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NRF Panel: Getting Out Of Your Own Way – Enabling Your Company To Truly Innovate

We had the opportunity to moderate a panel on innovation at the Innovation Stage at NRF. This was an exciting new addition to the show—a stage right off the Innovation Lab, an area dedicated to cutting edge innovation ideas.

But, an idea is only good if it can be implemented. And traditional retailers have struggled mightily in creating and implementing true innovation.

We’ve spent the last 30 years consulting with retailers and suppliers to develop winning retail strategies. Innovation has become more critical than ever as the pace of change in the market and among consumers accelerates.

We’ve had some notable successes and unfortunate failures along the way, and the reasons why are not always the same:

  1. Does the company have a culture that embraces change or are they risk averse?
  2. Do they have an organization that is properly aligned?
  3. Do they have the necessary resources (human and capital) to affect change?

We put together a panel of practitioners that have amazing experience in driving innovation within the companies they have been involved with. Our panel was unique in that each of them has been on both the supplier and the retailer side and they understand both sides of the equation. Our participants were:

  • Emily Culp, Global CMO, Keds &
  • Marti Eulberg, Director of Strategy for Sonic and Echo Park Automotive
  • Dale Christensen, Senior VP Marketing, Behr Paint

The full video is here, with highlights below:

The conversation was free flowing but centered around these key issues:

What is the biggest challenge preventing innovation today?

Emily focused on organizational alignment – multi-brand companies like Keds don’t tend to be very nimble, and testing can be very difficult in complex organizations.

Marti also spoke to organizational alignment and to having a vision at the top. But how do you convey that to those under you who will complete execution? You need the proper tools, straightforward communication and a clearly defined plan of attack to do so. And even if you have those things, when you are working with entrepreneurs like the leadership at Sonic, they continuously want to try new things because they are impatient when it comes to seeing things through, which can make it difficult to keep going. They are also easily distracted and often have what has come to be known as “shiny object syndrome”. So, if you are able to implement change, ask yourself, “Has the concept been cascaded and embraced? Do people comprehend what we are trying to do?”

Dale focused on the lack of real understanding that retailers frequently have when it comes to the customer. They often look at the customer as average which doesn’t yield much insight for innovation. Furthermore, companies are failing to collaborate with effective technology partners and instead focus on technology teams. Technology should strive to understand how we can build partnerships versus just hiring vendors. 

How have you overcome these challenges?

Emily described how Keds tackled organizational alignment and piloted change by adjusting the organizational structure. By altering the reporting lines and moving e-commerce to marketing, who share the same objectives and are aligned across verticals, this has helped the company to make adjustments in line with their goals.

Marti faces challenges with the talent in automotive retail; to combat the lack of innovation in digital, Sonic created a digital, physical environment that allows for research and access to information.

Dale told us about his experiences at Walmart and now at Behr where he created technology and experience incubators which require turning attention away from day to day tasks and focusing on long term projects. This can be achieved by making customers the center of attention and understanding their importance. His message: Focus on Customer Centricity and Clarity of Purpose.

 How can technology help accelerate innovation or how can it be a barrier?

Dale’s advice is to experiment with new experiences to satisfy customers by using tailored insights and augmented experiences. Challenges can arise when organizations are not open to new ideas and are too focused on one thing.

Emily spoke of her experience at Rebecca Minkoff, whose prototype was consumer centric with the role of technology in the store. Their goal was to keep consumers at the core of their business and simultaneously answer questions like, “How can we improve the pain points of reinventing the customer experience?” all while avoiding ‘shiny object syndrome’ and getting caught up in ideas. As an example, they could track the customers’ heartbeat – but was that just something that they could do or was it something that they should do? They had to learn to practice restraint with technology and recognize when they were using new ideas because they were in love with them versus implementing new ideas because consumers would benefit from them.

Big Takeaways

Our panel all agree that there are some things you can do to get out of your own way:

  1. Ask yourself, “How does it benefit the customer?”
  • Avoid “shiny object” syndrome
  • Improve customer acceptance
  • Create focus
  1. When deciding on a new project or idea, get informed, firm, continuous buy-in from above.
  • Leadership must understand the value of failure and smart risks
  1. Before rolling out that project or idea, educate stakeholders in an effort to improve speed and effectiveness of implementation.


McMillanDoolittle is a premier international retail consultancy bringing deep experience with world class clients. Our partners have extensive experience interpreting the retail marketplace and converting insights into successful strategies. We help clients develop innovative solutions in strategy development, the customer experience, new concepts, brand performance, retail performance improvement and retail intelligence services.

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