There’s an old saying that there are three kinds of people in this world. Those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what the hell happened!

Yesterday I was lucky enough to spend a day in the company of some of the nations leading retail movers-and-shakers at a special summit designed to focus the attention and hopefully shed some light upon the manifold, complex issues facing those brave enough to venture (or perhaps unfortunate enough to have been pushed) into the murky world of multi channel retailing.

I don’t envy them. As the pace of change continues to accelerate, many are realising that they have failed to keep their eye on the ball and are now struggling to catch up. Woolworths, Zavvi, Borders et al, as we all know, weren’t so lucky. Indeed, some would say there is a palpable undercurrent of anxiety in the room.

All of these people, I assume, were in attendance with a view to gaining insight and knowledge – of which there was an abundance on offer – but I suppose what’s really important with any of these events is what happens when the newly informed and motivated individuals arrive back in the ‘real world’ – armed with some new strategies and ideas and begin to grapple with the day to day issues of implementing such wide ranging and fundamental changes across the disparate and often badly integrated departments making up a typical ‘old school’ retail operation.

In the vast majority of cases what happens, at least in my experience, is not a great deal. Goodbye Borders. Goodbye Woolworths. Goodbye Zavvi. Who’s next?

This is why the ‘few who do’ are always in the minority. Having the right information (i.e. watching what’s happening) is very definitely not the whole solution. Action, often on a huge and undoubtedly daunting scale, is, at this late stage of the game, mostly what’s required.

Indeed, sitting in the crowd and listening to the ostensibly very positive, forward looking discussions taking place, my feelings were, I have to admit, ones of mild boredom verging on despondency. Admittedly the content of the individual presentations was on the whole excellent and in some cases exceptionally good. But once again it occurs to me that there is really nothing new being said here.

Am I suffering from déjà vu? Can this really be Jan 2010? Hasn’t everyone known all of this stuff for most of the last 10 years at least? Unfortunately, I have to say that I think the answer is that, yes, we’ve known it, but what has anyone done about it?

An example.

A question was asked about multi-variable testing. A show of hands was requested to indicate who had ‘heard of’ such a thing. The result? Three hands went ‘up’ out of an audience of maybe 100 people – two being mine and that of a colleague sitting a couple of rows in front.

Come on guys?

Multivariable and A/B testing have been cornerstones of any effective online optimisation strategy for literally donkey’s years – and I’d argue that, in 2010, anyone with the vaguest connection to multichannel retailing, however tangential, ought to give themselves a proper kick up the backside for not being aware of such a simple, powerful tool. Look it up. Its reasonably easy to do, and could (depending upon the size and level of optimisation of your existing online business) make you a couple of extra million in sales, almost overnight. No joke.  If you don’t believe me, give me a call in the office and we’ll come and explain how you could do something similar.

Let’s be honest about this. It’s not a lack of available information that has prevented retailers from delivering properly integrated, multi-channel offerings before now. Nor has there been a shortage of well-qualified potential partners, advisors and strategists available throughout this period to help such business successfully undertake the required transition, should they have felt compelled to do so.

To be perfectly frank, for those of us on the outside looking in, for the last 10 years it’s often felt like we were witnessing a wholesale, ostrich-like, head-in-the-sand denial of the fact that the issues even existed. And boy have we tried and tried and tried again (in some cases for the best part of a decade) to get the message across.

Which is what makes the likes of the demise of companies like Borders, Woolworth’s and Zavvi all the more depressing. I often wonder if those businesses had whole teams of agencies and potential partners practically knocking their doors off the hinges, just trying to communicate ideas and strategies that they just knew would help to make a difference?  What went wrong? Whatever happened, they failed to respond quickly enough and it cost them the business. And that probably didn’t have to happen.

I suppose in closing, the take home message from this event has to be that the time for ‘standing by and watching how this thing develops’ is definitely, definitively over. It’s now time to make something happen – or resign yourself to the ‘what the hell happened there’ gang. The pace of change is, if anything, accelerating and for some, maybe it could already be too late.

Personally I doubt if we’ve seen the last of the major high street disaster stories, but for those brave enough to step up and grasp the multichannel nettle firmly and with sufficient determination, the rewards will be enormous.