The Limitations of Repetition: A Breeding Ground for Innovation

This issue marks the 12th year of Apparel’s annual Innovator Award program and, as in past years, the 2019 winners are pushing the boundaries of retail and have great stories to tell. I’ve been observing the apparel industry for going on 24 years now. Since the beginning of my watch, and reaching back much, much farther than that, apparel retailers have been striving to achieve the same goal: serving the consumer. Viewed through that lens, you might say, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

We’ve been serving the customer for centuries now but we still have a mixed record when it comes to pleasing her. Recently, Forrester’s Brendan Witcher, in speaking about omnichannel, asked, “Why would you give a customer a coupon for 10 percent off but only in store? If you are customer obsessed, you do not make the customer do something they don’t want to do.” That seems obvious, but navigating the world of omnichannel is new. Putting all the pieces together and then recognizing where they don’t fit well is an iterative process. To see how you can do something new really requires understanding what came before, and where the problems lie.

We all know that retail is about getting the right product to the right person in the right place at the right time at the right price, and in the right way, i.e., with concern for the welfare of people and planet.

Beyond this age-old goal of giving customers what they want, there’s no perfect formula for retailing, because people and products and technology are always evolving. Even though basic human drives and needs remain the same, the world around us changes. Innovation comes in many forms, and one of them is in seeing connections in disparate things and ideas.

Witcher also made note of the fact that one of the first things Amazon did when it bought Whole Foods was to offer the grocery retailer’s customers the opportunity to use their Amazon Prime memberships to receive 5 percent off their orders. “Why did they do that? They wanted to know their customer.” Each time something changes there are new challenges — and new opportunities. Innovation is also about recognizing those and acting upon them.

This year’s group of Innovator Award winners are companies that have used their experiences to look at the art of retailing differently as they work to achieve these goals. Their ‘a-ha’ moments are exciting, but they’ve often come after many years of traveling a familiar path and noticing where there are challenges or gaps to be filled.

Consider Innovator Refried Apparel, which was sparked by a one-off garment transformation that led to a new business upcycling dead stock destined largely for landfills. The founders of Innovator Pari Passu, working with actress Melissa McCarthy, saw that fit was the biggest problem in the plus-size marketplace, and took steps to address that, while Innovator Nineteenth Amendment saw the waste that comes from producing first and selling second, and built a technology platform that allows brands to test products without holding inventory. You’ll read about these and all of our other winners’ innovations in this issue.

Like everything under the sun, the repetitive cycles of the apparel supply chain could seem tiresome, like pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll down again. But rather than growing weary from his task, I imagine Sisyphus learning something new each time he pushes the boulder to the top, smoothing the path he’s creating, or recognizing a different one that might make his task more lively, or offer better views, each traipse up the mountain giving him a slightly different glimpse into something ever deeper.

So, too, with retail, the constraints of the fixed goal to serve the consumer keep the paths limited just enough to build the individual and collective knowledge required to be able to truly innovate.

Hat’s off to this year’s Innovators, who are forging new paths for all of us to enjoy.

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