting energy has become almost as anti-social as drink-driving.

Respected names such as Marks & Spencer and John Lewis have thrived in the new era, due to their promise of durable and ethical goods and services. But other established businesses have disappeared, just like Woolworths did a decade ago.

As wealth divisions have increased in society, there are more shops in central London, Manchester and Edinburgh that cater to rich shoppers, guarded by bodyguards, at one side of the store, and have budget ranges of products with dubious health and environmental value at the other end.

m.hickman@independent.co.uk

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