Imagine a world where you can have anything you can afford, where you don’t have to hunt deals because they hunt you, where you can print replacement parts for office or household items at the local mall or pay for a product with nothing but your smartphone and your fingerprint. That may seem futuristic, but all that is either already here or coming sooner than you might think.\n\nGartner Inc., a New York-based technology research and advisory company, recently released its top predictions on how digital innovations will dramatically change the way we shop and do business over the course of the next few years. Gartner’s forecast — along with that from several tech and shopping experts — may not be the utopia you’ve been hoping for, but there is still a lot to get excited about.\nPREDICTION 1\nIn 2016, more than US$2 billion in online shopping will be performed exclusively by mobile digital assistants.\nMobile digital assistants aren’t just those voice-activated bots on mobile devices; any software or system that performs a task can be considered a digital assistant.\n\nGartner says that, very soon, we should be able to ask them to do complex tasks such as arrange the perfect date night with dinner, movie and an Uber ride. Digital assistants can also make smart purchasing decisions for us, as they have access to information that enables them to determine what we would like.\n\nHowever, you may still encounter problems with digital assistants. “You have to know what the software is doing and what it’s including or excluding,” Robert Parker, CPA and tech futurist, warns. “It’s kind of a ‘buyer beware’ with digital assistants.”\n\nAdditionally, they may eliminate some of the pleasures of traditional shopping, such as coming across an item in a store that may catch your eye. “Digital assistants take you right to what you ask for without letting you think, ‘maybe this will work,’ or ‘how would that go with this skirt?’ ” Parker says. “Sometimes the hunt is better than the kill.”\nPREDICTION 2\nBy 2017, mobile commerce revenue will rise to 50% of US digital commerce revenue as a result of US mobile customer behaviour.\n\nWhile the above prediction appears to refer to shopping online only, mobile payment capabilities will also have a significant impact on brick-and-mortar stores. The launch of Apple’s Apple Pay has renewed interest in mobile payments, and online and big-box retailers are weighing the benefits and drawbacks of such payments.\n\n“The question is, ‘will people shop with me if I do not offer mobile payments? Will they spend more or will they spend the same amount, and would I have to pay more for that same transaction? Will I lose market share or gain market share because I have mobile payments?’ The jury is out,” Michael LeBlanc, senior vice-president of the Retail Council of Canada, says.\n\nBusinesses also have to decide which mobile payment solution to support or whether to start their own. Besides Apple Pay, services such as Google Wallet and Samsung Pay exist, while others, such as Chase Pay, are coming soon. Some retailers, such as Walmart and Starbucks, also plan to launch or already have launched their own mobile payment solutions.\n\nDespite retailer interest, consumers shouldn’t expect to immediately get the benefits of mobile payments. New forms of payment may take some time to be introduced because they may be a lower priority for some industries.\nPREDICTION 3\n\nBy 2017, a computer algorithm will conceive a significant and disruptive digital business that will be launched that year.\nConsumers won’t be the only ones to benefit from smarter computer technology. Businesses and investors will use artificial intelligence (AI) to get advice on financial products and to determine if startups will succeed or fail.\n“What we’re seeing is more and more smart advisers coming into the workforce and coming into the world to help us do our jobs,” Daryl Plummer, chief of research and managing vice-president of Gartner, says. “We’re having more and more machines that are able to make decisions on their own in a limited scope.”\n\nSome machines or technologies may be names you recognize. IBM’s Watson, which won a three-episode-long Jeopardy competition against two of the show’s greatest champions in 2011, looks at market conditions, events, client history and offerings to provide financial advice for Citi, the United Services Automobile Association and a number of other companies.\n\nThere are many startups that exploit the potential of AI-based business intelligence.\n\nA couple of examples are Path Intelligence and Qlikview, which use AI to assist businesses in an assortment of sectors. Path Intelligence has provided a way to automatically identify how people move in indoor spaces.\nPREDICTION 4\nBy 2018, the total cost of ownership for business operations will be reduced by 30% through the use of smart machines and industrialized services.\nWith everyone desiring to get better products faster and at a better price, businesses will increasingly turn to smart machines and other digital technologies to meet demand. As most software can be used anytime and anywhere, quality software that can easily replicate or surpass the jobs that humans can do may be in high demand.\n\n“Narrative Science and its Quill platform are developing the area of narrative science, which is our ability to have a machine write things that are really repetitious and/or don’t allow a lot of creativity,” Plummer says.\n\n“Copywriters beware, because even the city of Chicago’s budget was written by a software bot.”\n\nAnd it’s clear to see why businesses would go with a bot over a human. Dallas-based Automated Copywriting offers services that can reduce copywriting costs. For instance, with a package that costs US$25,000 a year, businesses can save more than US$52 million, not to mention hours of labour.\n\nBots can even create copy that is as good as or better than a human can. For example, Persado software can create copy that has a positive emotional impact, that induces consumers to spend more and, because the language produced sounds natural, chances are that customers won’t be able to tell that the copy was written by automated software.\nPREDICTION 5\n\nBy 2020, retail businesses that use targeted messaging in combination with indoor positioning systems will see a 5% increase in sales.\nWhile some thought smartphones and the Internet would kill traditional shopping, brick-and-mortar retailers will soon use that technology to provide a more engaging experience for their customers.\n\nIndoor positioning systems will allow businesses to use Wi-Fi and low-energy Bluetooth to accurately track shoppers in a store to within a few centimetres. “It helps the retailer understand the overall behaviour [of shoppers] and also can drive [customers] into the store,” Allan Toy, cofounder of Calgary-based indoor positioning system startup Spectre, explains. Retailers can learn where customers stopped, what they looked at the most, where they spent most of their time and more. “Having that information is key to all retailers,” Toy says.\n\nReal-time mapping provided by indoor positioning systems can also direct customers to specific areas in the store or to individual products. Additionally, retailers can send shoppers ads and messages relevant to where they are in a store or mall to make deals find the customers — not the other way around.\n\nIf indoor positioning systems sound too much like Big Brother, the ability to opt out will make it less so.\n\nPREDICTION 6\nBy 2017, nearly 20% of durable-goods e-retailers will use 3-D printing to create personalized product offerings.\nWhen the products of the future arrive in our homes, chances are 3-D printing will have played a role in some part of their development or production.\n\n“You can help to prototype [an] object in a way that, by the time you [produce] the mould for injection moulding, fewer mistakes will be made,” Daniel Southwick, University of Toronto PhD candidate and 3-D printing expert, says. “When you’re talking about very high-end degrees of customization and very low production runs, there’s a spot for 3-D printing somewhere in the production chain.”\n\nSince 3-D printing also makes some products cheaper to produce and allows for the design of products to be changed easily, Gartner believes businesses big and small may offer more products such as sports equipment, eyewear and shoes customized for individuals.\n\nJust don’t expect to see many mass-produced, large-scale products created exclusively with 3-D printers, as it can take several hours to create an object and the quality of products printed by even some of the best 3-D printers can be poor. “It makes things look profoundly cheap,” Southwick says. “I don’t know if I’d want a 3-D-printed monstrosity in my house.” The few 3-D-printed, mass-produced items would likely be objects such as screws, gears and covers.\n\n\nWhile personal 3-D printers exist, don’t anticipate that you’ll have one in your home for practical purposes any time soon. With the printers’ cost, size, limited number of uses and the strong plastic smell emitted, getting the few items you might need printed at a store kiosk would make more sense than printing items at home, Southwick says.