Our website uses cookies

Cookies enable us to provide the best experience possible and help us understand how visitors use our website. By browsing Essential Retail Magazine, you agree to our use of cookies.

Okay, I understand Learn more

Retail's evolving relationship with science and technology

Anyone who spends more than hour with me will undoubtedly discover that my son is a middle school student at STEM High and Academy, a charter school in my school district that focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (thus, STEM). At first glance, it would seem that my career in retail would have very little to do with the things my son works on. Outside of the arts, retail is about as far away from STEM as you can get – at least it used to be. But I think I (and many of you readers) are proof positive that this is no longer true.

And then last week I read Robin Lewis's article from the Robin Report, Algorithms, Malgorithms, You Go Figure. In it, he bemoans the injection of maths and science into retail, not for how it squashes the so-called art involved in selecting the next fashion, but for how well-funded disruptive start-ups like Square and Etsy are luring away the next generation of scientists so that they can develop algorithms that predict which shoe you'll want to buy next, instead of building the models that, say, figure out how to solve global climate change.

Robin must've been having a bad day, because he ends his article with a depressing take on humanity, that our bright, innovative future will ultimately be corrupted by and fall to rampant consumerism.

I find that I must stand in opposition to his dark vision of the future. His take rests upon the assumption that increased demand for scientists will not trigger an interest in science among young people that results in a responding increase in supply. And he assumes that science itself is a zero-sum game: what is applied in business will not be applicable to pure science research and vice versa. I think that's all wrong. And I find myself much more optimistic about humanity's future than Robin apparently is.

Let's break down the argument.

First, I will agree that there is a shortage of college graduates focused on STEM disciplines right now. Paula [Rosenblum, RSR managing partner] and I have talked about this, and she theorises that when IT outsourcing was in its heyday, parents looked at technology-related careers and saw a bleak future for anyone who didn't live in India, and so discouraged their children from pursuing those careers.

I think it's more insidious than that. I think primary-level educators were not prepared to integrate technology into the learning environment. Half of them became teachers because they didn't "like" technology. They taught kids to think of careers much as our parents were taught to think: lawyer, policeman, firefighter, teacher, and maybe some kind of generic "business person". I mean, both of my parents were neck-deep in technology when I was growing up, and while I ended up in a career related to the tech industry, it was almost in spite of them, rather than because of them. They were pioneers, and they lucked into the careers they had – one, maintaining mainframes for San Diego and Los Angeles, and the other building computer chips, first for Burroughs and later for Cray. Yeah, that Cray. They didn't have career plans for achieving these goals. And so they didn't know how to pass on such planning to their children – my generation. And when we got to college, there were no career counsellors who knew anything about tech careers. That really was the kind of career you ended up with if you couldn’t get into pure science research.

Since then, there has been a dramatic shift, and a realisation that we're doing both our country and our students a huge disservice. It's not industry's job to teach technology. Someone has to explicitly teach children how to make it a part of their lives, not for gaming which comes naturally, but for productivity. And it's really only been the last decade that those efforts have resulted in changes in classrooms and curricula. My ten-year-old daughter used to have technology classes as "specials" – something she did on a rotating basis with art, music and gym. But this year is the first year that there is no technology special, because it’s completely integrated into the classroom. iPads, Macs, smart whiteboards. 2014-15: the first year that technology is treated as something ubiquitous to elementary learning. That should feel scary to you, as in, that took way too long.

So that deficit is closing. Maybe not enough to compensate for demand now, but if a computer scientist who was once looking at a mid-$50,000 salary because programming prices were depressed by shipping it all to India can now find a six-figure first-year salary out of school? How many more high school students will that attract to that kind of outcome? Success breeds interest, which raises supply. So I believe that science talent is not a zero-sum game. Especially because schools are getting better and better at showing kids how science and tech skills lead to real careers. And they are actively helping them plan to reach those career goals. Way better than anything I saw when I was in school, whether secondary school or college.

Now to the second half of Robin's argument. Which is that if retail benefits, science loses and humanity loses. First off, after decades in retail, I have come to the conclusion that while retail may appear simple on the surface, it is deceptively so. And even the best retailers in the world pretty much suck at it. Part of the reason why is exactly the miss that happened in education – technology changed lives faster than it changed business. Retail has been on the front edge of that change, because shopping is, like it or not, a large part of people's lives and they have applied technology to that experience at a far more rapid rate than retailers could cope with.

So retail needs a kick in the butt. We need data scientists and maths and computer science PhDs. But we don't need them to sell people more stuff. In this day and age, I don't think that's how it works anymore. We need them to make sure that our industry operates at its most efficient and least wasteful. I think that's far more important. Demand is demand. You can help shape it around the edges, but you don't control demand. You can't take a dog of a product and magically turn it into the hottest Christmas toy. People figure it out. And with the internet, they figure it out a heck of a lot faster than they used to. And they tell everyone else – instantly.

A retailer's job isn't to generate demand. A brand doesn't even really generate demand. It taps into demands that already exist, even if they may not be explicitly acknowledged by the people who have those demands. Brands and retailers solve consumers' lifestyle problems. And yeah, some of those problems are clearly first-world problems. But the fact that I'm even using that phrase in this article goes to show that first worlders are increasingly aware that there are a lot more people out there who have much more desperate problems – like Ebola, or clean drinking water, or where their next meal is going to come from. It's that internet thing again – we are much more acutely aware of what's going on in the world because we can see it. And it's getting much easier to mobilise to do something about it too.

So back to the retail argument. Retail is actually quite inefficient at mobilising to meet consumer demand. Retailers routinely pick bad products, they buy too much or too little, and they routinely stash that inventory in the wrong places. If retailers could get more efficient at meeting demand, we would consume less resources. Less carbon in the supply chain, fewer gallons of dye, fewer brand-new products being destroyed or sent to a landfill. And that's a good thing.

Science in retail is not going to deliver mind-controlled consumers who are unable to stop themselves from buying lousy products simply because algorithms predicted that they would do so even if they didn't really want to. Science is going to help retailers do a better job picking products that consumers actually want, deliver them more cost effectively and with higher quality, and will do so while consuming less resources than it does today.

And while I agree that when it comes to support for science, the USA has gotten incredibly short-sighted around pure research, I have faith that with the surge of interest in STEM careers, we'll have plenty of kids who – especially after having lived through the Great Recession in their formative years – will find that solving the world's biggest problems has a lot more attraction for them than a six-figure salary helping Etsy sell more stuff to people who already have too much.

This article originally appeared on the RSR Research website. It is reproduced with the organisation's permission.