Opinion: How Are You Approaching Disruption, Defensively or Curiously?

By 
Abbie Westra, Director, Editorial, CSP

You might have missed this breaking news amid the cacophony of political drama this spring: The Icelandic language is under threat of extinction.

The country of about 350,000 inhabitants is fiercely proud of its incredibly complex language, which, due to Iceland’s isolated locale, has not changed much since medieval times.

Icelandic has been threatened by the effects of globalization and tourism for some time, but a new enemy has surfaced that could accelerate the death of the language: artificial intelligence.

Voice-activated home appliances and other consumer goods that are part of the internet of things are not being programmed to speak Icelandic. According to The New York Times, the country’s Ministry of Education estimates it will take approximately $8.8 million to create an open-access database for tech developers to adapt Icelandic for AI.

Will they get the money, thereby saving Icelandic from the pre-digital dark ages? What else risks extinction in the face of rapid technological disruption? What’s at stake for our own industry?

Tech Talks With DePinto

In this month’s cover story on 7-Eleven, we close out the trifecta of disruption profiles we’ve run this year—starting with Amazon in February and Wal-Mart in March—with a look at how our industry’s biggest player is bracing for disruption. Our editor Greg Lindenberg had an exclusive interview with 7-Eleven’s CEO, Joe DePinto, and he walked away with the sense of a company more curious than combative, more excited by disruption than defensive about it. It’s a mantle we should all strive to pick up when faced with potentially threatening change.

One of the biggest challenges to retail’s near-term future will be staying technologically competitive. 7-Eleven has aimed to do this through existing eff orts with mobile, third-party delivery, even drones. Connected cars are also on DePinto’s radar. He’s making sure that as automobiles and how we use them evolves, 7-Eleven will be along for the ride.

It also has the might of Seven & i behind it. A recent report from Nikkei Asian Review showed that Seven-Eleven Japan and a few of its competitors are working on self-checkout registers that read all items in the basket simultaneously via radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips. The chips can also hold product information, which can be accessed by not only the retailer but also the manufacturer. This could speed up the shopping experience and greatly disrupt distribution and logistics as we know it today.

While it’s easy to see this and Amazon Go as consumer-facing conveniences, the impetus behind Japan’s movement toward faster, smarter automated checkout is its severe labor shortage—another challenge our industry is facing.

The other beauty of Japan’s efforts is that all the retailers involved will use the same type of RFID tags, easing the burden on suppliers.

The country’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is working to off set the costs via subsidies and other means.

Will this and other tech-driven advances make its way stateside via 7-Eleven? That’s what we’ll be watching.

A Tech-Forward Industry

In the United States, Amazon, Wal-Mart and niche startups are disrupting the retail-tech space. It’s in our industry’s best interest to stay loud and proactive as technological advances enter the greater retail sphere so we get a piece of the pie.

When Amazon Go was revealed, my initial thought was: “I hope the retail disruptors of Silicon Valley think about c-stores along the way.” Yet innovation in the retail sphere isn’t coming from third-party tech companies, but the retailers themselves and their in-house tech teams. So while we should work as an industry toward tech evolution, big leaps will likely remain in the realm of the c-store titans such as 7-Eleven.

Let There Be Light

We’ve spent the majority of 2017 talking about disruption in the pages of this magazine and as an editorial team. It’s becoming a bit of a D-word, but the conversation is far from over. 7-Eleven’s story is invigorating—and yes, threatening for fellow c-stores that compete with 7-Eleven. But it proves our industry has a seat at the table.

We’re far from medieval in the sense of the language of Iceland. But if the language of technology today is not translated to our industry, we risk missing the retail renaissance ourselves.


Abbie Westra is director of Winsight’s Retail Content Group. Reach her at [email protected].