Rod McLaren: Words that work |||

Technology eating retail: stories

19 Aug 2022

The Co-op Digital newsletter occasionally has some fiction in it, tiny story fragments to explore what retail might look like as software and big tech tries to remake it.

Fiction lets you avoid getting lost in the detail of specific predictions and instead think about the bigger picture of what it might mean for humans and communities, and the second order effects of techno-optimism.

(To be honest, these bits feel a bit… negative when you see them all together, and remind me that I also want to explore the future with more optimistic stories, like this via Matt Jones.)

So here are some of them:

Apr 2018:


Amazon Prime Home team lead Karyn steps around a Freshco grocery delivery drone twitching on the path. It has been jammed by your home’s router for a breach of delivery licence, and will be released shortly. Your Amazon door authenticates Karyn, and she walks into your home. She sets the Dash scanner going in the living area. While it’s looking at your belongings, she disconnects your TV and pops back out to the truck to get a newer one. She reconnects your PrimeFire box to the new screen but puts the Google Chromecast TV dongle to one side, placing a helpful advice sticker on it. The Dash scanner meeps and identifies with a laser light a dozen items in the room that are on your Unwish list. She places these in a cardboard box, and once they’re sold in Amazon’s Seim Anew market your Prime account will be updated with a credit.

Karyn checks the Home schedule - the cleaner comes tomorrow and the Wardrobe re-stock is lined up for next week. On her way out, she gives a nod to Priyan, an Amazon ReFresh colleague who is filling your fridge, docking credit from your Prime account for each out-of-date good he’s removing. Karyn gets back in the truck and throws her terminal on the passenger seat - 14 minutes until the next home visit. When you get home, Alexa tells you what was Amazoned today. Alexa doesn’t tell you anything about Karyn or Priyan.

Apr 2018:


[The house’s front door opens.] Oh hello, I have a delivery for you. It’s from Amazon. Yeah, no uniform, I work in insurance actually. I signed up for that PrimeTurk thing - you know, you do a delivery a week for them and you get free Prime, and, well, they’ve got Downton Abbey Brexit coming soon… and I just had to. No, you don’t know when the delivery will be and you just have to drop everything. And you have to let Amazon keep parcels in the boot of your car which was a pain last week at IKEAsda let me tell you ha ha, so it’s not always the best timing. [Meep.] Oh! I’ve got to Uber someone back into town and then it’s the quarterly budget meeting back at the office. So I’d better dash. Here’s your packages, yeah just tap your mobile on mine, OK… yes, great. Thanks, bye now.’

May 2018:


Karyn says: OK Google, can you get a table at Chicken Crustay for Thursday 7.30pm?’

I’m sorry Karyn but another meal from Chicken Crustay in the next 9 days will increase your SpringStep Health insurance premium for three calendar months. Shall I look for a healthier option?’

Fine’, sighs Karyn.

OK, I’ll arrange it.’ Google Assistant calls 30 restaurants simultaneously. One line is disconnected, and ten don’t pick up immediately. Twelve don’t have a table at 7.30pm. Google Assistant will push its update up to the aggregated model tonight. Four restaurants have the sonic markers that indicate machine communication. After a quick authentication handshake, the machines ascend to a higher bandwidth communication protocol. A clicking birdsong murmur tells Karyn that the AIs are communicating.

– My human is an e-citizen of the European Union. Table availability for one, Thursday 1930h.

– Acknowledge that GDPR2 applies: no marketing, no retargeting, discard client data post-transaction. Supply restau-chariot to convey human?

– Here are my human’s {biomarkers} and {dietary preferences}. No special requirements, no transport.

– 40% of menu meets dietary preferences. Bid $129, held for 0.5 seconds.

– Accepted.

Google Assistant drops back to voice. Karyn, I have booked FalaFellers for Thursday 7.30 pm and updated your calendar. You can walk there using the safe route on Maps, and take an Uberbus back.’

June 2018:


Jackie monitored her fleet of wheeled delivery robots doing their mid-morning runs on a bank of screens. Green across the board except for a single red light - she pressed a button to despatch a team member to investigate a robots-only airlock that wasn’t letting deliveries through. The robots brought packages to larger package stores in apartment towers - the older store rooms still needed people to rack the goods or put them in lockers. The dissolvable cellulose packaging would melt away by the time the recipient came to grab their delivery. These days Amazon offered Prime accounts for apartment complexes as well as families, and many products had become subscribe and save”.


Eventually it made more sense to keep products in the store room, and less stuff in the apartments. The package room became a social area: fewer storage racks, more communal seating. A household and entertainment lending library. Apartments became neater, smaller. Amazon had 80% of all retail spending, and Prime looked more like a citizen tax than a subscription service. When Amazon used its increasing free cash flow to buy a lot of its shares back Jackie sold up and retired to a modest Googlunit upstate.


Bezos eventually admitted that the logical conclusion of capturing consumer retail activity was to hand it back to people (“people are prime!”), and from his moon base Nueva Seattle he donated most of his shares to a Prime Co-operative.

June 2018:


On her way home, Verlyn pops into the Freshco convenience store to get some shopping. The high street looks pretty much the same as it did in 2018: every second retail unit is empty, occupied by pop-ups that last a month or covered in billboard-size adverts. There are no estate agents. Some shops are doing well though: Wetherspoon is still rammed, and school kids are hanging out by Greggs which, like Pret, survived the fast-food retail die-off by opening foodversities offering training, stock options and visa sponsorship to their staff.

She parks the ebike in the charging rack outside and swipes into the store. Freshco is halfway through a rebrand: the food aisles have signs up proclaiming the new partnership with Alimazon, which had recently bought the food business. Verlyn drops a parcel into the Freshpost hatch, then picks up a delivery from a locker, and finally grabs a family meal kit. 42 Freshpoints, ranked 198 today”, says a notification on her mobile. She shrugs.

Aug 2019:


Yotta walks down the street through an invisible bath of data, network pings and sensor attention that her device describes as an audible crackling in the background like a radiation counter. Her earring buzzes when she turns to face the shop - there’s a brief pause as DuckDuckSocial provides a disposable proxy identity. She won’t get the loyalty points but she has principles. She steps over the threshold of the Whatstagram coffee shop and into quote a safe social space. The crackling thins out - inside the shop Whatstagram blocks some traffic to other platforms.

At the table with friends, their devices all flash purple LEDs • to indicate personal data being gathered by the network. She know her devices will try resist the sensors, offering deepfaked data. But you never know if it works.

If this shop worked like Whatstagram actually does, they’d give you this free coffee and a cookie, and then very closely watch how you behaved, who you spoke to, taking lots of notes, follow you to the bathroom, and continue when you walked off down the street.’’

Yeah yeah Yotta, but the coffee is good.’’

I know.’’

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