What is a Digital-first retailer?

What does digital-first, or being digitally led, actually mean? They are the buzzwords of the moment, the latest in a lengthening line of technology originated expressions that have in turn become essential to retail.

It is the supercharged increase in digital retail sales that has prompted a spiraling interest in new ways to organise businesses and their processes. It is the key for every retailer now, irrespective of their relative sales from digital and physical channels, to think, breath and live like the best of pureplay. To put digital considerations of every kind at the forefront of their strategies and operations. To be digitally-led. To be digital-first.

Digital-first is about coordinating human creativity with data technology. It is about creating deep customer relationships, the ultimate customer connections, and about planning and managing the supply and distribution process in rapid time, with lightening reactions and responses.

It is about replacing the hierarchical structure, with a customer centric structure, creating data intelligence departments and DIOs, transforming linear buying processes into lateral added-value processes, replacing linear work-flows with process loops and developing a mentality for perpetual activity and change.

If you have already being doing these things then you are either strategically, or inadvertently digital-first.

For everyone else, what are the attributes and benefits of this new-thinking?

Acquire & use ‘Precision data.’

Data should be behind every decision across the business. You need to be obsessive about understanding everything. You need to be obsessive about the customer. The key word is precision. The combination of consumer research, customer mining and personal profiling is at the heart of this precise understanding of the customer.


Internal strategies:
Be very precise about what you want to achieve from your actions and processes. Be very precise about what data you need to succeed in those processes.

Be clear what the end-point is.


  • Plan activities precisely
  • Do not allow activities to be diverted.
  • Coordinate data specialists and retail specialists to identify exactly what data intelligence is required
  • Do not overload decisions with too much data – be ruthless.
  • Stop when you reach the end-point.

Develop ‘Customer Intimacy.’

It is no surprise that Pureplays are the new best practice model. Their obsession with the customer allows them to anticipate and respond to behaviour and buying patterns.

This allows them to create the deepest and most profitable connections with customers. They are intimate in their knowledge. They can communicate on a personal level and sell to them in a completely symbiotic way.

Traditional retailers need to think and operate in the same way. They need it for their new digital channels, but they need it also to coordinate customer connections across all channels.


Internal operations:
You must ensure that everything you do, whether in the prototype phase or the actual delivery phase is done as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

It is important to remove barriers to speed, both technological, or through the protocols, obstinacy or inefficiency of people and processes.


  • Define fast, efficient and realistic time frames for processes
    • Set milestones
    • Resource realistically and correctly
    • Monitor and report progress
    • Employ professional process managers
  • Remove technological bottlenecks – be ruthless
    • Remove legacy technologies
    • Habitually update technologies
  • Remove human bottlenecks
    • ‘Set a fire’ under IT directors and managers
    • Clearly communicate and agree personal expectations of input and timings
    • Agree correct resource levels
    • Monitor and encourage process lag
    • React to achieve set times
  • Improve process efficiencies
    • Monitor and take feedback on processes
    • Continually learn and adapt
    • Focus on incremental ‘time-gain’
    • Focus on ‘handing over the batten’ exchanges
    • Focus on internal communications

Be brave. But learn quickly.

Data will give us the insights but not necessarily the clearest and best action plan to pursue. This is nothing new.

Digital-first businesses take actions with precise data. This minimises risk. They monitor the result of actions with more analysis and assessments. There is no such thing as a wrong action, just ones that sometimes don’t work. Every action is a learning, and every action is primarily without risk if the repercussions are tempered by correct and rapid reactions.

Digital-led businesses operate processes that allow speed. They are not hampered by archaic organizational structures, or primeval protocols. To maximise opportunities and restrict the impact of mistakes they act quickly.


Internal strategies:
It is important to balance the opportunities of trying new things, with the risks of getting things badly wrong.

Fight always against the ‘well we’ve always done it this way’ mentality  but avoid the ‘he who hesitates is lost’ blind leaps.


  • Properly risk assess everything
  • Balance ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen’ against ‘what’s the best outcome’ optimism
    • Set ‘pivotal measurement milestones”
    • Quick precise assessment of action impacts
    • A contingency ‘risk minimization’ action plan for every eventuality at every step
  • Be fast, act fast, react fast and shop fast if necessary.
  • Keep a ‘balanced’ context within the wider picture
  • Always look to the next opportunity

The return of cooperation

Of course, successful digital businesses benefit from the intensity and accuracy of data, and the speed of processes and communications, but they benefit most from the re-invention of the employee community.

This community has singular aims, and collaborative objectives. It has mutual respect and common rewards. It has many roles but one mind-set. It is the future of intelligence which leans heavily on the experience of old-fashioned respect.


Creating a community can be easier said than done. Filling our ranks with philanthropic individuals helps but being rewarded is so important.

Take the selfishness out of rewards, by ensuring that group achievements lead to individual rewards, whilst individual achievements lead to group rewards.

To achieve this the rewards process must be seen as fair and transparent to everyone.

Be creative but relevant with KPIs. Balance commercial KPIs with wider KPIs on efficiency, added-value, and the positive interactions with colleagues, partners and customers.

Finally, reward individuals and teams primarily through their guaranteed wage and benefits, with additional ‘feelgood’ incentives the icing on the cake against complacency.

‘How to think & act like a Digital-first Retailer’ is an extract from the book ‘Meaning in the Retail Madness: How to be an Essential Retailer.’ by Tim Radley.

If you would like to read more about the new ways that retailers are working with suppliers, how to develop different kinds of inventory, the importance of a ‘passion supply chain’ and how supply chains should be determined by product role, then you can find all of this and more in ‘Meaning in the Retail Madness.’

Available worldwide across all amazon platforms and popular online booksellers from Waterstones, Blackwell’s & Foyles to Barnes & Noble and The Book Depository.

For more information, click here.

'Meaning in the Retail Madness: How to be an Essential Retailer' Out now. Available worldwide across amazon and popular online booksellers