Let's face it – we're living in a period of incredible transformation. From a global economic perspective, the next decade will witness millions of people coming out of poverty, populations around the world moving from the countryside to cities, and generations of consumers will have grown up entirely surrounded by a digital landscape. The result of this change is a digitally minded consumer base with increasingly high expectations around the retail experience and a huge wealth of choice in terms of how, when and where they shop.

The lines between physical and digital retail are already blurring and even the word 'omnichannel' is becoming viewed simply as a standard practice of good retailing. All of this is creating immense challenges for traditional retailers. With competition rife, only the retailers that can innovate, stand up to the challenge and meet consumer expectations will thrive.

It's no surprise then to see top tier retailers such as Tesco and John Lewis investing heavily in innovation, setting up their own research and development labs, engaging with tech start-ups and vying to be the one to win the innovation race. As such, we're witnessing an ever-growing number of retail technology start-ups being born. Each one wanting to transform retail in their own unique way – from eCommerce platforms that offer increasing agility and omnichannel capability, to in-store digital interactive technologies designed to tap into the digital appetite and mobile-obsessions of today's constantly connected consumers.

Connecting these innovative and often early-stage technologists with the retailers who will actually validate their assumptions, to prove their models and turn their dreams into reality however, can be challenging.

It's not that retailers are adverse to innovation. Indeed, quite the opposite is true. It's more about the ability of an early stage start-up to break through the cacophony of approaches from other early stage start-ups, who are all trying to claim the attention of the already busy and under pressure retailer.

It can also depend on where a particular retailer sits on the infamous technology adoption curve between 'early adopter' and 'laggard'. For some, early stage and unproven tech can be perceived as a risky bet.

As a retail technology accelerator working at the heart of this eco-system, we see both sides of the coin. We passionately believe that to really thrive in this exciting, but competitive market, more retailers need to recognise the immense value to be gained from engaging proactively with the technology start-up community. Here's why:

  • Keep abreast of innovation – By their very nature, start-ups exist at the cutting edge of innovation and ideas. Engaging with the start-up community is a great way to stay tuned in to the latest innovations and technology developments.
  • Pace of innovation – To keep up with the pace of change driven by their customers, retailers need to innovate fast to maintain a competitive edge. Whilst larger, established technology providers provide excellent foundations, they simply cannot match the pace of innovation that a start-up can bring.
  • Greater flexibility – Often with much fewer employees and with the owners generally playing a hands on role with customers, start-ups generally offer much greater flexibility with their technologies than the larger, more established technology providers, where long product roadmaps and slow decision making prevail.
  • Fresh thinking – There is a lot of value to be gained from the positive, can-do culture that permeates through many technology start-up companies. Many start-ups are driven by an attitude that anything is possible, failing to recognise typical roadblocks as anything other than a challenge to be overcome.
  • Blending skills – Start-ups are very knowledgeable about technology and often house very bright technological minds. Blending this knowledge with the skills and knowledge of retail creates obvious synergy. Whilst a start-up may not begin with a solution that perfectly aligns to a retailer's needs, by joining forces with them at an early stage, it could become something far more transformational.
  • Cultural learning – Start-ups challenge the status quo because they are agile, responsive and lean. Some retailers recognise the lessons that can be learned from start-ups in making their own internal cultures more agile and entrepreneurial.

In addition to the above points, remember that start-ups are lean organisations. They have limited resources, budget and time so play fairly and don't waste their time – pay a fair sum. Finally, don't be put off by the time and investment start-ups need – typically they're exciting, enthusiastic and creative people to work, with making the process a lot of fun.

Above all remember, innovation is built on failure, and only through repeated failure can we make the breakthroughs that matter.

Eccomplished helped run the Innovation Theatre at RBTE 2014 and will be working alongside the show's organisers for next year's event at London's Olympia, which takes place between 10-11 March.

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