Get Out of the Office to Think Outside of the Box


One of the joys of my job is that I get to seek out what trends are coming next. We have a saying in our office that to think out of the box, you have to get out of the office. So, we do something called innovation field trips, where we take executives to see first hand where innovation is happening around them.

How do you define innovation? We define it this way: Creativity thinks up things, but innovation does them. Everyone sits in brainstorming sessions and creates big ideas. The difference is that innovative executives know what to do with them.

Sidewalks of New York

Here are some innovations I have been tracking that I think retailers should be paying attention to.

A few weeks ago in New York, at its flagship store, Ralph Lauren launched a promotion around the U.S. Open tennis tournament. For three weeks you could go up to the window and shop from the sidewalk. A projection system showed an interactive image on a window where customers could tap the screen to select a product, swipe a credit card through a reader, purchase the product and then have it sent home. If you didn't feel comfortable completing the purchase on the sidewalk, you could e-mail it to your computer and purchase it there.

The idea was to promote Ralph Lauren's U.S. Open sponsorship. If you didn't want to shop, you could give your e-mail address and enter a raffle for $5,000 in merchandise as well as tickets to the Open. It was a whole new way to think about window shopping.

Have you seen the iPod vending machines, yet? Poor Apple only has 21,000 distribution spots for its iPod, why not more? It's done through a partnership with Zoom Shop and the machines primarily feature Apple products, but there are other big ticket items, such as cameras.

This taps into a major trend: Time compression. People don't have time anymore. People are moving in so many directions that they need to have things on the go. These vending machines are available at airports, campuses and rail terminals.

Pop-Up Stores and More

Pop-up stores can be very successful if done well. The Evian pop-up store was on Fifth Avenue last year for three weeks and not heavily promoted. The store was designed around the premise that people don't just drink water anymore. They use it for health and beauty. Consumers pay a lot more because they expect it to help their essence and spirit.

To promote Evian's partnership with spas around the world, it opened a pop-up spa with free treatments. With little promotion, it had 600 reservations and 200 people on the waiting list. The front room was for manicures and pedicures. In the back room were facials, massages and baths. When you were waiting for your treatment, you were having your experience with Evian water and cookies. The goal was to move these customers from drinking water to other high-end products brought in through partners. It was 2,000 square feet and beautifully done.

The Nike iD Studio is on the Lower East Side and it is the only one in the country. It is exclusive and intimidating to the point where it is almost impossible to get an appointment. The idea is that when you come into the store, you will see three pods and a whole wall of shoes. From the reception area there is a peep hole surrounding glass you can't see through.

The store is an exclusive studio where you can personalize your shoes. It is staffed by designers trained in Portland. Only three customers are allowed in at a time for one-hour appointments. Customers choose styles from the wall and select colors available exclusively at this store. To get an appointment is like winning the lottery. You have to go online to make an appointment. If you just try to walk in a big bouncer will stop you. This may not be for everyone, but it is another way to get people involved in shopping.

Experience Retailing

The Samsung Experience Store is in the Time Warner Center and you can't buy anything there. The idea is that they sell you the dream of the product. Samsung was once a low-price Korean brand. But now it is rated higher than Sony in terms of innovation, so the goal is to recraft the brand in the eyes of the consumer.

This store is where you can visit Samsung without the pressure of buying. It is pure brand building. Every new product that launches appears here first. The store also offers free e-mail access, and 1,200 people come in each day just to check e-mail on an account from Samsung (you sign up for it). Also, if you leave your driver's license, you can check out a product to test, like a digital camera. Take some pictures, come back later to get your license back, and they will give you a disk with all the pictures you took during your day in the city.

Innovation isn't something that is simply new and useful. It creates value and has a business component. It is a competitive advantage, but it is also risky. Companies that are innovative have a tolerance for risk and change. But they are smart about defining good versus stupid risk. And they get all levels of the organization involved in the process, because innovation is a strategic priority.

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