If the unsettled start to the year is the shape of things to come, don’t expect 2016 to be the era the new normal emerges in retail.

Even against the backdrop of the typically tense period of Christmas trading, the past few weeks in retail have brought remarkable developments.

Takeover attempts, boardroom exits, administrations, plans for mass store closures, profit warnings and finally the news that, despite high hopes for Christmas 2015, December sales limped into growth, up only 0.1% on a like-for-like basis over the same period last year.

Growth flatlines

The turmoil can be seen in the context of those anaemic sales. But that would be to underestimate the scale of the underlying structural shifts taking place of which flatlining growth is just another symptom, not a cause.

The run of events that have kick-started the new year may be remarkable for the pace at which they came but, once enough time has passed to allow the luxury of hindsight, they will be a portent of things to come. And the industry should brace itself for a year of unprecedented change.

Retail has wrestled with the challenge of adjustment since the advent of the global financial crisis coincided with maturing digital habits and technologies.

But there was always a sense a new normal would emerge and with it a renewed sense of stability. Many hoped rising disposable income and consumer confidence, allied to maturing digital strategies would make 2015 the dawn of that new era. In the end, the Christmas trading performance was a stark demonstration that the past 12 months flattered to deceive in that respect.

“Shoppers are wedded to a discount culture while also seeking exclusivity, experiences and personalised service”

Chris Brook-Carter

Post-recessionary consumer habits remain frustratingly difficult to predict and often seemingly contradictory. Shoppers are wedded to a discount culture for staples such as groceries and high street fashion, while also seeking exclusivity, experiences and personalised service.

Meanwhile, the evolution of technologies means we are entering a post-mobile age, when our lives are connected across screens, devices and locations in a way that will once more redefine what we mean by a multichannel world.

Digital sales surge

Almost one in every five pounds spent with retailers in December was through digital channels. Moreover, online sales contributed three percentage points to year-on-year growth of non-food total sales in the month, the highest on record, while stores made a negative contribution.

The combined effect of all this will be the ongoing decay of traditional economic rules of retail at a speed some will struggle to keep up with. New businesses will emerge, new business models will be formed and new skills will be required from business leaders.

Retail has an enviable track record for evolving to new challenges and opportunities. But 2016 will demonstrate another watershed in the scale of change, marking the beginning of an evolution dwarfing anything the past eight years has seen.