Last year’s Retail Week Discovery 50 (which I was also lucky enough to judge) feels a bit like it was a lifetime ago. 

Even then, in April, there were early signs of the impact the pandemic was going to have on the retail sector, but none of us would have guessed that we’d still be in the throws of lockdown almost a year later.

Yet, rereading the report, the themes our 50 start-ups were exploring seem almost prescient.

Some were revolutionising logistics and distribution, so critical to the online revenue streams that have kept so many retailers alive during lockdowns.

Others were exploring localisation and placemaking, which will be core to the rejuvenation of high streets once we can reopen.

And many of them, whatever aspect of retail they were reinventing, were using data, analytics and complex machine-learning models to bring a new forensic focus to retailers across marketing, operations and supply chain management. 

Above all, 2020’s Discovery 50 report, when reread after the year we have all had, is a beacon of hope.

“Many of the sacred cows of what is and isn’t possible for a big retail business have been slaughtered”

A different retail sector is possible, a million miles from the old world of ‘How many stores are you going to open?’ and ‘What was your LFL last quarter?’ A retail sector that marries the instinctive customer understanding any good retailer has with the innovation and laser-like focus that new technology allows.

The time for reinvention and rebuilding

Indeed, the paradox of the pandemic is that, among all the struggling to survive, we can see further evidence that this brighter future is possible.

Retail businesses have demonstrated this year an astonishing capacity to change and reinvent themselves.

Change programmes that we might once have thought would take years and cost millions have been accomplished in weeks on a shoestring.

Many of the sacred cows of what is and isn’t possible for a big retail business have been slaughtered along the way.

In last year’s report, I wrote about some of the barriers retailers often found to working with the start-up community.

In the main, they were cultural and technological – some mix of ‘Our systems can’t cope with change’ and ‘Our business processes aren’t built to deal with start-ups’.

I hope that one of the positives to come out of this challenging year is that many of those barriers have been shown to be illusions. 

So what next?

The challenge for retailers will be to retain the flexibility, speed and willingness to innovate that has emerged during this crisis, and put those characteristics to work in the rebuilding phase.

There will be much to do: high streets to reinvent, new channels to integrate and new suppliers to work with.

Core to much of that, I suspect, will be the smart use of data and analytics. Business is going to be more complicated in the post-Covid era. Customer expectations about being able to shop seamlessly across all of your channels will have risen.

Entirely new channels, indeed, have emerged in lockdown, such as video-call sales appointments in-store.

Never again will it be acceptable to run a retail chain by opening hundreds of essentially identical stores in lots of towns and hoping customers come to you. Active marketing, directly to individuals, will be the entry-price for retail success.

As I look to Retail Week’s Discovery 50 2021 then, I have got a particular eye out for those start-ups making really smart use of data and analytics to get ‘underneath the average’ and help retailers run the complex, omnichannel and customer-centric businesses they will need. 

One way or another, this year’s Discovery 50 cohort – just like last year’s – are going to be critical to the future of our sector.

Ian Shepherd is non-executive director at Bensons for Beds and author of The Average is Always Wrong. He is on the judging panel for Discovery 50 2021.

Are you an innovative tech start-up building synergies with retailers? Or are you a retailer that has successfully partnered with a start-up? Enter Discovery 50 here today by January 31 or share the opportunity with a start-up that would benefit.