The UK has been a pioneer in digital retail since the early days, but retailers must continue adapting to the demands of the consumer to survive.

It is 20 years since the sale of a Sting CD became the world’s first recognised ecommerce transaction and in doing so fired the starting gun for two decades of unprecedented change in the industry.

Technology has since revolutionised shopping habits, changing forever the relationship between retailers and customers, and bringing about the downfall of some previously great high street names that were unable to adapt. And it has given birth to new giants of the industry.

The disruption resulting from ecommerce may have been going on for 20 years, but digital retailing has constantly evolved. Today’s mobile and digitally connected landscape seems a lifetime away from the early interactions with nascent technologies such as the CD-Rom that helped sparked these changes.

British retail has been at the forefront of the global industry’s response to this ever-shifting environment.

But at the heart of its success is the extraordinary way in which British consumers have embraced online shopping.

“Countries such as China and South Korea have leapfrogged the UK”

Chris Brook-Carter, Editor-in-chief

A report produced by OC&C in association with Retail Week, to be published in full in September for our Technology & Ecommerce Summit, will underscore the extent to which consumer behaviour has acted as an engine for that growth. In a study of the top 25 ecommerce markets, the UK heads the list from a demand perspective, with the highest proportion of retail sales online and the highest ecommerce spend per connected customer.

This consumer love affair with digital retail has been nurtured by the innovative and entrepreneurial nature of the UK industry and its track record of launching successful pure-play businesses such as Asos and But the research will also warn that in its response to that customer demand, across a series of supply metrics, the UK is being outpaced by some of its international rivals.

The industry’s reaction to the explosion of mobile retailing is a case in point. Countries such as China and South Korea have leapfrogged the UK in some respects.

As recently as last year, only 50% of the top 100 UK retailers had mobile-optimised websites, according to data from mobile technology group Skava. Peak internet connection speeds and 3G/4G penetration also show signs of slowing developments.

The UK has been a pioneer in digital retailing since the early days, but the gap between consumer demand and the infrastructure in place to serve it is a reminder of how fast ecommerce is developing and how hard retailers need to work just to keep pace with the customers they serve.

  • Chris Brook-Carter, Editor-in-chief, Retail Week