Marks & Spencer may have had a rebrand to make it sexy and modern, helping it shed the more 1970s feel its stores once used to have, but it's only in the last few years that it's actually managed to move into the 21st Century and embrace the digital world.
It's still got a way to go until it truly is an all-round digital experience, but it's hard to deny that M&S isn't forging the way for many retailers to enter the digital space.
However, M&S Executive Ecommerce Director, Laura Wade-Grey, does admit that Marks has had it easy compared to other retailers out there. This is largely to do with its brand values around creating branded products to sell to consumers. There aren't really any direct competitors with M&S, because in essence you can't get anything M&S does elsewhere.
But that doesn't mean that it's been lackadaisical. Instead, it's been exploring the online world and – in the process – hiring a small force of developers, coders, engineers and technicians to help flesh out their connected future. It's an odd process for the company, one that it's never been down before. However, this means that Laura and her team are somewhat at odds with many of the board members who don't quite understand this new pace of life.
The Digital Labs team is even going out there and actively searching out start-ups who may want to join the ranks of M&S to use their products to help improve Marks' offering to customers, or indeed how older members of the team can interact and think about these new technologies.
And that last point lets us segue rather nicely into why M&S believes it's time to make the jump to a truly omni-channel and digital platform: times are changing, and if you do nothing, you'll be left behind.
Once upon a time it used to be all about âLocation, location, location' when you opened a store. That idea has practically disappeared thanks to the nature of online retailing.
Instead, it's all about creating online experiences that make people want to come back again and again. You have to create a shopping environment that's both inviting and practical no matter what platform they use to visit it.
Currently M&S has its online store running through an Amazon system. It's less than ideal, but it does the job, and previously that was all it needed its online store to do. Now though, Laura and her team are working away on a brand new online shopping experience and infrastructure that really does create an online experience that mirrors the offline more aptly.
The challenge is that things are changing faster than anybody ever thought was possible.
For one, their customer is changing. It may still be the affluent older woman, but now they're far more fluid with technology than people imagine – or at least that's Laura's experience with M&S customers.
These women are receptive to new technologies and make the most of what they can use when shopping. It does make you wonder if this is because M&S provides clearer instruction to its services, or if it really is just customer desire to experiment with what's been given to them.
It's also worth noting that research undertaken by Marks shows that customers who spend across different channels actually tend to spent more money with a company. This is certainly something a truly omni-channel venture would give M&S, so it's understandable to see them wanting to enter this space eagerly.
But, what about the future of ecommerce? Where could that be going and will Marks & Spencer be there ready and waiting for the next big thing?
Well, it seems that it's certainly in Laura's mind, but it's unlikely that M&S will be venturing near it for a fair while yet. This isn't because it's not interested in taking a look, instead it's because nobody really knows where the technology could be going or how it could be utilised.
It's said that by 2015 Internet connections will increase by 16 times the amount currently connected around the world. Most of this will arise in the âdeveloping world' and will come in the form of mobile connections. What this could do for the future of ecommerce is anyone's guess, but it's the reason why investment must be taken in delivering a truly mobile experience.
However, for me at least, the most interesting point Laura made was quite close to the start of her talk. She mused the idea of what 3D printing could do to the ecommerce marketplace and how you could instead see a future where a retailer supplies rental licenses for consumers to print out objects at a lower cost – or a hefty one if they'd like the blueprints permanently.
It's obviously a massive pipe dream, but it's just one way that Marks & Spencer seem to be looking towards the future of retail.
[Image: dennoir – Flickr]