How 3D printing will transform retail

MT at 50: Technology will change our shopping habits but physical stores aren't dead yet, says Vicky Brock, chief executive of tech company Clear Returns.

by Ian Wylie
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

Vicky Brock is the award-winning chief executive of Glasgow-based retail tech start-up Clear Returns, which uses data analytics to help retailers reduce return rates.

How will technology change your business?

Tech companies are always a bit ahead of the curve so we already see the day-to-day reality of a distributed workforce, where people are 100% remotely based or bring their own devices to work. And in the future, I see that being augmented further by artificial intelligence and other technologies that overcome the barriers of distance.

I envisage tools in the future that will serve as emotional barometers, measuring the stress levels among remote workers, or telling you which teams are in an urgent state.

Even in 50 years, I don't think we will be replaced by robots, but we will be using a lot of AI to augment how we do what we do.

How will technology change retail?

I can imagine a lot of innovation within the grocery sector - taking waste out of the mix, and ordering just the right amount of stuff at just the right time. Instead of the store filling itself up with groceries and waiting for the customer to order it online, in the future it will happen the other way round. Customers will say, this is what I'm planning to buy in the next two weeks, and that will drive the supply chain. So if it's warm and sunny in Glasgow, the supply chain will be nimble enough to pull in barbecue food from local suppliers.

I don't think the physical store is dead, because we like seeing shiny things. But I see stores of the future being simply gorgeous places, showrooms where you browse products and experience them, and then collect them, 3D printed, from your local Starbucks on the way home. Perhaps the business model will change, where a retailer is selling the licence to print the product, rather than buying it to be shipped on a boat from China.

How can the UK retain its competitive edge in retail?

The UK leads the world in ecommerce because it trades with the world. The free movement of labour and ideas is important. But if we make that difficult for ourselves and create an environment that puts up barriers and forces us to look inwards not outwards, then our technology and innovation is going to become stale.

Innovators work like magpies, stealing ideas from here, there and everywhere and they need access to multiple sources. The best way to ensure we stay at the forefront and gain ground on, for example the US, is to not create barriers.

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