Arthur C Clarke always said he was an optimist. Not for him the rainy, oppressive dystopia of 1984 or Bladerunner. Instead, the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey envisioned a future where people were liberated by technology rather than imprisoned by it.

His namesake at Tesco also has a dream. He aspires to a world where shoppers spend their currency free from the distinction of online and offline channels.

That was the message Philip Clarke gave today to the BRC’s annual symposium as he outlined his coda for how retailers can live long and prosper (to borrow another sci-fi trope).

“Before I talk about what’s changing, let me be clear about what is staying the same,” he said. “Our world will always revolve around the customer – the customer’s wish for value, range, service, quality. We must deliver on these things or our businesses will fail to prosper.”

Then it was on to the future-gazing. “The opening up of new markets has shaped how we do business,” Clarke said, with a nod to China. “But it is the digital revolution that has turbo-charged globalisation and is transforming how consumers and companies behave.

“Comparing prices, reading product reviews, buying goods, writing complaints – in the analogue age, you had to go to a shop, buy a magazine, write a letter. That all took time, involved hassle and often meant spending money. Today, these things can be done from the palm of your hand, wherever you are, in seconds – and more or less for free.
“New communities, virtual nations, have been created by people around the world who share a hobby, a taste, a profession, or simply want to swap stories and tips about every aspect of life. A new science of persuasion has been created in less than a decade.”

All of this will sound familiar if you read The Grocer’s Power 100. The revolution Clarke was talking about is precisely why we named Martin Lewis the most influential person in the trade. There’s an exclusive interview with Lewis in the upcoming edition of The Grocer.

“Now the customer has more power than ever before,” he continued, echoing Adam Leyland in his Editor’s Comment from that issue. “Companies are being forced to be more transparent, more accountable, more responsive to customers’ wishes, and to be more willing to engage with them.

“This is why successful retailers need to be multi-channel retailers. We cannot differentiate between online and-in store. Our offer online has to be at least as good as, if not better than, that which we offer on the high street.”

With apt timing, the message comes a day after Tesco hired Matt Atkinson to head up its digital strategy. Clarke was clear that “despite the digital revolution, people will always want to go to the shops” but it’s equally clear where his priorities now are.

Like the mind-bending ‘star child’ that ends one journey in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tesco’s online revolution is still only in its infancy.