Necessity– as the saying goes – is the mother of invention. It’s a saying with contested origins. Some cite Aesop’s fables as the original source whilst others say it comes from Plato, but wherever it originated, it has certainly echoed down through the centuries. And it is certainly true in the post-pandemic retail landscape.

Adapting to the changing landscape has been a constant theme of the past twelve months, but it struck me the other day just how rapid the pace of technology adoption has been in the evolving retail model as I was reading the thoughts of Manhattan Associates CEO, Eddie Capel, in City A.M.

Capel makes the point that the pandemic and subsequent impact on supply chains have accelerated the rate of supply chain commerce transformation. One example of this change is the level of automation and robotics that are plugging the gaps caused by labour market shortages, and the use of RFID technology to improve inventory accuracy.

Of particular interest is the shift from the distribution-centre centric model, to “omnichannel order management” through which orders can be fulfilled from any point in the retailer's network – be it from ship-from-store, buy online to pick-up from store, or ship-from-anywhere. As a consequence, retailers have been able to leverage their existing retail stores to act as distributed fulfilment centres, which helped them deal with the huge spike in e-commerce orders and saving jobs.

It's certainly something we’re seeing a lot of with our network of retailers – but it won’t be a one-size fits all. For example, I can see click and collect working for retailers whose average basket size doesn’t work with a free returns model (for example a retailer with a target market like Primark’s). In those cases, endless aisle-fulfilment will work for their chosen demographic. Furthermore, whilst automation was already with us pre-pandemic, the introduction of AI and sophisticated algorithms – such as Spoke, which ensures online delivered items are more likely to fit right “first time” – will continue to drive efficiency and improved returns performance for adopters.

And with the continued squeeze on discretionary spending as the cost-of-living crisis and global slowdown bites, it is certainly an area where early investment is likely to deliver a competitive advantage. After all, in another one of Aesop’s tales, the tortoise was only able to win the race because the hare was caught napping.