By Charlotte Kula-Przezwanski

The current pace of social, economic, technical, and environmental change appears likely to continue or accelerate nearly everywhere in the world. If adaptation is key to survival, retailers must strive to be ever more agile. But adaptation in response to change is defensive and reactive. The real opportunity for retailers of all sizes is to grow by leading innovation and causing disruption. This option is available even to the smallest of retailers, provided they have the right mindset and the know-how to do it.

By leading innovation and creating their own forms of disruption, two formerly small retailers have become giants of the global retail industry. Both Walmart and Amazon came out of nowhere, as all new companies do. Within the short span of a few decades, these highly disruptive companies turned the entire global retail industry on its head. Today they continue to disrupt each other, and other retailers scramble to adapt.

While Amazon and Walmart may be the world’s biggest and best-known examples of retail innovation and disruption, they are certainly not alone. The global retail industry has a proud history of innovation and disruption that goes back more than 150 years in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and many other countries.

In the past 25 years alone, The Limited in the United States applied Toyota’s quick-response modular manufacturing process to reduce lead times from concept to market. Then Zara in Spain and H&M in Sweden rose to near-global prominence by perfecting the concept.

So what is Agile Retailing in more detail? At Columbus Consulting we believe it is the combination of mindset, principles, process, methods, and tools that enhance a retailer’s ability to lead change and adapt to it. Our thinking about agile retailing owes much to ideas and approaches first explored in the growing volume of literature on agile software development, design thinking, and lean start-ups.

Change and uncertainty drive the need for agility

As consumers’ buying behaviour has changed in the past 20 years, retailers have scrambled to respond fast enough.

Agility is more important than foresight

In the 1970s and ‘80s, futurists Alvin Toffler, John Naisbitt and others warned business leaders to anticipate a future that brings change at an accelerating pace. Although their predictions were often right, futurists missed some of the most consequential changes of all—including the fast growth and global influence of the Internet.

The recent past is often our best indicator of things soon to come. But current trends often mislead us about the future. Considering how hard it is to predict the future, agility offers a more reliable way to mitigate disruption. Better still, agility enables retailers to profit by initiating disruptions of their own design.

What you can do now

To begin making your retail organization more agile, we suggest five steps you can take immediately:

  1. Evaluate your potential vulnerabilities.
  2. Assess which factors are most likely to prevent you from adapting.
  3. Identify the factors in your business you can change first.
  4. Consider ways to disrupt.
  5. Identify the appropriate tools, principles and methodologies for the kinds of changes you’ve identified.

How agile must retailers be? That depends on the uncertainties and disruptions each faces.

Agile adaptation is a defensive strategy, but agile innovation is aggressive. Rather than scrambling only to accommodate change, retailers of all sizes can initiate their own disruptions.

As you consider the cost of agility and the effort it takes to achieve it, remember that the cost of staying put is always higher.

To discover more ideas that can help retailers increase their agility, I suggest read our Agile Retailing White Paper in full at

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