7 Practices of Highly Innovative Retailers

Retail success is about creating a compelling customer experience and today it takes innovation to be compelling. Sophelle is a management and technology consultancy focused on retail. Over our 20+ years, we’ve helped hundreds of leading retailers on thousands of projects. We’ve gone back and looked at the retailers that have demonstrated the most successful and consistent success with innovation. Here’s what we’ve found.

#1: Prepare – Their organizations, partners, and customers

Highly innovative retailers prepare for innovation. They prepare their organizations. Associates throughout the enterprise are ready for change. They prepare their partners. Stores work with landlords and mall operators to prepare them for increases in parking needs. They prepare their supply chain. Raw material providers are ready for peaks in demand and flexible in case things don’t go as well as hoped. They prepare their vendors. Website hosting companies are prepared for changes in online activity so servers are ready for scale. Highly innovative retailers prepare their customers. This is particularly important as retailers try to address the “change is demanded” needs of millennials with the more change-averse baby boomers.

#2: Invest – In the people, tools, and processes that support innovation

Innovation isn’t free. Every highly innovative retailer understands this. Highly innovative retailers invest in all aspects of the business. They invest in processes, defined, but flexible in order to support innovation. Store pilot programs are a good example. They invest in tools that support innovation. A/B and multivariate testing aren’t just used by highly innovative retailers, they’re relied upon to make better, objective decisions. They invest in people. Some associates are dedicated to innovation. Most associates understand that innovation is part of their job.  And almost all associates are active participants in innovation.

#3: Partner – Don’t do it alone

Highly innovative retailers don’t do it alone. They realize the benefits of shared financial burden, educational effort, risks, and rewards. They partner with suppliers to innovate on things like product development. They partner with vendors to innovate on new solutions. They partner with non-competitive retailers to leverage cross-brand synergies, explore new markets, and expand product assortment. They partner with customers on social media. They partner with other companies to increase their knowledge base on what’s worked and what hasn’t. They partner to increase their exposure to innovation – to be brought into innovation opportunities that they might not have considered otherwise. And they increase their ability to learn from innovation – to gain a partner’s perspective on what value can be taken from an innovation.

#4: Test – They’re great at it or partner with those who are

Highly innovative retailers are great at testing or, at a minimum, partnering with those who are. They understand how to test, both accurately and fairly. A/B and multivariate testing are the bedrock for highly innovative retailers. The people who lead testing are QA or Analysis professionals who understand that testing is a science. They aren’t testing to prove a case. They’re out to win by understanding the cause and effect of their innovation. They listen just as well if the facts indicate something isn’t working as when things are.

#5: Pivot – Don’t get locked into a solution or even a goal

Highly innovative retailers don’t get locked into a specific solution or even a specific goal. They recognize that the ability to pivot is key to success. Very few innovation projects went exactly as planned, even the successful ones. Innovation has many roadblocks. Highly innovative retailers figure out ways to work around them and find new opportunities along the way.

#6: Fail fast and cheap – Factor in the cost of failure

Highly innovative retailers fully embrace the mantra, “Failure is an option.” They treat innovation as experiments. They factor in the cost of failure. And the costs of failure are often spread among a wider set of innovation projects. They do what they can to minimize the time and cost for initial results. They are often the first aim for MVPs (Minimum Viable Products). And they have clear, specific decision frameworks for proceeding with a project, pivoting, or killing it.

#7: Learn – Innovation is a marathon, not a sprint

Highly innovative retailers understand that innovation is a marathon, not a sprint. Innovation for them is a continual process and learning is an integral part. They consider learning a core competency. They hire more on intellect – the ability to learn – and less on specific experience. They have learning ingrained in the culture and facilitated by enterprise systems. They consider the knowledge of an institutional asset. Knowledge repositories are another common tool.  They capture lessons learned from failure. Root cause analysis is used extensively to learn the underlying reasons for failure.

I’ll have more details in the coming posts. Please check back. In the meantime, I’d like to hear how you are innovating and I invite you to share your comments with me. Reach out to dweich@sophelle.com.

Contributed by Doug Weich