We live in fantastic times. And things are changing at a fantastically fast clip. We’re able to build, pivot, scale and fail in business much faster than prior generations. And there’s no indication that this increasing rate of change will slow.
Viewing the world as an ecommerce retailer, I see a few trends that have the ability to completely change our world and how we live. The first is the trend towards design and art. This trend has been a long time coming, but is now impacting everything from inexpensive, fashion-forward apparel (something almost impossible ten years ago) to our home thermostat. Consumers now expect almost everything to look as good as it functions, no matter the price. Apple perfectly captured this trend and likely exacerbated it by raising the bar.
Combine that trend with the rise of 3D printing. We’re in the very early stages of this, but the move towards it is accelerating. You can now buy a home 3D printer at Office Depot. And even it has an attractive, modern design. 3D printing opens the door to a massive change in consumer shopping habits. And I believe it will signify the rise of the artist or creative creator.
Currently we rely on manufacturers to design and create product. A designer gets hired (and paid) by a manufacturer to create a great design, which the manufacturer then produces and sells to retailers. We trust retailers to curate an assortment and stock the merchandise for when we have a need. We used to expect a retailer to have one type of our desired products available, now we expect a full selection at a discounted price.
When 3D printing becomes commonplace, we will no longer need the retailer. And a designer will no longer need the manufacturer. With the rise of the internet, a designer can offer his designs directly to end users. These end users can purchase and create the items as they need them. This completely disintermediates the entire process. Great designers essentially become retailers and consumers become manufacturers.
I think there are other interesting questions in here as well: Designers (theoretically) have less overhead than manufacturers and retailers, driving down the cost of items. Over time, with unlimited designs available at lower prices, abundance removes any value we currently associate with an item. Unlimited customization means unlimited creativity and the ability to change designs or styles frequently. So the value of something like a couch is reduced to the cost of printing out another one.
Initially this only impacts simple products; current 3D printers can’t do anything as complicated as your iPhone. And home 3D printers are unlikely to do big objects (sofa or chair) in the early days. So this will start with cups, coasters, etc and work its way up towards increasing complexity.
This will bring additional drastic change to our world, particularly change for those bringing products to market. And I think it gives additional power to designers and creatives, who don’t have to rely on old paradigms. Perhaps retailers become more like marketplaces that curate the best of various designs. But that doesn’t sound like business model with good margins.