It’s easy for forward thinking technologists to imagine a tech optimized future. We meet our social, travel, and entertainment needs with a VR headset. All our goods are conveniently dropped at our door, and we only leave the house on special occasions via an autonomous car service. Much of this may turn out to be true, but there are some important nuances being glossed over.

Let’s explore online retail as an example. The conventional reasoning goes something like this:

  • It’s been proven most people like doing almost everything online better than they like doing it offline.
  • Therefore, in the future, all shopping will be done online.

Let’s tug at the all shopping part. First, we’ll isolate two important sub-categories of shopping: discretionary and non-discretionary. Discretionary includes non-essentials like books, movies, travel. Non-discretionary includes essentials like food, tissues, diapers, and laundry detergent.

Discretionary shopping fits well into the online only paradigm. Especially when it comes to the actual buying step. You may prefer to “showroom” a bit with your discretionary shopping, but actually buying online adds two self reinforcing psychological pleasures to the mix: anticipation combined with occasional surprise (I forgot I ordered that!).

Non-discretionary also fits nicely into the online only paradigm, especially for items that don’t require much thought. Think about tissues, diapers, and laundry detergent. Most of us make some initial choices on these items, and then stick with them for most of our life. This is why brands fight so hard to be front of mind in these categories.

But what about food?

Food is non-discretionary, but it also involves planning, selection, and variety. While most of us are happy to use the same tissues every day of our lives, we don’t expect to eat chicken and green beans for dinner every night.

If you’re a busy professional or a dual income household, you are almost certainly time constrained and looking for optimization in your life. It’s easy for you to stick food in the same category as laundry detergent. Who would waste time planning, shopping for, and cooking food? If you’re in that demographic, you probably love online food shopping services like Instacart and Blue Apron.

But, all modern families are not time constrained and looking to optimize every moment. According to Pew Research, 37% of US households are still single income. Also, all families spend more time with their children than the prior generation. To the disbelief of the busy professional, many of these families may actually enjoy and embrace the experience of selecting food in person and cooking it. The surging popularity of local farmers markets in the US is one example. Another is companies like Whole Foods successfully making the grocery store a destination with in-store dining experiences. Food is uniquely personal and communal, which lends itself nicely to the physical world.

Offline shopping as an experience

This uncovers a broader point: offline shopping is still a form of escapism and entertainment for many, and due to human nature and preferences, it’s likely to stay that way for a very long time. In the future, many will continue to avoid doing all of their shopping online (even while being aware it’s more convenient!), because they relish the opportunity to get out of the house and have an experience in the real world. The trend of making offline retail more of an experience will likely accelerate to capture this segment of the market. Less big box and boring, more beautiful spaces and entertainment.

We shouldn’t assume because most people prefer shopping online for most things, that all (or even most) people will eventually prefer shopping online for all things. There are certain retail categories that don’t fit so cleanly into that paradigm, and most of us prefer to get out of the house from time to time and experience the real world with other people.