Multichannel retailing has been in the spotlight this week. The glare fell most prominently on Apple following news it has parted company with its retail boss John Browett.

Multichannel retailing has been in the spotlight this week. The glare fell most prominently on Apple following news it has parted company with its retail boss John Browett.

But M&S also made headlines as it upped the ante in the fulfilment war by offering a new next-day collection service and unveiling more international websites.

It all underlines the scale of the challenge and opportunity facing retailers as they work to blur the boundaries between digital and traditional retail models and meet customer expectations about how a retailer should behave these days. It was a theme that ran through the two days of Retail Week’s ecommerce summit this week.

The UK is home to the highest spending online consumers in the world and British shoppers handed over £68bn online in 2011, the equivalent of £2,000 a head.

Yet despite – or perhaps because of – how quickly the UK has embraced all things digital, retailers are playing continuous catch-up with a market that, in terms of technology and consumer expectations, is marching relentlessly forward.

There have of course been big successes and Aurora Fashions’ Anytime Everywhere strategy, fulfilling customers’ orders from both stores and distribution centres, is a notable example. Group ominichannel director Ishan Patel told delegates on the opening morning of the summit that the fashion retailer had doubled conversions overnight when it switched to this view of its inventory.

But few retailers can claim to have successfully squared the circle and delivered that elusive, seamless customer experience across all market touchpoints.

Part of the problem is that retailers, not consumers, have imposed ‘channels’ on their businesses. While customers continue to shop with brands, the retail industry often directs purchases through silos they themselves created in order to dip their toes in the water of digital.

As the multichannel model matures, retailers must ask whether they should unpick that strategy in terms of how they present themselves to customers and – perhaps with more difficulty – the structure of their businesses.

Embracing a culture of change will be the key. Retail has never been a place for complacency but continual, incremental improvement now has to become the way of life for the sector or as House of Fraser’s Robin Terrell explained in the opening feature of this year’s etail Powerlist: “If it ain’t broke, you are not looking hard enough.”