Retail Horizons: What is the future of retail?

This is the first in a 12-part series from Forum for the Future on the Retail Horizons project. Links to the rest of the articles are at the end of this story.

At Forum for the Future, our mission is to accelerate the transition to a sustainable future. It's no surprise that this means we do a lot of talking and thinking about the future and what it might hold. We treat 2025 or 2030 as though they were just around the corner — and encourage our partners to do the same, so that they can take meaningful action to ensure a viable, thriving long-term future for themselves and their industries.

What we don't do is make predictions. The only thing we do know is that direction of current social, environmental and economic trends suggests that we're moving into a period of rapid change and high uncertainty. Planning for business-as-usual is likely to be a big strategic mistake.

This year we've been undertaking the Retail Horizons project with the Retail Industry Leaders Association to explore the future of retail in the U.S. We've researched and prioritized key trends, developed a set of four scenarios which look at how these would play out into the future and created a toolkit that companies can download to use for their own strategic purposes. It all will be available online after Oct. 1, when we will launch the full kit at the RILA sustainability conference in Minneapolis.

Retail in the U.S. already has been undergoing huge shifts in recent years. The shift to online and mobile commerce, away from "big-box" retail, has led to several articles in recent months about the death of the shopping mall. Peer-to-peer networking, the rise of sharing models, the makers movement: Are these here to stay, or just passing fads?

In the next few weeks, we will be blogging at GreenBiz to explore some key questions that the project has made us think about. For example: Is Big Data an opportunity or a threat for retail? How will the needs of rural consumers be met in an increasingly urbanized country? Will people still want to buy products as making and sharing become easier? How will decarbonizing the economy affect business models?

So come back to check in as we ask these questions. We won't be making predictions, but we will be examining what these trends might mean for retailers and how they might help or hinder our transition towards sustainability. We'd love to hear your thoughts, and to see you in Minneapolis in October.

Read the rest of the series

Part 2: "Will we need physical stores in the future?" by Alisha Bhagat

Part 3: "Are cities less important in an online world?" by Jacob Park

Part 4: "Is onshoring the most sustainable option?" by Alisha Bhagat

Part 5: "Will wealth polarization damage U.S. business?" by James Goodman

Part 6: "Will fracking constrain business growth?" by Jacob Park

Part 7: "Food shopping in a water-scarce world" by Alisha Bhagat

Part 8: "How does time poverty shape U.S. shopping?" by Adam Siegel

Part 9: "Will growing transparency slow consumer buying?" by Charity Hanley

Part 10: "Picture these 4 low-carbon business models" by Helen Clarkson

Part 11: "Does the sharing economy mean the end of retail?" by Alisha Bhagat

Part 12: "It's time to choose our future" by Helen Clarkson

Top image of clothes on rack by Pavel Ivanov via Shutterstock.