NATIONAL REPORT — Where are the jet packs, flying cars and robot servants?
The further we get into the 2020s, the more I seem to hear about "the future that never arrived." People keep talking about how we should be living now, based on the science fiction of the last century. Where are the colonies on the moon and Mars, the cities that are under the seas, and supersonic jets that will get us from New York to Los Angeles in 45 minutes?
I blame a lot of it on the 1968 Stanley Kubrick movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey," which gave us a fixed date. For those of us of a certain age, this movie formed our expectations of what life would be like this century and we are already almost a quarter of the way through the 2000s.
Oh, I know that the inventions and events I've mentioned are "almost here" — including the underwater cities that may be the result of rising sea levels rather than sub-surface settlements. That's the problem with the future — it is always "almost here."
But I did get a peek at the future while I was attending the NACS Show in October, except this part of the future wasn't technically at the NACS Show. When you stand in the main lobby area of the Las Vegas Convention Center, there is a huge digital sign overhead that is constantly flashing information and advertisements about Las Vegas (this should not surprise anyone who has visited the city). Amongst the advertising about making donations to the local casinos and getting sunburned on desert tours, there was encouragement to travel on "the Loop." I wasn't familiar with it and, my curiosity piqued, I decided to investigate.
It was cool. The Loop is a project initiated by Elon Musk's The Boring Co., a company that specializes in digging tunnels. As it currently stands, the Loop consists of two tunnels that run 1.7 miles from the convention center to the Resorts World mall and hotel complex. The tunnels are 12 feet in diameter and, at their lowest point, 30 feet below ground level. The Loop was opened in 2021 and, if fully completed, will be a total of 29 miles running from the convention center to the airport and around the city of Las Vegas.
Those are the technical specs. The experience is eye-opening. You descend on a long escalator into an enormous cavern under the convention center. Below you is a huge room that looks like something out of a James Bond film. The bright lights give the area an other-worldly illumination. People move about with purpose. And around the perimeter, cars silently glide by — a continuous parade of sleek sedans. The only thing missing is everyone wearing matching coveralls.
Once you reach the floor, you are directed to a car parking slot to await your ride. In a couple of minutes, a Tesla car rolls up, the occupants get out and you climb in. Our driver greeted us and was very patient as we tried to buckle our seatbelts and "ooh and ahh" at the same time.
The car slowly pulls out of the parking space and joins the convoy of cars circling around the cavern floor. You enter the tunnel, which is lit the entire length with pale blue LED lights. The silence of the car and the smooth concrete floor of the tunnel give you the impression that you are flying in a spaceship. Halfway through the trip, you briefly see the sky as you navigate an interchange that is under construction. The car then dives back below the surface.
At the Resorts World terminal, the car emerges from the tunnel into another enormous room and glides into its designated slot. We jumped out and took the escalator to the surface and into a mall full of glitzy, high-tech glamour and innovative food destinations — in sharp contrast to the drab and functional trade show floor at the beginning of our journey, which confirmed that the Loop had carried us from one world to another!
I found this experience to be fascinating for several reasons. The Loop only uses electric vehicles (EVs). There was no motor noise or exhaust fumes; just the sound of tires rolling over concrete. Although the car had a driver, the plan is for them to be self-driving. It's the perfect environment for automated cars as there is no other traffic or pedestrians to worry about. Finally, the Loop is all about personal transportation. Imagine that there were 30 stops in the tunnel, and you wanted to get out at stop 25. Your car would travel directly to your stop without pausing at the other 24, unlike a train, subway or bus.
Green transportation that is fast, efficient and automated — what's not to like?
OK, so this isn't supposed to be a promotion on behalf of the Las Vegas Tourist Board or Mr. Musk. What does this have to do with retail? I see a couple of lessons here.
The first has to do with innovation and it is not specifically about EVs. The Boring Co. took two ideas that are fairly common today, tunnels and cars, and combined them to create a new style of public transportation. I'm not saying it is cheap, but it is innovative. (Speaking of innovation, could the Loop be the initial stage of a hyperloop? Just asking.)
So, how can you innovate at your store? What can you do that creates a new retail experience, especially around foodservice? Instead of just putting a popular food truck on your parking lot, have that chef take over your inside foodservice area. They may already have a following and a destination food offering. Have a local artist do a pop-up shop or provide live entertainment in your store. Collaborate with local trendy restaurants to provide prepackaged take-home meals. Offer free puppuccinos to your customers' dogs. Innovation does not have to be expensive, it just needs to be innovative. The goal is to surprise and delight your customers.
The second lesson is that the future is actually "almost here." Whether it is alternative fuels or a rethinking of the public transportation system, the world is going to continue to change and you need to be ready for it. As with jet packs, it won't happen overnight or even in the next few years, but change will come.
When EVs become standard, not every retail location will be able to support a charging station. When autonomous cars take to the streets, drivers will not need to stop at your store to refuel. What are you going to do when your fuel pumps become obsolete or uneconomical? Can your store survive without those customers?
Start thinking now about how you are going to evolve your business to accommodate these changes. Can you create a welcoming "dwell" space within your store where customers can comfortably work remotely? If your fuel pumps become unviable, you still have valuable real estate. Can you reclaim some of your parking lot to add a patio, a covered seating area, more sales space, or use the vacant area under the canopy for some other retail function — a coffee trailer, for example.
If you aren't already in the fuel business, look for public charging stations nearby where you can advertise your store as a place to hang out while a driver charges.
At the end of the day, your future is in your hands. Innovation and evolution are what our industry has been doing for decades and we can still do it. The key will be to understand your customers and become the location that provides them with what they need, now and in the future.
Innovate and evolve. We want to keep your business above ground.
Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.