Kirsty Bisset
Kirsty Bisset

New frontiers: To boldly go where no retailer has gone before

by Kirsty Bisset. How much attention should retailers pay to ‘space commerce’? Those who bridge these new commercial frontiers could win the long game.

by Kirsty Bisset. How much attention should retailers pay to ‘space commerce’? There are some advances or changes – technological, manufacturing, behaviour and so on – that are proverbial ‘no-brainers’ for consideration, debate and adoption by retailers. Internet-enabled ordering or shopping, and home deliveries are examples that spring to mind. But there are others that retailers may be tempted to skim over or blatantly ignore, such as space commerce.

I fully admit that space commerce might seem like a remote idea right now. But understanding how space commerce, and the major players who are already involved in it will evolve, is essential to understanding what commerce will look like in the future. And that obviously will impact the long-term plans for how you will compete.

What is space commerce?

For now, commercial interest in space focuses on the immediate environs around Earth’s orbit, and further afield as far as the Moon, Mars and the asteroid belts. At this very early stage, we’re also talking very much about space-to-Earth enterprises – how space-based resources can be used to benefit commercial interests on Earth.

There is, however, also the incremental breakthroughs in technology and infrastructure that will allow us to push further and further into space. For example, both Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Blue Origin have been awarded NASA contracts to investigate how to produce fuel from materials found on the Moon and Mars that could be used to refuel rockets. Essentially, current examples of space commerce include nanosatellites, manufacturing technology, mineral resources and marketing, and there are plenty of potential ventures currently in the works.

Potential future space commerce ventures

While space seems vast and empty, in reality it is anything but. The planets, moons, asteroids, meteorites and comets add up to an astonishing quantity of matter. Earth only makes up just 0.2% of the matter in the solar system. When it comes to minerals, expansion into space may therefore give us access to mineral resources that are increasingly depleted, hard to find, or simply not available on Earth. Around 6-8% of asteroids, for example, are made primarily of metal ores, mostly iron and nickel. They also contain significant quantities of rarer metals such as magnesium, cobalt, key components of electronic devices like smartphones. This is so hopeful because as we know resources on earth are finite.

Space commerce also has applications for logistics. We all acknowledge that the efficiency of moving physical goods around the globe or in a country with a large geographical footprint is determined by a mix of geography and on-ground infrastructure. Manufacturing, sorting and then firing products back down to Earth on demand presents an attractive alternative to trying to improve road, rail and sea freight infrastructure when faced with mountains, jungles and vast expanses of open water.

Already, the US Air Force and Space Force has commissioned some of the usual players in the emerging reusable rocket industry to develop a space-going vehicle specifically designed for shipping cargo back to Earth. One of the barriers the project will aim to break through is the challenge of protecting goods on re-entry back into the Earth’s atmosphere.

And, yes, of course, there’s marketing applications in space, too! In early 2019, a Russian start-up, StartRocket, announced plans to use tiny, light-reflecting ‘cubesats’ working in tandem to make logos visible in space. More recently, Elon Musk and a Canadian start-up talked of their plans to launch a satellite-bound advertising board. Whatever was displayed on the screen would be live-streamed on YouTube. Long live content!

Why should retailers care?

First up, according to a recent Wunderman Thompson poll, 50% of respondents said they’d be prepared to pay a premium for goods delivered from space if it meant goods arriving faster. If that’s not reason enough, 56% of respondents believe space commerce is a real possibility – with 31% saying they are excited by the prospect, and 31% saying they believe space commerce has the ability to benefit them personally. And then there’s the 47% of consumers who said they’d be happy to apply for a job away from Earth! Second, the likes of Amazon’s Blue Origin already have nanosatellites beaming in digital services; and SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and others are already playing in the space (pardon the pun).

Risks and regulation involved

Those companies investing now in the infrastructure of space will be the gatekeepers. They will control how any future commercial ecosystems work. They will also be the ones who reap the biggest rewards once space commerce goes mainstream. This poses challenges for ordinary businesses that don’t yet have a stake in the game, as well as those that operate around short-term planning and investment cycles. The long game that space commerce by necessity requires, is just not in most companies: DNA.

Consumers recognise the opportunities and dangers in that. Nearly half (46%) of Wunderman’s respondents agreed that the commercialisation of space could act as a destabilising influence on peace and cooperation on Earth – with the control of off-world mineral resources, transport routes and the infrastructure that will support space commerce, tipping the balance of power on the planet. Wars have been fought for less.

A key issue is that there is little, if any, regulation of how the commercialisation of space is progressing, leaving it open to ambition, greed, exploitation and aggression. And the more organisations and entities that enter the race, the higher the competitive stakes will rise, pushing players to adopt defensive and protectionist stances to guard their assets.

Time to do your research

My advice to retailers and to the companies offering support services to the retailers, is to invest in research and due diligence into the potential consequences of space commerce for their organisation.

How could ceding even greater control to those who own the space interface affect your business model and the products and services you can offer? How might you build alliances with them that are profitable for you? How can you future-proof your business so it is ready to adapt flexibly to whatever shifts in production, resourcing, logistics and service delivery might be on the horizon?


Main image credit:


Kirsty Bisset is Managing Director of HaveYouHeard Durban.



– Receive the Retailing Africa newsletter every Wednesday • Subscribe here.