Curious, open-minded, challenging, inspiring. These are the attributes all of us must harness if we are to survive the economic, social and cultural changes that the digital revolution is bringing down upon us with increasing force and speed. 

And let us be in no doubt that this is a revolution.

We have lived with – and perhaps even become numb to – the term digital revolution ever since the late 1990s, when the first dot-com bubble exploded.

Knowing what we do now of the unprecedented acceleration of digital change that we face into today, the phrase was arguably adopted too early, perhaps lulling us into a false sense of security regarding the pace of transformation that has been required in order to ensure our businesses are ready for the future.

The consequence has been a phony war: between an analogue industry and the digital forces it has sought to understand and then conquer. Our industry should be rightly proud of some of the world-class digital companies that have been fostered by its ongoing entrepreneurial spirit (and those businesses are well represented here today).

But adaption, not transformation, has been the strategic imperative thus far for too many others, as leaders bolted on new skills and channels to existing business models in a short-term fix to the long-term changes.

The relatively gradual evolution of our world has meant that too often what has prevailed has been a preference to sidestep the oncoming challenges, rather than confront them.

In the last two years, we have rushed headlong into a phase of commercial history where a series of megatrends are intersecting; generational, technological and economic.

And the resultant scale of change is digital and it is global and should now be apparent to all. The room we have to respond strategically gets ever smaller, the need to respond faster gets ever more prescient.

“This great sector is rich in the lessons of the renown entrepreneurs that have coloured it since the birth of modern retailing”

There is now no hiding from the challenge we must overcome. And there’s no denying that the rules that have underpinned success for decades, even the way we measure that success or even the language we use to define it have changed forever and continue to morph faster than some can keep up.

Multichannel, omnichannel, even the term digital-first is now misleading as it somehow suggests there is a second or third way of being, that separates out our analogue lives. The truth is that we no longer choose to go online at a specific point in time – we live online, with the digital manifestations of ourselves a constant companion to our physical worlds.

Knowing what we now do, do we stand accused of naïvity in regards our response so far – clinging to legacy views, models and means as to how we do business, on the dangerously simplistic understanding that retail has always lived through periods of change, never been an industry for the faint-hearted and yet always survived via a steadfast focus on operational excellence and the basic rules that have defined success for decades?

We hear a great deal right now of retail businesses “getting back to basics”, or returning to their core competencies.

There is so much to be said for looking back for inspiration as to how to move forward. This great sector is rich in the lessons of the renown entrepreneurs that have coloured it since the birth of modern retailing.

“The danger of fixating on the past is that it becomes an ill-advised defence against the radical scale of change we as leaders must now bring about”

Indeed, I was fascinated to read on our website last month that it is nearly 70 years since Sainsbury’s opened its first self-service supermarket. It was part of a revolutionary moment in retail, setting a new direction not just in grocery, but across the retail industry as it became the norm.

The move to self-service was daring, new and a commercial master-stroke. A prime example of how the past should act as an example for the future.

Yet the danger of fixating on the past is that it becomes an ill-advised defence against the radical scale of change we as leaders must now bring about.

No facet of retail will be left untouched by these forces over the next two years. 

Disruptive businesses and technologies are emerging in every retail vertical and in every corner of retail businesses – competitive advantage is no longer the preserve of those who can master technology for ecommerce, but those who understand how to create truly pan-digital organisations.

Businesses such as Primark, Aldi and Lidl have eschewed ecommerce but are still winning in the digital economy. Because, the fight to survive and thrive exists in leaders’ ability to apply these new capabilities across the entire matrix of a company from HR, finance and legal to marketing, supply chain and of course stores.

“However fast we believe we as an industry have evolved thus far, our responsibility is to move faster, embrace change further and continue to challenge one another harder”

I genuinely believe that the world will not be run – as some fear – by five or six giant tech groups. The birth of so many compelling digital businesses – suppliers and retailers – many of whom are gracing these halls over the next 48 hours, are testament to the fact that innovation and entrepreneurialism have never been more alive.

But the world will be made by companies in the slipstream of the digital economy and who truly embrace this future now.

So how do you know what is the right path to choose with so much complexity, to get the result that you desire? The honest answer is this: you won’t.

But just as Sainsbury’s did 70 years ago, we must respond with courage, shed the old paradigms of retail and step into the unknown.

Only then can we embrace the opportunity to create a future that will be the foundation of this great sector for decades to come.

It is an exhilarating position to be in.

But we must accept that however fast we believe we as an industry have evolved thus far, our responsibility is to move faster, embrace change further and continue to challenge one another harder. And the lens through which we must search for answers must be a global one as international influences are the forces behind the megatrends shaping our world.

This annual gathering of retail’s finest is the perfect launchpad.

Retail Week Live’s purpose is to bring together the globe’s foremost thinkers to make sense of the world we now operate in; it is to put a spotlight on the industry’s best in class to help set new benchmarks for success; it is to connect you with the people and businesses that will drive your careers and your brands forward and inspire you and your teams to reach new heights.

Explain; benchmark; connect and inspire: a vision we hope you all agree we have achieved by the time you leave through those doors tomorrow evening.

I have no doubt that at times the challenges we face over the next 12 months as we embark on this extraordinary journey will feel as daunting as they are exciting.

That this mission to transform, to continue to innovate, be bold and seek out new avenues for growth will be difficult to undertake and challenging to enact in the face of well-documented headwinds.

But as Harry Selfridge once put: “There are no hard times for good ideas.”

In fact, if I may be as bold to add to the great man’s thoughts, I would say there has never been a more fertile time for good ideas, nor an industry so full of the will and the skill to unearth them and capitalize on them.

For more content from Retail Week Live 2018, visit