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Julian Burnett: Navigating the Future of Retail with Smart Technology

  • 5th October 2023

Written by Andréa Williams, Head of Marketing

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The retail industry is a bellwether for the economy, employing 3 million people in the UK alone. Julian Burnett’s keynote speech at Retail Assist’s Client Summit explores how smart technologies are reshaping the retail landscape both inside retail organisations for employees and outside for consumers.

Click here to watch Julian’s keynote speech on YouTube

The Current State of Retail

Julian’s opening remarks celebrated the essence of retail: “It’s all about people.” The UK alone boasts three and a half million people working directly in retail, and when you factor in those behind the scenes and in the service of the retail industry, that number climbs to six to seven million individuals out of a total working population of twenty million.

However, in this world of retail, challenges are a constant companion. Julian highlights how the industry serves as an indicator for the rest of the economy, both local and global. It involves the complex task of pulling products from all over the world and efficiently channelling them to generate profits by the time they reach consumers’ hands.

Yet, retail in the UK coexists with an array of economic pressures: the fluctuating costs of products, labour, and space. “You’ve got on one hand, people that want to spend less and a whole bunch of people want to charge more. Guess who’s squeezed? It’s our industry … The government isn’t necessarily on our side as an industry. I struggle to understand why because we’re the second biggest employer.”

Additionally, Julian brought attention to the environmental footprint of the retail industry. Retail generates substantial waste, particularly in terms of food and fashion, and consumes energy at an alarming rate. However, he challenges the industry to take responsibility, saying, “If we’re holding the problem and we hold the solution, what a fantastic place to be.”

Navigating Economic and Ecological Challenges

In the dynamic world of retail, it’s not just economic challenges that need addressing. Julian stressed how the industry must adapt to shifting customer behaviours across various channels, making it abundantly clear that innovation is key to survival.

Focus Areas: Where Should We Direct Our Attention?

Julian encouraged retailers to focus on three pivotal areas:

    • Connections: “It’s all about creating connections,” Retail thrives on forging meaningful connections between customers, products, and the broader retail ecosystem.
    • Collaboration: There is a symbiotic relationship between technology and collaboration, technology is a catalyst for enhanced collaboration across different facets of the retail business.
    • Technology: “We have a responsibility as an industry,”, leveraging smart technologies is essential for addressing challenges and improving efficiency.

The Application of Smart Technologies

Julian took a deep dive into the practical application of smart technologies, raising critical questions:

      1. Do You Need More People? Julian posed a straightforward query: Does your business keep adding more employees as it grows? If so, it might be time to explore smart technologies to optimise workforce efficiency.
      2. Scaling Knowledge and Expertise: “How do you scale up the knowledge and expertise of your organization?” Technology can help organisations achieve this without displacing people.
      3. Optimising Stock, Space, and Labour: Smart technologies can help retailers navigate the intricate relationship between these three critical components of the retail business.

Creating Immersive Experiences

Sharing captivating examples of how technology can create immersive customer experiences, Julian highlights the blend of the digital and physical retail. Here are examples from Sook and Pro-Direct:

People Matter Most

People sit at the heart of retail. The importance of nurturing a happy workforce is unmatched, in fact the Retail Trust are looking to prove the link between employee happiness to business performance.

The Promise of Smart Technologies

The potential of smart technologies sit hand in hand with the multifaceted challenges facing the retail industry. In a world where change is constant, embracing smart technologies might just be the key to not only surviving but thriving in the retail industry of tomorrow.
As we look into what is next for the retail industry, Julian’s insights serve as a reminder that the future of retail lies with people, technology, and adaptability. It’s a journey filled with opportunities, and with the right approach, the retail industry can continue to thrive in an ever-evolving world.

Julian Burnett, NED, Board Advisor, Growth Investor, and Former Digital and Tech Leader

Julian is Founder of Quercus, an independent advisory business which applies his 30+ years experience of digital & technology consulting, strategy, transformation and operational leadership in retail, consumer and tech industries for businesses in start-up, scale-up and turnaround mode.

An experienced Board member and influencer, with an extensive professional network and executive leadership career developed with world class brands including Sainsbury’s, John Lewis Partnership, House of Fraser, British Telecom, BNP Paribas, CapGemini and IBM, Julian has an award-winning track record in eCommerce, digital transformation and technology innovation. Beyond his corporate career, Julian is a successful Growth Advisor, Impact Investor and NED for several digital, consumer product and retail businesses, where he applies a special focus upon strategy, operating model transformation, market activation, leadership coaching & mentoring, technology sourcing and digital product engineering.


Want to see more from this year’s Client Summit?

Check out some of the other sessions here.

  • 5th October 2023

Written by Andréa Williams, Head of Marketing

Add me on LinkedIn

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