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Drapers comment: Hatching plans for a digital Britain

The topic that has dominated the industry over the past couple of weeks is, of course, Easter trading.

When we spoke to retailers before the bank holiday weekend, their sales predictions were mixed. Jigsaw chief executive Peter Ruis was feeling cautious, telling Drapers: “Trade has been subdued as the weather is awful, so I don’t think it will be a bumper Easter weekend.” It seems he was proved right.

Those high street retailers who were more optimistic will have been disappointed, especially by the first days of the long weekend when the weather stayed wet and miserable. Insight from retail data company Springboard confirmed that high street footfall was down 4.7% year on year on Good Friday and Saturday, with retail parks - up 2.7% - the only saving grace.

However, on Monday it all changed. The sun shone, the temperatures were spring-like (for this week, at least) and, speaking to industry contacts, footfall is moving in the right direction.
The change in the weather and the early Easter has hopefully kick-started spring trading sooner than last year and will get customers back out in the sunshine and into stores. Drapers editorial director Eric Musgrave assured me this looked to be the case on Monday on the sunny streets of Glasgow, where he is on annual leave.

I used my Easter weekend to catch up on digital pioneer Martha Lane Fox delivering the Richard Dimbleby Lecture. For those of you who haven’t yet seen it, I urge you to have a watch on BBC iPlayer. The lecture was based around the Lastminute.com founder’s view that “the UK could be brilliant at the internet” and urged businesses, politicians and individuals alike to be bold and ambitious in embracing new technology.

While technological and digital innovation is something we are seeing more and more of in retail, it is still often viewed as an add-on rather than being incorporated into every aspect of the business. As Lane Fox said: “We still suffer from a lack of digital imagination in our boardrooms. Going digital is not just about getting a Twitter account.”

She gave some examples of how technology can fundamentally change the way we do things. My favourite was a recent space mission undertaken by Nasa in which the spacecraft travelled further than ever before because the internet allowed the crew to 3D-print replacement parts for those that were broken.   

Lane Fox also discussed the role of women working in technology and cited her disappointment with the relatively low numbers. However, she highlighted Jack Ma, founder of Chinese etailer Alibaba, as a leader in this area with 47% of his company’s employees being women and 33% of those in senior roles.

She has set up a campaign, Dot Everyone, calling on the government to educate people in using the internet, to make the UK “the most digital nation on the planet”. Her use of the quote “Martin Luther King did not say ‘I have a nightmare’” hit home with me. Speaking to different retailers, digital is often referred to as a challenge to overcome - and a difficult one at that - rather than something to embrace and celebrate. Obviously it is a huge challenge, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be an innovative, bold and exciting one. The web is the fastest technological revolution in history and the UK, in particular the retail sector, should aim to lead the way - even if it is just to overcome some of the never-ending poor weather issues.

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