Retailers of all shapes and sizes will need to grab the opportunity to offer a digital, highly personalised and better service to their customers.

Either there is something in the air around this time of the year or it’s an interesting signal to the markets.

Twelve months ago the guest speaker for the BRC’s Annual Retail Lecture, Tim Steiner, was busy negotiating a deal that would see online food retailer Ocado tie up with Morrisons. Fast-forward 12 months, and as I stepped out to this year’s lecture our guest speaker Seb James was no doubt a tad preoccupied over plans to merge Dixons, owner of Currys and PC World, with mobile phone retailer Carphone Warehouse.

The proposed merger was announced a week later and once it completes it will create another new chapter in British retailing.

Seb gave us a masterclass presentation on how to blend a handful of thought-provoking facts with powerful, penetrating analysis. For instance, we learned that in a world where information is ubiquitous, at the present rate, every two days humans create more than all of the data that existed up to the year 2003.

The mainstay of his lecture was the connectivity of technology and the plethora of data ‘exhaust’ this creates – as well as our ability to interpret it – and how both will impact the future for us all in our industry.

It was upbeat and optimistic. In turn it got me thinking.

As retail responds to the plethora of challenges, from rapidly changing consumer behaviour to an ever more complex and uncertain world, and if Seb is right, as I believe he is, we find ourselves on the verge of a new wave of transformational change – one that places customer data, with its “profound, strategic and qualitative” ability to effect change in the way we will sell, as a key differentiator.

Retailers will increasingly find themselves having to confront ethical and public policy implications as they log, store and leverage all of this public data. In this new world, retailers will become the stronger custodians of customer understanding. And that means adapting to public scrutiny in new ways, much like other notable big data handlers such as Amazon and Facebook have had to.

Like so many other industries that have felt the force of the digital world send shockwaves through the old way of doing things, this new stage of retail’s evolution represents a tremendous responsibility – and opportunity.

Retailers of all shapes and sizes will grab it by offering a digital, highly personalised and better service to their customers. Those who abuse it will do so at their peril.

The pace with which customers embraced online retail continues to surprise many and is changing the industry forever. Retailers will want to be prepared as customers embrace the next part of this journey. Turning mountains of data into knowledge and understanding and making the shift to a personalised digital experience, together with the expectation of a seamless interaction between bricks and clicks, are once again changing the retailing landscape as we know it.

Not for the first time, I have no doubt British retailers will take the lead in this new era.

  • Helen Dickinson, Director-general of the British Retail Consortium