Industry Watch

Future Trends: Retail

By Brian Martucci
Wednesday, November 18, 2015

No industry survived the rise of the Internet unscathed, but few have been more dramatically — and fundamentally — affected than retail.

In 2015, virtually everyone uses the Internet to research major purchases, even if they still buy in person. Slow-to-adapt brick and mortar retailers went out of business in droves during the 2000s and early 2010s, and whole physical retail sectors have been virtually eliminated. (Does anyone remember B. Dalton, Waldenbooks or Borders? Ironically, Amazon just opened its first brick-and-mortar bookstore in Seattle.)

Retail remains at the cutting edge — and, thanks to the local presence of big, forward-looking retailers like Best Buy and Target, much of the most exciting work is happening right here in Minnesota.

These new technologies and ways of doing business are set to influence how thousands of Minnesota-based businesses sell and distribute their products, buy equipment, and keep track of their commercial activities in 2016 and beyond.

A New Approach to Retail Warranties

On a typical workday, you probably use at least a half-dozen electronic devices and gadgets — smartphones, tablets, desktops, navigation devices, wearables — for some business function.

As electronics proliferate in the workplace, warranties are more important than ever. But traditional retail warranties are expensive, confusing, and often don’t cover what they’re supposed to.

Upsie, a Minneapolis startup, is changing that. The company offers affordable (no retail middleman!), straightforward (no legalese!) warranties for a wide range of consumer electronic devices, with a single online interface for storage, claims and new warranty purchases.

Upsie initially worked with just one insurer, but plans to add new insurance partners soon in a bid to improve customer choice. And according to founder and CEO Clarence Bethea, Upsie plans to diversify into other sectors in 2016 and beyond; auto warranties are particularly promising, he says. Soon, your company’s vehicle and electronics warranties could reside in the same friendly app.

Sensible Storage for Receipts & Records

Much as Upsie is simplifying warranties, Minneapolis startup PurchaseBox is modernizing and streamlining transaction records. The system is basically a dedicated, searchable email account that stores and provides on-demand access to users’ receipts, promo emails, coupons and other commercial information. With PurchaseBox, the days of tossing your receipts in a shoebox (or, more likely, the trash) are over.

PurchaseBox is ideal for small and midsize business owners who need to track expenses, too, particularly small but potentially wasteful outlays like business meals and last-minute trips to the office supply store.

And it’s a potential money-saver: Founder Parag Shah got the idea for the app after a fruitless search for the old restaurant receipt he needed to dispute a suspiciously high charge. According to Shah, mobile-friendly PurchaseBox also makes it easier to access promos and coupons in store, boosting the likelihood that you’ll actually use them.

PurchaseBox is available now, though Shah expects further refinements in the coming months.

Bringing the Last Retail Holdouts Online

The transition to ecommerce is almost complete, but a few stubborn holdouts remain. For instance, the food and beverage segment lags behind the rest of the retail world — for now.

General Mills recently announced an “ecommerce center of excellence” to develop a more robust online presence, with the goal of quadrupling online sales by the end of the decade. Though company executives are mum on specifics, a wholly-owned ecommerce platform would likely be a financial boon for General Mills by facilitating direct-to-consumer sales.

General Mills has already proven that the concept can work overseas — in the U.K. and France, online sales approach 10% of the company’s total revenues, according to Food Business News. The hope is that, because the company owns so many popular brands, online shoppers will one day fulfill huge chunks of their weekly orders without leaving its website.

Big Box Retailers Behaving Like Tech Startups

Target has had a tough run: first, the massive data breach, then, a leadership shakeup, bad revenue misses and successive rounds of layoffs. But the Minneapolis-based retailer appears committed to turning the page — and embracing the future.

Earlier this fall, Target announced a partnership with Techstars, a world-renowned startup accelerator, to bring what might be the world’s first retail-specific accelerator to Minneapolis. Basically, Target aims to create a critical mass of retail innovation in its corporate backyard.

According to a company release, “Target will put out a tech-based startups with a vision for impacting retail — from supply chain to data analytics to new ways to integrate digital and in-store experiences.” Approved startups will receive investment and mentoring direct from Target, as well as general technical and business support from Techstars’ deep bench of successful entrepreneurs.

Retail Meets the Sharing Economy

The sharing economy is disrupting everything it touches: travel (Airbnb), personal transportation (Uber), odd jobs (TaskRabbit). BoomBoom Prints and Kidizen, two recently launched Twin Cities startups, want to shake up slices of the retail sector.

BoomBoom Prints is an online marketplace for “customizable independent designs” made by a growing cohort of mostly solo artists and designers. Artists’ designs can be applied to a wide range of baby clothing, accessories and decorations, in a range of different sizes; BoomBoom Prints keeps a cut of each purchase and sends the rest to the artist. It’s a great deal for independent designers — and small business owners who don’t always have time to shop for the little ones.

“BoomBoom Prints leverages two key retail trends,” says Ryan Broshar of Matchstick Ventures, a BoomBoom Prints investor. “The first is growing demand for customized shopping experiences; the second is ‘P2P,’ or direct contact between makers and consumers.”

Kidizen, an online marketplace for secondhand kids’ clothing, toys and accessories, started out more or less as a niche-y eBay. Parents used the platform to sell stuff their kids had outgrown to parents in desperate need of said stuff.

But CEO Dug Nichols, an old Silicon Valley hand, soon saw the value in a more immersive experience. His team recently revamped the app to include social features — including searchable, “followable” parent profiles — and more parenting-related content.