Retail Innovation vs. Retail Iteration

Over the last few years a barrage of new buzzwords have entered the retail world; omni-channel, mobile-first, and of course innovation. The challenge that many retailers face today is moving beyond he buzzwords and actually taking action. Of course that’s easier said than done and it is now becoming all too common for retailers to convince themselves they are embracing a new trend or introducing disruptive technology into what they are doing…when, unfortunately, that’s not what’s actually happening.


I speak with retail leaders frequently who describe “innovative” projects and initiatives within their organisations. In truth, however, much of what they’re describing is not innovative at all, it’s iterative and there’s a big difference between the two. By definition, innovation means developing products or processes that are entirely new, that have never existed before, while iteration is a process of incremental experimentation and development along a known path. While there’s nothing wrong with linear, continuous improvement, problems arise when we start characterizing it as innovation. It simply is not. (Source – Business of Fashion)

At Bold Metrics we see examples of this come up all the time in our conversations with apparel brands and retailers. One good example of an iteration that is often confused with innovation is fit recommendations. Rewind ten years ago and recommending apparel sizes to a shopper was a real innovation, now it’s simply the iteration of the size chart and a must-have feature on for apparel eCommerce companies. Another example is pre-paid return shipping labels shipped with the product – ten years ago this would really wow consumers, now it’s expected, not innovative, but iterative.

So why does this happen and what can brands and retailers do to actually innovate?

The reality is iteration is often chosen over innovation because of fear. Companies aren’t willing to try something, have it fail, learn, and continue to build and grow over time. It’s the same reason why machine learning has been so hard for companies to wrap their heads around. Training machine learning models takes time, they won’t be perfect at first, but keep feeding them data and wait until you see what they can do.

If you’re innovating, you’re failing and if you’re not ok with failure, you’re not going to be innovative. It’s that simple.

If you’re genuinely creating daring concepts, processes and products that are original, a high rate of failure is implicit. Unfortunately, most organisations have an extremely low tolerance for failure. And worse, many organisations encourage their executives to be innovative but then structure their compensation and reward systems solely around success and compliance. (Source – Business of Fashion)

It’s exciting for us to work with so many innovative brands and retailers, companies that know introducing real disruption into processes that might not have changed for decades means giving customers a better experience. It’s also why the word BOLD is in our company name, and like they say, fortune favors the bold.

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