How to breed innovation

business, idea, lightbulb“Most of us understand that innovation is enormously important. It’s the only insurance against irrelevance. It’s the only guarantee of long-term customer loyalty. It’s the only strategy for out-performing a dismal economy.”- Gary Hamel

Thank you for your fascinating and valid feedback last week, it was certainly interesting to see such attention to this topic. So much, that it has provided the impetus for part two on why innovation is for retailers an absolutely critical attitude and focus.

We know that the motor car was not invented by breeding stronger horses or electricity by building a better candle. Yet, as retailers, why do we still typically leave innovation at the door or lump it under the banner of product development or format refinement?

Strategy as a parallel is often misunderstood for tactical improvement, with site selection, new product ranging, margin improvement to name a few examples, occasionally lauded as strategic initiatives when really they are simply doing the same stuff, just better.

Is innovation running into the same misnomer? And really what are the innovation levers a retailer can pull?

Over the years, I have advised on some retail innovation teams, and in one or two cases, saw some fascinating ideas, which then were ambushed, taken through the internal operationalising business case, beaten slowly and effectively, strangled and decapitated by the operators, leaving all hope of that innovation ever breathing within that organisation.

Or given three to six months to gestate with an expectation for operating returns – again, a certainty to eradicate genuine innovation – common frameworks for operational tactics evaluation and only valid in that context.

So where are the genuine innovation opportunities for retailers? Well, innovative thought will come from anywhere from customers to external stakeholders.

Some initial innovation thought starters (and there are many more) to reflect on:

  • Technology is the great enabler, disrupter, connector, educator – changing conceptual and real experiences virtually and in reality by the second. How do we innovate these experiences in a seamless omni-channel cycle?
  • Innovation will drive the customer experience in ways that we mortals can only dream about, utilising the enablers and disruptors, inviting invitation from those whose mind space would never have played in retail.
  • Soon we see that the concept of reality is changing from augmented to virtual and beyond. To whose reality are we innovating in?
  • What about the axis of time and space? As RFID solutions become more innovative – their part in disrupting the classic channel supply channel becomes self evident.
  • Innovations from gamifying retail, to payments and redefining the concepts of currency.
  • E-commerce, m-commerce, s-commerce – all new waves into the innovative redefinition of what we once called retail.
  • The customer demand pull – demanding innovation as the traditional supply channel leaves our nomenclature.
  • Concepts of consumer communities fuelled by redefinition of social communities. Consumers being the providers and initiators of retail for other consumers.
  • The communication channels seamlessly moving between people, brand touch points, and creation concepts in retail simultaneously.

That said, forecasting where innovation might come from is as stereotypical in its approach as saying that we are innovative organisation or have innovation in our DNA.

Or even the natural misnomer between true innovation and just some extremely clever business improvement such as store design, or product enhancement.

One simple question for innovation is whether this might improve aspects of my life or will it change my life? (Think Walkman vs iPod)

I am reaching the conclusion that true innovation starts with awareness, creative expression, idea enhancing, supporting cultures, and celebration.

As David Campbell says “When truly creative people come up with a new idea, they don’t reject it immediately because of its flaws. They play with it, looking for strengths and sliding over weaknesses”.

What do you think? In a world where only the innovative really win.

Brian Walker is founder and CEO of retail consulting company, Retail Doctor Group. He specialises in the development and implementation of retail and franchise strategies. He can be contacted on 02 9460 2882 or



  1. Brett Stevenson posted on April 1, 2015

    Looks to me like you are trying to make a silk purse out of a sows ear Brian given that only one person replied to your previous article and you describe that as "Thank you for your fascinating and valid feedback last week, it was certainly interesting to see such attention to this topic." Perhaps a tongue in cheek comment but I think not. Sounds to me like you are fishing. One can only guess!

  2. Paul Middleton posted on April 2, 2015

    Your quote of David Campbell is under-played. Very few new ideas are "born" great. They need nurturing and development, and the support of the executive/management team. Edison got it wrong 500 times before he invented a light bulb that actually produced light! Imagine if his boss had told him to "move on" after the first (or even 10th) attempt. Creativity is the source of new ideas and normally an individual effort (it takes one person to have the initial idea); innovation is the development and application of those ideas into something useful. In a business context, that normally requires a team. I think there is a lack of creativity in retail at the moment. Everyone knows there is a need to change, evolve and adopt digital, but the people in power, particularly in smaller businesses, are not sufficiently aware of the opportunities, or willing to take the risk. The Toys'R'Us augmented reality Easter Egg Hunt is an exception. Truly creative and innovative. But how many small retailers could afford that?!

  3. Brian Walker posted on April 3, 2015

    Hi Brett, We post our blogs on linked in as well, there was certainly more than one comment made, Feel free to join us in Linked in, Couldn't see anything else in your comments to respond to Regards Happy Fit Retailing Brian

  4. Brian Walker posted on April 3, 2015

    Hi Paul Appreciate the feedback and a lot of merit in your points, Regards Happy Fit retailing Brian

  5. Brian Walker posted on April 7, 2015

    Hi Peter, Good comments as always- I tend to think of retail as all brand touching consumer spaces where transactions can occur Increasingly this means the omnichannel space with shops/e commerce/M commerce and S commerce seamlessly integrating. Thanks Peter, Warm regards Brian

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