"Digital transformation is like an arrival of the railways in the Victorian era, but it’s going to happen much faster," said Doug Gurr, UK country manager at Amazon, giving the British Retail Consortium’s annual retail industry lecture this week.
The convergence of traditional and digital retail is currently leading to widespread high street store closures. Yet, these disruptions are a technological development that "will connect products and services seamlessly," said Gurr.
“Over the time technology has led the industrial revolution, bringing enormous benefits such as improved prosperity, creating better jobs and increased wealth," he said.
"For this particular transformation, I’m personally more optimistic. This development has a chance to take all the benefits and avoid downsides if we prepare. That’s because digital makes it easier for all of us, great retailers, to connect product and services seamlessly.”
Here are four ways Gurr sees digital changing retail.
“Our view is that this particular digital revolution is going to become democratised," says Doug Gurr.
"You can see today that technology is making things possible for small businesses, which many years ago were only available for large companies. It is an incredibly democratic technology, as it doesn’t depend on your business’ size. We see thousands of businesses using technology to export and boost their productivity."
An example of this is Dock & Bay, quick-drying towel manufacturer whose founders designed their very first product with a curtain and paper and started selling it online. The retailer now boasts a £2 million turnover, selling 75% of its goods online, and 25% via bricks-and-mortar stores.
"What you can get from the digital transformation is an opportunity to live the way you want and still run a great business," said Gurr. "All you need to build a great business today is a laptop, Internet and a great product.”
“Digital is creating opportunities to transform the rural economy, in contrast to the previous technological revolution," said Gurr. "Every previous industrial revolution has tended to bring labour from countrysides to towns. The current revolution could be the first one to start reversing that process."
He argued that the countryside business economy was catching up with metropolitan areas. In 2016 there were 56 registered start-ups per 10,000 population in rural areas in comparison to 59 in city areas, according to the Government’s latest Rural Businesses report.
Gurr gave insights into how Amazon is now thinking about stores. "Amazon is typically described as an online store, but we have bought a few physical stores last year," he said. "We now have Whole Foods as part of the ’family’ and physical store Amazon Go, which makes our company truly omnichannel."
Gurr said the trick was about starting off with traditional stores and then accompanying that move with an online presence: "It’s about having physical stores, and supporting them online and opening new ones."
“Thanks to the digital transformation we’re seeing thousands of businesses becoming global," said Gurr. "British businesses are also starting to export, even those that aren’t necessarily large reach an international audience."
“Fifty per cent of Amazon’s physical units we ship on behalf of our market sellers and help them expand internationally. Last year, SMEs on our marketplace exported £2.3bn, increasing their growth by 25% return on investment by shipping British products around the world.”
He concluded: "Retailers must ask themselves: what do my customers need and how can I adapt to the change?
"Customers tend to care today about the same things they’ve always cared about: the right selection of products, service and convenience."
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