The hero brands in any category are the ones who consistently innovate – think Burberry, Nordstrom, Nike, Amazon. You might think it’s impossible to emulate them or even beat them but it’s not.
If you’re going to make omnichannel innovation happen fast, your R&D needs to be 3 things:
3. Under the corporate radar – at least until you come up with something that works
Retail execs are forced into short-term focus by the demands of their job. Pragmatism is good – for today – but it’s tomorrow where you and your brand are really going to be judged. The retail execs who are going to be setting the pace in the next 3-5 years are the ones who find a way to marshall whatever resources they have to do meaningful R&D work. The key is speed.
Free your mind
I’ve been working in e-commerce for about 5 years. Prior to that if you were in digital you’d be working with the brand people. The focus was on creating buzz around new products and building long-term brand preference. You weren’t in retail as such and didn’t feel the pressures of the front line.
Now I work primarily with the retail teams and the dynamic is very different. There’s the need to demonstrate results monthly, weekly – sometimes daily. In addition, there’s an explosion in different channels you need to promote or sell through and this is all usually being managed via an expensive and complicated trading platform. It’s no wonder most of the retail execs you meet have been forced into being extremely pragmatic about what can and can’t be done. Amongst all this – somehow – you need to find the space to get away from the coalface and think about where you’re going next.
Time & budget to think & do
R&D shouldn’t be expensive – you will sometimes fail and failure should be cheap – but it does need to be fast and it does need to be constant.
As a rule of thumb, £10k is probably the minimum you need to find to do something useful. It won’t get you much but it’s a start and above all, you need to make a start. You can get more value than you might think out of getting a consultant to facilitate some workshops. At the very least a vision of what you need to do should begin to emerge.
£25k – 50K can allow you to do some meaningful innovation BUT you need to use it in the right way.
Ask the difficult questions
These are the kind of difficult questions you’re probably asking yourself (or if you’re not, you should be):
– What does mobile really mean for my brand?
– What’s the future of in-store?
– What technology do I put my next big investment into to make all this happen?
– How do I get my company to genuinely think omnichannel rather than just talking about it?
Retail execs regularly tell us that the single biggest constraint to innovation (aside from time) is their trading platform. But this is putting the cart before the horse – going to your platform vendor or integrator is not the way to answer the difficult questions listed above for two reasons. Firstly, they are experts at building functionality, not deciding what’s going to work for your customers. You need to go to them with something they can quote around. Secondly, you probably want to be doing experimentation free of the current constraints of your platforms.
Tools & techniques
Most successful innovation projects go through 4 stages: research to identify real customer needs, visioning to develop a distinct brand response, prototyping to develop a solution and testing to prove it works. These are the skills you need to either develop in-house or buy externally to run your R&D projects.
1. Expertly facilitated workshops
R&D workshops should be different from a normal, sane working environment. They should be run to shake ideas up and break the participants out of everyday ‘common-sense’ thinking. Common-sense gets things done but it never produces disruption.
2. Guerrilla user-research & testing
Understanding what your customers want and how they relate to technology is a moving target. R&D research needs to be fast and incisive.
The whole point of prototype is to test out and refine an ideas. Techniques have evolved – mostly out of software development – that not only accelerate the development of prototypes but also allow them to be quickly revised if they’re not working. Retail is a fast-moving discipline and budgets are usually tight so this is critical.
4. Fast creative visualisation
The best prototypes are often like film sets – they may be held together with wire and glue under the surface but they look credible. Retail is about creating desire and brand preference so a certain level of gloss can be necessary to get a meaningful reaction from either a test audience or internal stakeholders.
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