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BRC Annual Retail Symposium

I attended the British Retail Consortium Annual Retail Symposium yesterday and I have to say that in the three years I’ve been attending this event, it was the most thought provoking yet.

As ever there was a great line up of speakers including Simon Fox from HMV, Philip Clarke from Tesco and Michael Ward from Harrods. Unlike the last 2 years, where the overwhelming theme centred on price wars, the tough economic climate and survival, the theme this year was refreshingly centred on innovation, the future and embracing the digital revolution. What emerged were some exciting and surprising views of the future of retail.

Dr Steven Perry from Visa astounded us all with the not so far off reality of contactless payment (as if we really needed easier ways to spend money in the recession!!!), Michael Ward from Harrods discussed his optimistic view of the luxury market and how, despite the recession, people still want (maybe even need) luxury goods and Simon Fox, enigmatically talked about the way HMV has adapted to the needs of the new digital world with its new diversified music offering including live gigs, in store entertainment and it’s loyalty programme. Finally a trend consultant offered an amazing glimpse of the future of the physical retail space and why this will save the highstreet from its predicted demise.

A reoccurring theme throughout the day was the multichannel challenge. A number of speakers touched on the exciting ways retailers are adapting to the digital revolution such as Tesco’s use of Facebook and its ‘my usuals’ offering on the website which predicts what you’re likely to order online. It seemed that retailers have finally caught onto the idea that the need to catch up on the eCommerce side if they’re to keep up with changing needs of the consumer.

However, on reflection I wonder if retailers have really understood the challenge here. I think retailers still have a huge amount to do in this space. I was discussing this with a digital expert (David Soskin, former CEO of cheapflights.com) and he also argued that retailers are way behind the curve in this digital space in comparison to pure-play digital companies such as Amazon, eBay and ASOS. Retailers may have recognised the need to make multichannel work, but do they really have the in-house skills to make it happen? As a recruiter that does a lot in the retail space, FreshMinds has also found that finding people with both digital and retail expertise is hard. They are like golddust! I think retailers are going to need to do more than just talk about developing their digital channels. They need to seriously invest in up-skilling (or hiring in skilled people) if their multi channel offering is going to be successful. Just as many digital companies collapsed during the dotcom boom due to having poor user experience, so too will retailers struggle to capitalise on this rapidly growing trend if they fail to recognise their shortcomings in this area.

Keri Link is a consultant on the FreshMinds Talent Interim team.