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Among many other things, 2020 will be remembered as the year that turned retail upside down. The pandemic forced retailers and brands to rethink how they did business, resulting in an evolutionary leap in digital commerce and omni-channel services. Here, Cynthia Kounaris, Managing Director of The Innovation Office and Chief Strategy Officer at FitForCommerce discusses some of these changes.


For many, especially more traditional retailers, this shift was a major reality check. From scrambling to get online to introducing click-and-collect services and dealing with supply chain and delivery issues, every day organisations found themselves blocking and tackling new challenges simply to keep their doors (or virtual doors) open.

In 2021, we will see a continued acceleration of digital commerce and omni-channel. But instead of catching up, retailers must now embrace digital initiatives and innovation at scale. It is no longer enough to differentiate by having a great e-commerce site or by offering exceptional omni-channel services. Whether it’s making it easier to buy with contactless payments, reinventing the in-store environment, leveraging data, providing immersive and hyper-personalised experiences, or automating fulfillment, retailers must keep up with innovation to keep up with customer demands.

The pace of innovation was fast before, but now it is operating at hyperspeed. What is new and innovative today will become tomorrow’s table stakes. For this reason, it is critical for all organisations to think about innovation and emerging technologies in a structured manner. Too many retailers, however, are so busy catching up, that innovation often becomes an afterthought.

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When asked about the things holding them back from innovation, budget, other priorities, and lack of proven ROI tops the list with most retailers. It is not easy to keep up with the status quo and, at the same time, stay ahead of the curve. Some larger retailers are getting in front of this by developing in-house innovation labs dedicated to testing new technologies and predicting the future. But not every company has the time or resources for in-house innovation departments. Most retailers can’t even find the resources to keep up with the day-to-day.

A proven way to make innovation more manageable, and to foster an innovation mindset throughout the organisation, is to introduce an innovation framework with dedicated resources to make it easier to discover, test, and implement new technologies. Here are five tips for getting started:

  1. Identify and prioritise needs and opportunities across the entire organisation
    Performing a regular digital diagnostic across all key areas of the business including merchandising, marketing, content, customer experience and fulfillment, enables organisations to pinpoint gaps and opportunities.
    When performed regularly, and by engaging the entire organisation, digital diagnostics offer a holistic approach to identifying and prioritising needs and provides a roadmap for quickly adjusting and adapting to changing consumer behaviors and unforeseen challenges.
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  1. Discover emerging tech and industry trends
    Whether assigning ownership in-house or by partnering with an external resource that can help separate the wheat from the chaff, retailers can benefit from dedicating resources to ongoing discovery of emerging technologies and industry trends. For best results, this effort should include research on innovative technologies, competitor intelligence, insight into emerging technologies in other industries and, of course, an understanding of customer behaviors and expectations. These insights should be shared during regularly scheduled briefings for key stakeholders across the organisation.
    Retailers should also consider using this resource to proactively source specific technologies to address current and future needs, and prioritise solutions based on proof-points, ease of implementation, impact to organisation, and potential return on investment.
  1. Solicit ideas and feedback from the entire organization
    Employees and staff that engage with customers directly are invaluable resources for soliciting feedback on how to elevate the customer experience and improve operational efficiencies. Engaging employees across the organisation to share ideas will foster creative thinking and result in a better understanding of current challenges.
  1. Focus on quick wins with big results
    Retailers often shy away from innovation because it seems out of their reach. It is important to note that innovation is not always about robots, drones, and virtual reality. Innovation can be as simple as using technology in a different way, to improve on what you are already doing. Often, non-disruptive technology solutions can result in significant customer experience improvements and boost conversions without huge investments.
  1. Build a testing program and success metrics
    For many retailers, a common innovation roadblock is that testing and implementing new technologies simply feels too complicated and disruptive to current operations. This can be avoided by building a testing foundation and innovation sandbox that allows for quick onboarding and piloting of new solutions or by partnering with an agency that can help both discover and test new technologies. The program should also include clear testing criteria and success metrics to help quickly identify which technologies should move into production.

Following these best practices will help develop a framework for keeping up with innovation in a more organised and structured way. No one can precisely predict the future, but it is clear that the industry is once again reinventing itself. And if the past year has proven anything, it is that retail as we know it will continue to be redefined. One thing is for sure – it never gets boring.