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Sustainable Futures

Retail Horizons: How does time poverty shape U.S. shopping?

<p>On-the-move Americans are always looking for ways to save time while still getting what they need. What are the buying trends of the future?</p>

This article is the eighth in a 12-part series about the future of U.S. retail for the Forum for the Future-led 2014 Retail Horizons project in partnership with Retail Industry Leaders Association. For more about the project and the toolkit available in October, read the first post, which also contains a table of contents for the series.

Think about your typical week.

Monday through Friday, wake up, tap your snooze button, roll out of bed, you're already late. Shower, whip up breakfast and lunch, sail out the door, sit in traffic. Make it to work, meetings begin, rushing from one to the next, only finding time for your work in the minutes between them. A blur between your work and professional: some texts, some emails, your phone rings. It's from your kids, your manager, your doctor. Finally you make it through the day.

Rush home, navigate the traffic, swing by your daughter's daycare, get to your son's baseball game, run by the grocery store, take out some food, fill up at the gas station, land at home exhausted.

Where has our time gone?

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average American worked 1,800 hours in 2013, significantly more than workers in countries such as France (1,490 hours) and Germany (1,430 hours). People in East Asian countries, including Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore, work even more hours than Americans.

More of our time is spent at work and the commute; eating away at the time we can enjoy at home, in leisure, and shopping. Regardless whether it is intentional, our lifestyle priorities are changing, and that in turn is driving major shifts across many sectors, including retail.

How is that changing the retail environment?

"Time poverty" is growing increasingly real, especially in the U.S., and is influencing many other retail-related trends such as the drive for convenience, online shopping and delivery-on-demand — all together, trends that we are calling "retail everywhere." And in the office, time poverty is reducing worker productivity.

Already we are seeing more shoppers go online, in large part because of the convenience. By 2017, Forrester Research predicts that 60 percent of all U.S. retail sales will be made either through direct online purchases or be accompanied by online research. As Jacob Park describes, cities are becoming convenience hubs, with models such as grocery delivery becoming more common. In my hometown, new companies such as Uber and Car2Go are thriving off the trend toward more convenient services. That said, it isn't likely that all purchases will move online. As Alisha Bhagat explains, people are craving brick-and-mortar experiences even more. And that is something unique to physical stores.

But for us in sustainability, the question becomes how to draw a connection between the challenges and opportunities associated with "time poverty" and the sustainability of our companies.

For sheer product purchases, some research has shown that online purchases have less carbon emissions because the shopper's commute to the store is less efficient than the transportation from large logistics carriers. IKEA, in partnership with the environmental nonprofit World Wildlife Fund, released a research paper (PDF) in 2011 outlining the carbon emissions associated with different shopping strategies — shopping at home, driving to the store with fuel-efficient cars or mass transit, etc. The report highlights eight ways to achieve more sustainable transportation, six of which relate to home shopping and delivery and other more convenient options.

There are additional packaging and materials implications with online purchases. But the need for convenience is also driving new models, such as sharing — or collaborative consumption. I may not have time to stop by the hardware store on the way home, but my NeighborGoods smartphone app can find someone willing to lend me a drill in my neighborhood. And those models have definite sustainability benefits.

The challenge for traditional retailers will be to find the balance between convenience, service and online integration, while still creating vibrant, fun, experiential and sustainable brands that attract people in their ever-dwindling leisure time.

Top image of clock by ball2be via Shutterstock.

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