I grew up in a hyper-competitive family. One of the many mantras in our sports-playing world was: “Perfect practice, makes perfect.” And another, which may account for my stoic attitude to pain and injury: “No blood, no sympathy.”

My parents were lovely, by the way, not tiger parents so much as very sporty. The result, however, is that I like to be first and I like to win.

It might also account for my career choice. Today, I run the trend forecasting company WGSN, which means I don’t just know the latest trends first, I know them before they even happen. And yet, I’m here to remind you that first isn’t always best.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that Google wasn’t the first search engine and Facebook wasn’t the first social media site.

“In a world where a robot can take the place of a store assistant, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to or even should”

But let’s start simple. I posted a picture on Instagram just last week of my new baby-pink cords. (I’m fairly basic when it comes to Instagram. Apologies.) WGSN predicted these as a key high street trend for autumn/winter 2018/19 back in 2017.

With all this info at my fingertips, I am still massively behind the curve. And yet this style is still shifting plenty of units – it takes a while for the masses to feel comfortable with a fashion trend and when they do, the early adopters move on. Quickly. (My more fashionable team at work are rocking cycling shorts and pearl barrettes instead.)

The human touch

The same rings true of technology. AR, VR and AI are buzz words every business should be learning about, investigating and testing, but if your target consumer is in their 50s or 60s, they’re probably not quite ready to strap on a headset and fight zombies to secure the right priced apples during their online supermarket shop.

I exaggerate, but you get my drift. I’m in my (late) 30s and unless someone can create me a really decent VR experience to ensure the jeans (or cords) I’m buying online fit perfectly, I can take it or leave it as a technology in the retail space.

On a less futuristic level, in a world where a touchscreen can take the place of a storefront, and a robot the place of a store assistant, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to or even should do.

Numerous studies show the more time a consumer spends speaking with an assistant in-store, the more money they spend. At the NBA Store on Fifth Avenue in New York, for example, customers who engage with a store associate increase conversion by 182%, and if they engage with someone multiple times, they end up staying longer, trying things on and buying two to three times more merchandise.

Tiny steps

This isn’t about people power, it’s about moving at the same pace as your consumer, or maybe just a few tiny steps ahead of them. The robots might be coming but humans still like other humans, in the main.

The technology to enable contactless payments was available back in 1997, but contactless cards weren’t issued to consumers in the UK until 2007. Phenomenal, consumer-friendly technology moving at snails’ space, essentially.

“Retailers selling to Gen X or even Boomers should be studying younger generations even if they’re not selling to them”

Personally, I’m confused why anyone still carries cash and utterly frustrated that the drinks machine at work requires me to hunt around for 75p every time I want a Diet Coke. Gen Z feels the same. Alphas, however, are growing up in a cash-low world and will demand a cash-free one. (Although that hasn’t stopped my step-children counting the pennies the tooth fairy leaves them.)

Age is a huge factor here, but younger generations affect older ones, urging them to jump on board, showing them the benefits, which is why retailers selling to Gen X or even Boomers should be studying younger generations and their attitudes even if they’re not selling to them.

So here’s the lesson: Study. Watch. Learn. (Spot others’ mistakes.) And then move just before your consumers are ready, but not a moment sooner.

Retail Week Live 2019

Carla Buzasi is speaking at Retail Week Live on March 28, at London’s InterContinental O2 hotel.

To check out the packed programme, and book your tickets, click here.