As retailers seek to adapt to a rapidly transforming world, shoe giant Clarks has given a glimpse of the future.

Clarks has unveiled plans for a new manufacturing plant in its Somerset hometown of Street. The unit marks a return to “volume manufacturing” in the UK for the retailer, which will make 300,000 pairs of one of its most famous products – Desert Boots – there every year.

Although it marks a return to Clarks’ roots in some ways, the venture is also a very 21st century enterprise designed to enable the business to perform better in the big-picture context of “the changing global economic order” and at the retail level.

Clarks chief executive Mike Shearwood was at pains to point out that the decision to begin manufacturing again in the UK was not a result of the Brexit vote.

“Over the next few years, more such plants are likely in the US, Europe and Asia, and the resulting flexibility is likely to help the retailer steer through currency and tariff challenges and opportunities”

The venture, brainchild of group sourcing director Antony Perillo, has been three or four years in the making.

Nevertheless, amid the uncertainty playing out following the Brexit vote, a UK base could prove a big strength.

Assuming the factory is successful, it can be replicated around the world.

Over the next few years, more such plants are likely in the US, Europe and Asia, and the resulting flexibility is likely to help the retailer steer through currency and tariff challenges and opportunities.

Expect more retailers to undertake more manufacture and supply in the UK as the landscape changes – not just in Europe – and, in some instances, new sources of production become necessary.

The shape of things to come

A few years ago DFS, for instance, brought more manufacturing back to Britain in response to difficulties in the Chinese labour market.

And in February this year, Morrisons launched a hunt for 200 more British suppliers after examining the food security risks associated with a high proportion of overseas sourcing, a drive given added urgency by the UK’s decision to quit the EU.

At the jobs level, Clarks’ initiative is also likely to represent the shape of things to come. There has been much talk in recent months of a trend towards ‘fewer but better’ jobs in retail.

Last week’s job cuts at Tesco seemed to put ‘fewer’ very much at the forefront, but Clarks’ new factory illustrates how technology is recasting retail.

The plant, bringing 80 new jobs, will blend art and science, according to Shearwood.

Traditional shoemaking skills will be complemented by “robot-assisted” technology, inspired by development in industries outside retail such as aeronautics.

Importantly, they will be “quite highly skilled jobs”, says Perillo, helping to build the country’s capabilities in new tech.

All the changes are designed, in the end, to create a better retail business.

“Shearwood refers to the latest initiative as ‘more light manufacturing’, epitomising his hopes that the business has found a lean, responsive model”

They are expected to allow Clarks to respond more adeptly to consumer and wholesale demand, to facilitate “trans-seasonal collections” and shorter lead times.

When Clarks was founded almost 200 years ago, it became famous for the ‘more light building’ in which people worked, representing a shift in direction away from the ‘dark Satanic mills’ more typical of that time.

Shearwood refers to the latest initiative as ‘more light manufacturing’, epitomising his hopes that the business has found a lean, responsive model.

Clarks has been through the mill in the past few years, but perhaps the new factory and those that follow will prove the sort of enlightened and entrepreneurial approach that originally set the company apart two centuries ago.