ST. PETE BEACH — Retailers now wrestling with how to get people to shop on mobile phone apps had better buckle up.
Globalization and relentless gains in computer speed have teamed up to accelerate the pace of change in retailing exponentially. And as online sensations like Facebook, Instagram and Groupon proved, relatively tiny tech companies now can easily access billions of dollars to challenge corporate giants from Blockbuster Video to Kodak.
That was the consensus of experts who spoke Friday to a by-invitation-only crowd of 45 chief executive or chief marketing officers from 55 national retailers at the Global Retail Marketing Association Leadership at the Don CeSar Beach Resort.
Consider some of the meeting's major talking points. In the past 20 years, technology led by the Internet wiped out more American manufacturing jobs than overseas outsourcing. The growing calculating power of computers is on track to surpass human intelligence by 2016. Globalization will put the Internet in the hands of 5 billion people in five years, a market more than twice today's 2 billion.
"Anybody will be able to sell anything to anybody from anywhere," said Mike Mandelbaum, an international affairs expert who co-authored That Used to Be Us, a look at the decline of American economic clout and how to get it back. And they all will have the same low-cost access to the computing power that helped IBM's Watson supercomputer beat two human Jeopardy champions.
"The speed of technological change is accelerating so fast it's like holding a fire hose," said Jim McCann, chief executive of 1-800-Flowers.com, which evolved from one of the first retailers selling online in 1991 to now using social media chat groups to design some of its best-selling products.
Transformative ideas will come with miniaturization of more powerful wireless devices, sophisticated robots for manufacturing and venture capital for the right ideas. Already, the explosion in digital processing speed enables today's PCs to tackle in 10 minutes what took two days in 2010, said Peter Diamandis, futurist/author of the bestselling Abundance and the creator of the 2004 X Prize competition that led to SpaceX, the first privately developed spacecraft, scheduled to lift off early today with a goal of reaching the International Space Station.
Now, he has teams competing to create a handheld device for home use packed with the medical advice of 10 board-certified medical doctors and the ability to perform simple lab work. Other teams are competing to find ways to race conventional cars coast-to-coast driven completely by computer.
He sees 3-D printers around the corner and synthetic human organs for transplants. His latest venture is a company figuring out how to mine minerals from asteroids.
"We are living in the most extraordinary time in the history of our planet," he said.
However, Mandelbaum says political gridlock is holding back government solutions required to stimulate economic growth long term: rebuilding the nation's crumbling infrastructure, reviving declining public education and more investment in research.
"The political system is broken, but I'm a frustrated optimist about Americans' history of innovation and starting new things," he said. "But manufacturing jobs are not coming back. The future for anybody without a high school diploma and some community college is road kill."
Technology has also taken a personal toll among people exhausted from working longer hours and weekends thanks to email, cellphones and the rise of multitasking.
One speaker said it's a counterproductive cycle because humans need breaks to recover and clear their minds to be creative.
"No study shows multitasking enhances productivity," said Tony Schwartz, author of Be Excellent at Anything. "Young people may have trained themselves to multitask faster, but the human brain did not change. You cannot cognitively perform tasks faster than one at a time."