No. 340: A Mobility Collision Course

Smart Cities

Steve Jobs believed that one of the few things that separated humans from high primates was our ability to build tools. In some cases, these tools mitigated the crippling inferiority of human mobility. Compared to some animals, humans possess lesser top end speed, endurance, and efficiency of movement. It’s our ability to engineer solutions that ultimately improves our collective mobility. Jobs assessed these shortcomings in a 1995 interview:

I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud a showing for the crown of creation.

Over the course of Jobs’ career, he predicted the future quite a few times. He foresaw what the interconnectivity of internet would do for humanity. He predicted the efficacy of the computer’s mouse, and the dawn of cloud computing, and the professional preference of the laptop computer. Jobs even understood that the diffusion of this technology would be so profound that ten year olds would own computers that are orders more powerful than the ones used by 1960’s-era NASA engineers. But it was perhaps his two distinct thoughts on figurative and literal mobility that may go on to define the next ten years of disruption.

Jobs indirectly recognized the inverse relationship between online retail and shopping centers:

People are going to stop going to a lot of stores. And they’re going to buy stuff over the web.

The second thought expounded on his obsession with human physical efficiency:

Somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And, a man on a bicycle, a human on a bicycle, blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts.

This line of thinking is the origin of Jobs’ commentary on the personal computer serving as a proverbial bicycle for the mind. According to Jobs, “What a computer is to me, is it’s the most remarkable tool we’ve ever come up with. It’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds. Walking is relatively slow and inefficient.” This remarkable thought may end up meaning something more than what Jobs meant at the time.

The advancement of mobile payment technology and the evolution of physical mobility are on a collision course. The diffusion of one technology may lead to the diminishing of the other. There is no greater example of the potential disruption than China’s stark contrast to the nature of American retail. Cashless consumer economies will have a profound effect on mobility. Paul Haswell of Pinsent Masons notes:

Many Chinese cities are now the closest we have to cashless consumer economies.

According to eMarketer’s Shelleen Shum: 79.3% of smartphone users in China will operate within a completely cashless economy. By comparison, the United States will see just 23% of smartphone users doing so by 2021. And Germany will have just 15%. Why is this significant? The move towards a cashless economy corresponds with a shift in mobility preferences. “The use of digital technologies—from smartphones and wearables to artificial intelligence and driverless cars—is rapidly transforming how city dwellers shop, travel, and live.Without a firm foundation in electronic payments, cities will not be able to fully capture their digital future, according to our analysis,” said Lou Celi, Head of  the Roubini ThoughtLab.

Web Smith on Twitter

Mobile payments are influencing a collision course. No. 1 market for mCommerce (payments) is China. Here is a quick comparison. Mobility: 1a/ US cars per 1000: 838 1b/ China’s cars per 1000: 179 Retail locations: 2a/ US sq. ft. / person: 23.5 2b/ China sq. ft. / person: 2.8

And here is the key question. If the United States is moving towards a cashless society driven by mobile wallets and smartphone-driven payments systems, will the shape of our economy begin to change with it? The data affirms. The shuttering of American retailers outpaced all of 2018 by April of 2019 according to data from Coresight Research. As of now, the correlation does not rely upon mobile payment tech. Rather, it’s driven by the growing adoption of online retail. However, online retail adoption in China is driven by mobile payment technologies. American adoption of such technologies will accelerate overall growth. The percentage of retail in the form of eCommerce will hockey stick when it does.

Smart Cities and Urban Mobility

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From Polymathic: The market opened to red, post Black Friday 2019.

There may not be a greater example of the potential clash between online retail and mobility than the city that is quietly known for its specialty retailers. In retail circles, Columbus is known as HQ City; the Central Ohio region is host to Abercrombie & Fitch, L Brands (Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works), Express, Ascena Retail Group (Limited, Justice), DSW, and American Eagle Outfitters to name a few. There isn’t a mall in the United States that isn’t influenced by this region’s businesses.

For Columbus, it’s a double-edged sword. The city’s working population is heavily influenced by this small group of very large employers. And these large employers have a symbiotic relationship with America’s inflated 23.5 square feet of retail real estate / person. In comparison, China has just 2.8 square feet of retail / person. Despite this lacking physical infrastructure, China passed the United States as the number one retail market in 2019. [1]

In 2015, Columbus, Ohio applied for a national grant for the Smart City Challenge, a national competition between a collective of technologically progressive cities.

Smart Columbus will help shift travel patterns. Even more, we want to shift people’s thought patterns and behavior. This means inspiring policy makers and influencing people’s preferences. We will partner with others to create programs, introduce new solutions and promote adoption. Once our city understands what’s possible, everybody should be able to get on board. This will be a gradual process over the coming decade. As a region with urban sprawl, we are committing to a new, improved ecosystem of solutions to move people and goods. [2]

A smart city is tasked with testing technological solutions and progressive policies to innovate mobility practices. As the winner of the first-ever Smart City Challenge, the city agreed to embrace the “reinvention of transportation to accelerate human progress.” The city would then serve as a standard bearer to other cities as they continue to evolve. In 2017, the city outwitted dozens of other top cities to include: Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Portland, Kansas City, Austin, and Denver. The result was an award of a combined $50 million grant from the US Department of Transportation and the Paul Allen Foundation.  This award would then be amplified by hundreds of millions in public-private partnership, generated by the cities own businesses and political partnerships.

Through the Smart City Challenge, the Department committed up to $40 million to one winning city. In response, cities leveraged an additional $500 million in private and public funding to help make their Smart City visions real. [3]

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United States: eCommerce as a share of retail

The data suggests that the advancement of eCommerce adoption would influence mass transit and ride sharing as primary means of urban travel. This same data would suggest that eCommerce would also spur economic development in harder to reach areas of the region. But it would have to get much worse before conditions improve. Some 92% of the citizens in China’s largest cities use Alipay or Wechat as their mobile wallets and sole means of transacting. In rural China, that number is 47%. In both cases, the primary means of retail is through eCommerce channels. In contrast, America will see just 12.4% of retail by eCommerce in 2020. For rural citizens and underbanked Americans, that number is significantly lower. The majority of eCommerce transactions are located in or near major metropolitan areas. This is relevant and will be explained shortly.

Black Friday 2019

In September of 2017, the proverbial floodgates opened. Amazon’s patent for one-click purchasing expired. With this, any and every online retailer could build or integrate payments solutions to promote better consumer experiences on desktop and mobile platforms. The improved experiences were especially noticeable on mobile operating systems, where dropped carts were commonly 60+%.

The end of Amazon’s hold on one-click ordering gives opportunities to large and small retailers to reap benefits they haven’t had before. Perhaps the most widespread benefit will come in the world of mobile commerce where there are high rates of cart and purchasing abandonment. […] The patent expiration will allow for widespread adoption of one-click purchasing, which will challenge the market to adapt quickly. There is an opportunity for major reconfiguration of social networks to challenge major e-commerce giants such as Amazon.  [4]

This coincided with the integration of tools like Apple Pay, Android Pay, and Shopify Pay, three solutions that would fuel mobile commerce in ways that were only previously seen in Chinese markets. Apple Pay recently crossed Paypal in volume of transactions. Amazon’s YoY growth was closely tied to the stickiness of similar technologies. An unnamed Shopify analyst suggested that with Shopify Pay, conversion rates were nearly identical to Amazon’s – an extraordinary improvement in performance between 2016 and 2019.

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United States: Projected revenue from mobile commerce ($B)

Over this most recent retail holiday, there was a contrast to observe. In 2PM’s most recent Executive Member Report, I explain the context behind the title “The Blackest Friday.” According to data pulled from Alibaba, Amazon, and Shopify – Black Friday was a success for the burgeoning eCommerce ecosystem and a disappointment to traditional retailers like Kohl’s, JCP, and Nordstrom. The holiday shed light on the growing divide between mobile adoption and the dependence on traditional retailers.

Web Smith on Twitter

It wasn’t deals that drove the BF, it was ease of purchase. Via Adobe Analytics: 1/ 39% of eCom: mobile 2/ 61% of traffic: mobile And Shopify added 400k stores in 2019. The avg. BF $ / merchant dropped just 1.8%. Payments ease mitigated the lack of trust or perceived value.

Adobe, which now owns Magento, revealed data that communicates a permanent shift toward mobile traffic (61% mobile). Shopify’s data (69% mobile) reflected the same. Physical retail continued to slip.

The drop in Black Friday physical shopping mirrors a year-long share pullback in departments stores including Macy’s, Kohl’s and Foot Locker, all of which are down more than 25% this year. Meanwhile, Amazon, the dominant U.S. e-commerce retailer, has gained about 20% this year. [5]

For Shopify, the result was especially positive. On the heels of Apple Pay adoption and the growth of Shopify Pay,  the company added 400,000 new stores in 2019 while dropping just 1.8% in average store revenue on Black Friday. This tells a story. Despite the relative infancy of nearly 40% of the stores on the platform, new merchants were able to generate nearly enough in sales volume to match the per capita avg sales figure of the previous year’s merchants. This would indicate that the shift away from desktop and towards mobile payments mitigated issues of trust or early-stage brand equity concerns by lifting conversion rates. As mobile payment adoption increases, the divide between DTC-minded brands and traditional retailers will continue to grow. So where does this get us?

Conclusion: On Primates and Politics

If you’ve ever frequented Amazon Prime Now, you understand the value of two hours saved. In a matter of 90 seconds, you can click through on recently purchased grocery items to replenish your pantries. Then, in a matter of 60-90 minutes, those selections manifest. There are four packages at your door. When Steve Jobs suggested that software engineering would impact our mobility, it’s unlikely that he imagined the effect that mobile commerce would have on developed cities. Mobility isn’t just the efficiency, speed, or distance traveled. It’s what we can do with our time. Mobility is freedom.

When Columbus, Ohio was awarded $50 million to build the blueprint for a smart city, it’s unlikely that the city’s leaders understood the ties between commerce technology and physical mobility. If so, the heaviest investments would have been earmarked for commerce infrastructure:

  • improving shipping lanes by designating key routes for delivery vehicles and couriers
  • retrofitting struggling malls and shopping centers as fulfillment hubs
  • investing in the numerous local businesses by equipping them with the same types of technologies that enable the DTC mobile revolution
  • repurposing successful malls as meeting grounds, deemphasizing the emphasis on shopping
  • and laying the groundwork for a city with 60-80% fewer cars and 70-90% fewer shopping centers

America is over-retailed. And unfortunately, innovation in online retail will exacerbate this. For Columbus (and many other forward-thinking cities), this is a conflict of interest. As regions shift toward mobile commerce-forward models, old ways of retailing will subside. And given early data  – the numerous retailers that are headquartered in and around the city would be placed at existential risk.

It’s for this reason that Columbus serves a microcosm of traditional retail as a whole. The industry will have to choose between its past and its future, both of which are tied to shifts in mobility innovation.  Like Jobs said in 1995: “People are going to stop going to a lot of stores. And they’re going to buy stuff over the web.” This is beginning to reflect in public and private markets. What happens when we stop driving to stores? What happens when shopping centers no longer have sufficient demand? What happens when advancements in last-mile delivery becomes carbon negative? This is happening now.

The largest retail economy in the world is no longer the United States. But this will potentially change, as the United States closes the gap in mobile computing and payments adoption. China has 10% of the retail square footage and 79% fewer cars. This should give us pause. These numbers provide a bit of foresight into how this country must adapt to modern retail. Computers did become the bicycles for our minds. And now, advancements in mobile computing and payments are influencing physical mobility. The smartest cities will correct for these advancements before the markets correct it for them.

Research and Report by Web Smith | About 2PM 

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