Most people regard retail as a fast-moving, innovative and cutting-edge industry, and in many ways they are right.

‘If you’re not in, you can’t win.’ This was for many years the catchy slogan of the Irish lottery, still remembered and used in various contexts by many of us - to which I am going to add a new application.

Most people regard retail as a fast-moving, innovative and cutting-edge industry, and in many ways they are right.

But when it comes to keeping ahead of developments that affect the very business of retailing, our record is not so great.

If you had a case study about competition for a new channel of trade, and it featured on the one hand a start-up business with no brand equity, limited financial resources, no customers, and a management team new to the industry, and on the other hand a large, well-funded household name with 2 million customers and a prominent high street portfolio, you would feel safe backing the established business to hold on to the majority of its share… wouldn’t you?

But the experience of online trading turned out very differently. Many retailers are still scrambling to catch up and more than a few have been driven to bankruptcy.

Why is this?

One reason is that there was a lot of standing back and watching developments before making a commitment to something that (people thought) might turn out to be a fad. After the dotcom bubble burst, many retailers congratulated themselves for not wasting money on something that had “gone away”.

Today, of course, nobody in retail needs telling that they should be investing in online. However, technology development, and in particular the kind that is going to affect consumer behaviour, did not stop with online retail.

It is continuing, and if anything there are more new ideas and potentially disruptive technology today than at any time in the past 20 years. Mobile-based coupons and loyalty, real-time price comparisons, hybrid ordering and delivery models and 3D printing are some examples.

If retailers want to win in these new arenas, they have to be in them. This means being prepared to invest time and money to get stuck into new activities that might or might not go anywhere. Such investment will almost certainly never pass a financial appraisal and might even result in reduced profits. It might also need management to be sanguine about cannibalisation of sales, something that has certainly held retailers back when moving online.

Those who are willing to take the plunge in this way will learn faster about these areas, discover the pitfalls, and get competent quicker than their competitors - as well as having the chance to keep up with the start-up specialists who are learning our industry rapidly.

So my message is that it is not enough now for retailers just to be investing in online - that’s a given.

We need to be getting into the next generation of disruptive ideas, becoming experts at them, and making sure we are clear winners when consumers adopt them.

  • Simon Burke is chairman of Hobbycraft