Welcome to the digital revolution, you're late!

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Curl, one of the innovative start-ups on the Launchpad stage at RWL18.

 

Retail Week Live this year was held under the shadow of the O2 arena, and present at the event was the spectre of recent high-street retail collapses, near collapses and soon to be collapses. The other existential threat that hung over the proceedings was sometimes not even named, so awesome was its power. While they were not invited, Amazon was certainly at the conference in spirit, looming large, spreading fear and inspiring a mix of resignation and defensive manoeuvring that at times sounded a little like a death rattle.

 

A consumer led dance?

Worrying times for traditional retail. Some painted the tension between online commerce and the high-street as a consumer led dance. Responding to customer need was the name of the game, and the physical store was going to change from an engine of transaction, to a node of fulfillment. The future retail picture being outlined was hardly inspiring.  High-street outlets were to be slowly cannibalised and morphed into distribution centres by the unstoppable online beast, aided and abetted by consumer apathy for anything apart from convenience and value.

Yes, there was talk of digital upskilling, and yes there were a plethora of hungry technology vendors all with a different tonic to remedy retails’ ills. But these, fundamentally, were all sticking plasters. All designed to stem the flow of revenue from bricks to clicks, and keep the old retail model alive for just a little bit longer. In fact M&S seemed pleased to describe their small attempt to trial online grocery as being “held together by sellotape”.

Meanwhile shoppers in what many legacy retailers must see as a parallel universe, can walk around a staff-free store and shop without using tills, or order groceries for delivery within the hour by talking out loud from the comfort of their sofas.

 

Too little too late?

The complacency of some of the old guard was tangible, but hardly surprising. However, the lack of imagination or disruptive thinking from anyone else apart from a handful of plucky start-ups was, for me, the event’s real revelation. Retail Week’s MD passionately declared that ‘now was the time’ to grasp the digital nettle. He welcomed retailers to the Digital Revolution, imploring them jump on board before it was all too late.

But the digital revolution has happened. The PC era is a distant memory, the mobile era is nearing its peak, and the third stage, the era of ubiquitous computing is well on its way.  Welcoming the laggards to the revolution seems almost ironic. The party, for many, is surely almost over.

We’ll see many more traditional retailers go to the wall this year. They can blame Brexit, Amazon, consumer apathy or the weather, but the real culprits are their own intransigence, inflexibility and absence of big ideas.

 

What about those start-ups?

So far, so gloomy. But what about those plucky start-ups? Surely they must hold the key? Well, they certainly brought the much needed imagination to the event. I hosted the Launchpad stage, and so witnessed their creative pitches and the judges’ responses to their disruptive thinking.

Many of them were met with wry, knowing smiles. It was a good idea in theory, but they hadn’t counted on siloed business units or the hard reality of the shop floor. In fact, the judges, many bright CIOs and Heads of Digital from legacy operations, were well versed in the internal dance with old thinking and the daily battle of attrition they had to fight from within. The really big cross-channel, data driven, seamless thinking simply wasn’t going to cut through the boardroom politics.   

In fact, so dislocated are many of these disruptive start-ups from the legacy retail reality that there is a whole expanding ecosystem of accelerators, incubators, facilitators and consultants all offering to act as the go betweens for the old and the new.

 

Bite the bullet, bolt on, buy and build.

It seems to me that the only solution is for traditional retailers to truly embrace digital disruption and disruptors with the sort of energy and urgency that Chris Brook-Carter implores them to do in his article.

 

‘Respond with courage, shed the old paradigms of retail and step into the unknown’.

 

Trialling the odd piece of early stage tech here or there isn’t really the answer, nor is outsourcing your technology thinking and doing to a consultancy. No, to really survive legacy retail is going to have to bite the bullet, and bolt on, buy and build their own digital capabilities. And quickly.

Omnifi, I should hasten to add, is not for sale.  Although we can be borrowed on a medium term basis.

 

 

 

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