The future of Main Street

A year ago, I wrote about how technology is reshaping the future of commerce. Fast forward to 2017 and a convergence of dynamics are accelerating this secular shift.  

We’ve seen hundreds of store closures among previously stalwart retail giants, acquisitions of iconic offline chains by e-commerce players, as well as massive, lumbering offline retailers desperately seeking a foothold in online commerce. This trend will not only continue, it will gain even greater pace over the coming months and years. Consumer spending and behavior are shifting rapidly as well.

These changes are having, and will have, profound implications for businesses across sectors and our workforce at-large. Amidst this transformation, there is a tendency to cast blame on technology for job displacements and the end of “Main Street” as we know it.

There are real societal concerns that business leaders and policymakers must address to ensure that our future workforce has the skills and knowledge to succeed and thrive in the world that is coming. We should also understand how to create the conditions through which technology doesn’t leave vast swaths of our population behind. Otherwise, we will create an even greater divide between economic winners and losers, ultimately harming everyone. 

Yet all is not lost for Main Street. There is also a pathway through which technology is an enabler and a source of real empowerment. 

Think of the countless small businesses and entrepreneurs who can exponentially scale their reach by plugging into a global commerce platform that exists solely for that purpose vs. platforms that may displace, disintermediate or compete against them.

Think of the small retailers in communities across the United States (and globally) who are struggling with sales but who can revive their businesses by unchaining themselves from a local geography and instead access millions of potential customers around the world. 

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are examples of tech innovations that can be leveraged in service of those small businesses – helping match a retailer in Anywhere, USA, to a consumer anywhere looking to buy just the product that Small Retailer is selling. 

If we provide those businesses with the tools to harness technology to work for them, the potential benefits are just as profound as the concerns about technology as a negative force. This vision of the future of commerce is vibrant and human. It’s also realistic and happening all around us.

Ultimately, consumer behavior will dictate which businesses win — and which ones lose — in such a world. It’s not rocket science to understand that consumers want their needs met by the companies with whom they choose to do business. The challenge for communicators is to relentlessly demonstrate a sharp “why” that translates into a tangible value proposition for consumers.

We must engage consumers both rationally and emotionally through communications strategies that break through the noise of every other company competing for their mindshare. Both traditional and online retailers need to show how their offering meets the evolving expectations of consumers. The challenge for the former is perhaps more acute, as perceptions of their brands are likely more entrenched. The challenge for the latter is often more about building a relevant and differentiated value proposition in an increasingly crowded space.

The lines between offline and e-commerce are blurring to the point where we should be thinking in terms of commerce that spans both. Businesses that effectively harness technology, either directly or through platforms that exist to enable them, will be best positioned to win the hearts and minds of consumers. Communicators who effectively build narratives that bring these themes to life will help their companies create sustainable businesses for the future.

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