Shop till you drop (online)

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Did you know that the good old ATM is turning 50 this year? And that Ulaanbaatar residents can now simply tap a card before hopping on a bus just like we do in London? This week’s [retail bytes] explores how new tech is changing retail and everyday life across the world – from Wales to China and Mongolia.

Brent Cross never dies: Recent security alerts in London are causing investors to ponder the future of shopping centres. Billed ‘the first American-style mall in the UK‘, the legendary Brent Cross was opened in 1976 just by the North Circular. One claim to fame is that it moonlighted as a Hamburg car park in the Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, probably because it’s just as ‘modern’ and, to be frank, unsightly as Hamburg. Brutalist as it is, this veteran shopping centre has made it to 41 years in a good shape and is visited over 1.2m times per month. Alas, it has also seen an incident of terror when on December 14th, 1991, striking right at the heart of Christmas shopping, the IRA planted four bombs in shops, hoping for maximum impact. Fortunately, nobody was injured. Today, given the terror attacks in both London and Manchester, we have to ask: will Brent Cross last for another few decades or will shoppers migrate to – much safer – online department stores? The current owners are confident; they’ve added a wing for another 200 stores in a gigantic £1.4bn retail plus housing development. We like the Blitz spirit. Build away!

New happy days ahead: BHS might have closed in Carmarthen, a beautiful part of Wales, but they’re not losing out, as a new concept for a department store has already replaced it. We’re delighted to report that there will be no big hole left after the BHS departure as Days, a completely new multi-brand store, is taking over and looking very elegant indeed. Phil Day, an old-hand retail recovery guru who rescued a number of still-great British brands like Jane Norman, Austin Reed and Jaeger, is focusing on piloting this new cluster of brands to test the Welsh market. If the format is successful, Days will be rolled out to another five locations. Fingers crossed, as those are fine heritage British brands and should find their new audience with a mixture of offline and online outlets. Gutsy.

The old world of cash is coming to an end: … But not everyone is giving up. Next week the ATM Association’s conference, ATMIA, is descending on London for a big, glamourous bash celebrating 50 years of cash machines in the UK. The first one was installed in leafy Enfield on June 27th, 1967; it was based on the already popular idea of chocolate bar vending machines. But instead of Mars bars, it gave out cash, delighting gawking Londoners for months after its installation. Today there are over three million of them worldwide, but their survival in our post-cash age depends on the other innovative services they can provide (cupcakes or macarons anyone?). Some are even adding concert or train tickets to liven up the offer. Que serà sera, but ATMs have certainly been a solid workhorse for our high streets and we’d be sorry to see them go.

Paying for your dumplings? Scan that QR code: Meanwhile, in China, the WeChat social platform is forging ahead of Alipay as 31% of online purchases are now made using it. WeChat users spend 35% of their online time on the Facebook-like platform so it’s a very ‘sticky’ ecosystem; no wonder the native WeChat payment method is proving so successful. Food delivery, cinema tickets, the local Uber equivalent and presents for co-workers are all being paid for within the app – you can even pay for wonton soup on street markets. There’s no need for any hardware either, as QR code printouts are simply stuck on the stalls – which lets users pay with WeChat using a basic smartphone. Facebook, are you listening?

Timesaving solution, or HR riddle? Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, is not an area that one would expect to press ahead with electronic payments for retail or city use, but the implementation of Oyster Card-style machines on city buses has proved successful after a few minor hiccups. Today 71% of bus travellers don’t need to worry about cash anymore. This avoids the customer hassle of finding change and saves the local transport companies money. One caveat – we noticed that the bus driver’s role has been de-skilled following the demise of cash and that the inevitable salary drop followed. Will the same happen to store staff in the UK when Apple Pay or Samsung Pay takes over shop payments from cashiers? Cashless tech can be an efficiency saviour but also an HR challenge. Retailers need to solve it, and soon.

New shows: A really fabulous exhibition  – a riotous combo of spacey light and cosmic sound installation by Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans will not only take your breath away but give you plenty of inspiration for your future stores. Millennials want experiences? The Tate will give it to them. Closes 20th August – go!