Big interview: founder Scott Weavers-Wright

As traditional retail has been threatened in recent years from new players operating in the digital space, the industry stalwarts surviving and thriving are typically those who are changing their business models to merge technology with their store estates, creating optimum customer service across many channels.

John Lewis and Argos, both of which have made significant investments in new technologies in the last three months alone by developing innovation hubs to drive fresh thinking within their businesses, are examples of this changing industry focus.

Meanwhile, Tesco has placed strategic importance on becoming the multichannel leader in the retail space and, as a result, has set about trialling a whole range of in-store and mobile technologies that it hopes will aid its customers' shopping experience. Sainsbury's, too, made a notable move last week when it appointed eCommerce boss Jon Rudoe to its operating board as digital and technology director, indicating the importance of placing innovative thinking at the highest level of business.

Scott Weavers-Wright is widely considered as an innovative thinker, too, and having co-found mother and baby product e-tailer before selling it to Morrisons in 2011 for £70 million, he is arguably well-qualified to judge what works in the modern retail landscape.

"I think retailers are in trouble if they don't invest in innovation," he told Essential Retail.

"If you think about old-fashioned retailers, their competition was fellow retailers, but now the competition is online players who are ducking and diving and moving in a very agile fashion."

The online retailer which is regularly used as an example of providing strong customer service and, in some cases, threatening the very existence of retailers, is Amazon. Weavers-Wright argues that the company and its online peers have an advantage over traditional retailers because they can quickly trial new methods, allowing them to fail fast or get ahead.

"The big thing we used to say at Kiddicare was that a failure is an event, not a person –but we were never afraid of failure and we were never afraid of changing direction," he explained.

"Bigger operators who have store infrastructures are just scared of changing anything because they will have to roll it out and face the music. Failure is a problem. [They ask the question], 'am I going to lose my job?' and risk then becomes an issue."

In his new role as co-founder of Haatch, the former Kiddicare boss is looking to help technology start-ups make the grade and, as a result, introduce some systems and solutions that might just help retailers navigate their way through these digital times.

In recognition of the lack of support digital start-ups often receive, Haatch is labelling its investments, 'smart money', with chosen innovators receiving practical help, guidance and expertise they need to succeed alongside the required capital investment. A £1.5 million "incubator hub" is being developed in Stamford, Lincolnshire, which will provide a base for the new technology firms to develop their ideas, collaborate and grow their businesses from development stage to launch.

The companies Weavers-Wright and his team are looking to support may traditionally have found it difficult to get into retail technology in the UK. Businesses in the fields of multi-couriering, website and tablet prototyping, big data and single customer view are those of particular interest to the ex-Kiddicare boss.

"I've been deemed smart money on the investment circuit, so when I go into see a company they aren't just attracted to me because I've got a couple of quid; the reality is I can open doors."

Weavers-Wright is keen to emphasise that he is not running a charity for businesses and doesn't plan to "throw money away", but if he sees start-ups developing ideas in the right areas and where the retail industry is perhaps lacking in knowledge and knowhow, he will invest.

"As well as investing I'll get quite frumpy with the retailers," he noted.

"When I talk to retailers I'm going to theme it 'are you bothered Amazon's eating your lunch, are you bothered you don't have a single view of your customer?'."

So how has Weavers-Wright arrived at his current role? Having left Morrisons last summer, where he had been leading the grocer's online charge, using the learnings and infrastructure developed by Kiddicare, he was convinced to step out of semi-retirement and, in his own words, "have some fun" with a new project.

A colleague from his Kiddicare and Morrisons days, Fred Soneya, and Weavers-Wright's wife, Elaine, and daughter are all founding members of the Haatch venture. The group appears to have a desire to avoid being restricted by the "play-safe" nature of some of the larger corporates operating in the industry.

"At Kiddicare, we worked with a lot of young businesses, particularly out in San Francisco and New York, to get ahead of the game in the UK and, more importantly, to offer the customer a better experience," he asserted.

"That seemed very natural at the time and Kiddicare opened the door to retailers in Europe. When we were running, it became apparent that the bigger corporates just didn't do that. It wasn't their take on things and they didn't want to lead; they'd rather play safe.

"That's not the way I work in any shape or form and I got frustrated very quickly."

And it all comes back again to the philosophy of many a traditional retailer, which Weavers-Wright believes needs to adapt quickly if they are to keep pace with the new breed of digital-led retailers now breaking through.

At Haatch, he is hopeful of being able to help big retail businesses start thinking differently about the way they operate.

"We'll sign contracts with retailers and help them with their research and development – a lot of the bigger ones in the UK, and the grocers are an example of this, are just way behind," he commented.

"If you don't use loyalty and you go into a store in the UK – Morrisons is a prime example with 1.4 million customers going through its stores every week and they have no idea who they are – it's a complete sin."

Weavers-Wright argued if Amazon had a store portfolio it would implement processes that provided a single view of its customers, and the business would ask for email addresses at point of sale, "because you can't let thousands and thousands of transactions go through a day and not have any idea who bought these items".

The e-tail entrepreneur does admit that Argos and John Lewis are examples of companies realising the need for change and which understand they are now competing against technology businesses that are "fundamentally changing retail".

There are others, however, such as collapsed shoe retailer Barratts, which Weavers-Wright believes did not embrace in-store technology enough and paid a heavy price for its lack of "clientelling", officially closing down at the start of 2014 after three separate administrations.

"Retailers with store estates must desperately change their attitudes or they will go down," he stated.

With the emergence of Haatch, the ex-Kiddicare boss is hoping to foster an eco-system based on the development of agile technology, ease some of retail's existing pain points and potentially change some industry attitudes in the process.