Innovation is the key to survival in the retail game

  • Opinion
  • February 11, 2016
  • Dan West
Innovation is the key to survival in the retail game

In this year alone three leviathans of retail filed for bankruptcy. It was only two years ago American Apparel and Quicksilver were turning a serious profit, while RadioShack was once known as “the single largest seller of consumer telecommunications”. 

They are just the most recent high profile casualties. A study from Washington University estimates that 40 percent of today’s Fortune 500 companies will no longer exist in ten years and you can already see businesses that are going that way, like BlackBerry, Kodak, Yahoo and Nokia, to name but a few. Admittedly they may rise like a phoenix, but they have a tough job on their hands as they will be forever playing catch up unless they come up with something really revolutionary like Burberry. 

We still need to get the basics right—a solid product, strong service and frictionless distribution channels—but that is no longer enough. Businesses have to innovate across all the entire customer journey along with their product. Consumers are no longer going to accept second rate experiences at any point. The old excuses of internal tech structures operating in silos, legacy equipment and “if it ain’t broke why fix it” attitudes have to be left where they belong: in the past. Because if you aren’t looking to innovate at every corner you will fast fall the way of the Dodo.

There are many ways to help keep ahead of the game, but here are a few to think about:

Keep an eye on GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon).

These four tech titans are continuously breaking new ground and not in areas you’d expect. Google, a search engine, in the last few years brought out Google Glasses, autonomous cars and most recently an entire robotics division. Facebook in the meantime is pioneering virtual reality and augmented reality, Amazon is navigating the legal minefield of drone delivery units and Apple keeps bringing out amazing product after product supported by ever-more joined up and intelligent services like iGenius, iBeacons, etc.

Don’t be afraid to fail intelligently.

The term ‘fail fast and often’ is bandied around like failure is a good thing. That is not always the case in the real world; sometimes we can’t afford to fail. However, attempting nothing is worse. Instead have a plan. A plan to pivot if things are not going as anticipated or even a plan to start again, but this time wiser from what did and didn’t work. Google last year pulled Google Glass with the promise that it would take all its learnings, both positive and negative, and inject it into future projects.

Learn from others.

This doesn’t mean wait to see what the competition does and follow fast. It means seeing what other industries are doing, what innovations and research is coming out of universities, knowledge sharing with business partners, reading articles and blogs and even finding out what your colleagues are up to. For instance, 3M holds a technical council once a month composed of leaders of major 3M laboratories to share knowledge. It’s these events that have resulted in products such as its incredibly popular Post-it Notes.

Don’t think you’re too big to fail. 

I can imagine Radio Shack felt much the same way just a couple of decades ago. Just because you think your product/service/system is great doesn’t mean your consumers do or will continue to. Only a few short years ago mobile shopping, or indeed a mobile experience, was practically non-existent. Now 55 percent of Millennials are less likely to use a company’s products and services if they have a poor experience on their mobile app. So if your competitor’s app does it better than yours, you can fast see your profits falling.

Be restless.

Never accept the status quo. The moment you sit back and relax after a job well done someone else will have changed the game. This doesn’t mean don’t celebrate successes—this is important too—but it does mean you can’t rest on your laurels. This is an exciting age to be in, full of opportunities and challenges; you just have to keep your eyes open to them. 

 Dan West is digital strategy director at advertising agency FCB. You can contact him at
This column was originally published in NZ Marketing. 

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