By automating business writing, our Wordsmith platform is changing the way people do their jobs. But Wordsmith isn’t the only technology changing the way business gets done. For a broader perspective, we’re interviewing big thinkers for their take on the future.
A research director at the Institute for the Future, Lyn Jeffery is an expert on e-commerce trends. She’s also focused on a country that’s driving the future of commerce: China.
You’ve got a great bio, the first line of which says you track “the new social practices that make you shake your head in wonder or concern about where we’re heading.” When it comes to the world of digital commerce, what’s got your head shaking especially hard these days?
I’ve been looking at apps like LetGo, Depop, and OfferUp that let you easily sell your possessions and buy others, like an extreme version of eBay. These apps provide you with all the tools you need to turn your personal media presence into a commercial platform. The apps integrate with a user’s social channels and are part of the trend of social media platforms trying to become e-commerce platforms in every way they can.
As the barrier to buying and selling becomes lower, possessions can flow through your life in a much more fluid way, and it changes the way you think about what you own.
There is text associated with these product images. In cases where users prefer not to write, maybe that’s something Automated Insights could generate text for.
My understanding is that you think ten years ahead at the Institute and try to paint pictures of various scenarios for what could be. What are two or three different e-commerce scenarios for 2026, and what factors will help determine which one comes true?
It’s not just that any of our current social media or content platforms can become e-commerce platforms; we are looking at a world in which any object can become a place to buy and sell stuff. Smart objects like the Amazon Dash button are an example. They are single physical buttons that order a specific item, like Tide detergent, when you push them. There’s also CamFind – take a picture of something, and immediately get a link to buy it. Everything in your environment becomes a vector for e-commerce.
The interesting thing is that in this kind of landscape, when everything can be the equivalent of a store, peer-to-peer buying and selling relationships probably will become more important than ever as a way to filter some of the onslaught of ads and commercial touchpoints.
People are not necessarily going to like the fact that everything is a point of commerce. Reactions against Uber and Airbnb are current examples of this.
You focus on China. What e-commerce developments are brewing there that people in US might not know about?
China has this concept called “O to O” – online to offline. It’s the link between e-commerce and real-world services. Any service you want, anything that you used to have to go someplace to get – even massages and haircuts – you can order online and have delivered to your home or office. This is more developed in China than it is here, at least in part because they have a single channel – WeChat – that is so powerful. It’s like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and instant messaging all rolled into one.
How will e-commerce merge with or bounce up against other industries and technologies in the near future? For example, the mixture of VR and e-commerce could come together in immersive video games. 3D printing might change what it means to buy a product and have it delivered.
When everything becomes media, either by being smart and connected or by having some kind of augmented reality overlay on it, it will be interesting to see the social reaction to that, how companies will react, and what happens with advertising.
I think that there’s been this dream of mobile geo-located commerce for years and it hasn’t really worked out. People don’t want to be interrupted with messages on their phones when they walk by a store, but they do want to find available products and deals around them on their own terms. So we could see geo-located commerce emerge in a different way than previously imagined.
I can definitely see a role for virtual reality in e-commerce. 3D printing could be more about selling designs to things so that users can buy a CAD (computer-assisted design) file and print it. Of course that raises some questions: where does it get made? And who makes it?