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Finding the Path to Purposeful, Continual Innovation

Retail innovation is a process that never stops. You identify an area needing improvement. You collaborate on a solution. You test. You collect data. You adapt and enhance. The omnichannel convergence within brick-and-mortar spaces is always about keeping up with your customers’ evolving wants, needs and habits, whichever path to purchase they choose. There is no finish line.

It doesn’t help that the innovation marketplace inundates retailers with new technology and theories about what’s next. That can be an obstacle for those prioritizing innovation — weeding through the hype and finding true value and substance.

So what’s the path toward purposeful and continual innovation?

Identify pain points, follow a systematic process to find solutions

Consider 10 areas where retailers and other branded environments are focused to varying degrees as we turn toward 2024.

  • Omnichannel integration
  • In-store customer experience
  • Checkout
  • Associate experience
  • Inventory management
  • Delivery
  • Social media
  • Sustainability
  • Corporate social responsibility
  • Metaverse

Most of these are mission critical and have been for some time. The Metaverse, on the other hand, inhabits the area of “What’s next?” And how to best proceed. But as diverse as these 10 are, each can be improved by using strategic and innovative thinking.

That thinking is not only about easing a pain point. It’s also about whether a potential solution requires a change in customer or associate behavior. Innovation shouldn’t falter because of new operational issues and complexities.

The good news? Customers are more flexible to change these days, as most of them embraced accelerated omnichannel integration during COVID-19. And associates will adopt innovations that make their work and customer interactions easier and more rewarding.

With the goals, initiative, scope and potential tangential issues identified, it’s time to explore potential solutions.

Innovating for better customer engagement

Innovation isn’t always about new technology. But a lot of innovations happen because technology is used to provide concrete answers where merely informed speculation previously existed.

For example, say a big box retailer wanted to better understand customer traffic, product engagement and the impact of content within a high-margin product display area.

This retailer first identifies targeted store performance questions and many focused key performance indicators (KPIs). They then install 360-degree cameras that track relevant customer experience drivers, such as traffic flow, product interactions and dwell time.

And say the resulting data, not surprisingly, correlates to sales figures.

Next question: What is driving that data and those sales figures? How much does traffic follow a brand or how much of it is store location? Those and other questions inspire more A/B testing, which pinpoints high-performance locations and reasons for placements that provide poor performance.

That sort of testing and data gathering leads to store space optimization, such as giving prime positions to high-margin products. More important, it also allows retailers to demonstrate brick & mortar’s value to product vendors and provides new revenue sources, as those vendors pay for data, better product locations and in-store advertising.

What strategic-thinking retailers understand is that the innovative value here isn’t just a one-off testing run. Data should be regularly mined, analyzed and inventoried. It should be used to measure conventional retail wisdom and institutional assumptions and then drive next-generation store design.

Innovation of process, creating value

Prime reserved merchandising displays for a specific CPG brand were once a retail innovation. Next came stores within a store. But what’s the innovative next steps for these additions to branded environments? It’s developing and refining the most efficient ways to effectively create and execute these displays, end caps and stores-within-a-store while also continually elevating their customer engagement.

So innovation can be about producing enticing, functional designs that attract customers, while also delivering new savings on materials, production, logistics and shipping costs. Or it can focus on reinvigorating an experience with exceptional branding and purposeful design within a smaller, hybrid footprint.

Innovation can lead the transformation of a dated space at a university into an immersive destination that celebrates the future as much as remembers past achievements. Or it can be about helping a great brand reimagine and optimize its space for inventory, flexible department use and merchandising, while creating a strong omnichannel experience through an elevated app for customers and associates.

Innovation starts with an idea on how to solve a problem. The idea itself should be fully explored, including potential unintended consequences. Next comes testing, development and prototyping. Then, after the mature, innovative solution is value-engineered to boost potential ROI, it can be implemented at scale, a process that in and of itself produces valuable learnings.

Innovation as authentic branding of corporate responsibility

Business once was just about the bottom line. A recent innovation, though, has seen businesses building their brand by authentically telling customers what they stand for, including sustainability, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and community support.

Edelman’s 2022 “Trust Barometer” began with a conclusion that would have seemed odd in, say, the 1980s: “Societal leadership is now a core function of business.” It also found that 58 percent of consumers “will buy or advocate for brands based on their beliefs and values” and that 52 percent believe businesses “are not doing enough to address climate change.”

This “innovation” is about winning customers by aligning your brand with their values. And this isn’t just about being “good.” It’s good for business. Consider how footwear company Crocs has connected with Gen Z, as noted in a recent Retail Dive article.

That element of self-expression is a core part of the brand based on Crocs’ purpose webpage, which emphasizes creating a “welcoming environment for everyone.”

Diverse and inclusive self-expression is a value that somewhat sets this generation apart from others, according to Wunderman Thompson Intelligence Editor Emily Safian-Demers.

“I think this is a pretty universally acknowledged truth by now that among Gen Zers, they’re really rewriting a lot of the traditional identity narratives,” said Safian-Demers. “Identity for them is much more nuanced and multifaceted than it has been historically for older generations.”

Good for business? Crocs’ “third-quarter earnings showed revenue jumped 14.3% year over year to $715.7 million.”

Innovation takes many forms. But in every form or iteration, it’s about making something better, whether that’s a small improvement or a complete redesign. Ultimately, though, it’s about your business staying ahead of your competition by engaging customers, providing them value and building loyalty.

Want to talk about innovation within your branded environment? Let’s chat.