Has Retail Lost Its Creative Edge?

Jan 23, 2013

In a breakout session at the 2013 NRF Big Show last week, a survey was cited that revealed 75 percent of us think we are not living up to our creative potential. In "The Cultivation of Creativity" session, representatives from Adobe Systems, Benjamin Moore & Company and Landor Associates addressed the issue, outlining initiatives they use to nurture a culture of creativity within their organizations.

Terry Fortescu, director of marketing, digital media at Adobe Systems, summarized the company’s philosophy. "It starts from the top." Founders Dr. Charles Geschke and Dr. John Warnock hold that "good ideas come from everywhere in the company," she said.

In April of 2012 the company released its State of Create Global Benchmark Study, a series of surveys conducted in the U.S., U.K., Germany, France and Japan, which revealed what they call "TheCreativity Gap." Just some of the eye-opening findings:

  • Unlocking creative potential is seen as key to economic and societal growth;
  • Only one in four people feel that they are living up to their creative potential;
  • There is universal concern that the educational system is stifling creativity.

Upholding its commitment to creativity, Adobe conducts a program called "Garage Week" allowing anyone in the engineering team to take one week to pursue any idea they want, as long as they’re willing to present to the whole team at the end. They also hold Marketing Brainstorms with non-marketing people from other departments, and a "Seeds of Innovation" program with cash awarded to pursue the winning ideas.

In contrast, Benjamin Moore & Co, a traditional 130-year-old organization with an age-old product and 5,000+ independent retailers, uses high tech solutions to engage customers creatively across multiple touchpoints, according to Bob Chin, manager, digital technology.

"We want to romance the customer into starting to paint," said Chin. The company pursues that with a website brimming with ideas and demonstrations, a vast trove of video, interactive color tools both online and in-store, and instructional content all tailored to the touchpoint. "Today’s technology enables this explosion of creative possibilities" for an otherwise low-tech product, according to Chin.

The session was capped by Landor Associates, a global branding company steeped in creative design and innovation since 1941. Steve McGowan, executive creative director at Landor, outlined a set of eight principles of creativity:

  • Creativity is in everyone;
  • Creativity is paradoxical;
  • Creativity is constructive;
  • Creativity is courageous;
  • Creativity is perceptive;
  • Creativity can be inspired or suppressed;
  • Creativity is childlike;
  • Creativity accepts ambiguity.

"You can’t chase cool," said McGowan. "You can chase an idea. Show up and be counted. Devise a plan. Take a chance. Fail, even."

What does creativity mean at retail? Which retail organizations are doing the best job of nurturing creativity? What can other retail organizations do to best realize it?

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20 Comments on "Has Retail Lost Its Creative Edge?"

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Shilpa Rao

Creativity means engaging customers in ways that have not been done before, making it fun and bringing out the creative “you.” I think Home Depot with their virtual reality app has put this creativity in the customers’ hands. Michaels (in the business of creativity) has leveraged Facebook and YouTube to propagate its creative ideas.

Ryan Mathews

Creativity at retail means having a unique vision, bringing it to life and not worrying about what the company across the street is doing. In short, it’s a willingness to re-imagine the business every day and the will to do business on your own terms.

Retailing isn’t a very creative space anymore, but I suppose the best of class are the usual suspects. In food that would be Wegman’s, H.E.B. and Trader Joe’s.

Paula Rosenblum

Creativity in retail means creative product, creative visual displays, and a creative, fun in-store experience.

As long as we continue to fixate on price as our primary sales driver the consumer will remain bored and sales will remain lackluster.

Dick Seesel

Creativity is hard to define because the underlying marketing and product development still needs to be consistent with a retailer’s strategic goals. That being said, an atmosphere of entrepreneurship and risk-taking is essential to creative teamwork. I tie this back to last week’s discussion about Mickey Drexler, who has fostered risk-taking at every step of his career and has a proven track record to show for it.

Retailers can do more to foster creativity and risk-taking by getting those managers not directly responsible for the quarterly earnings reports to behave like small-business entrepreneurs, regardless of the size and scale of the company.

Ron Margulis

Matisse said, “Creativity takes courage.” In retail, this is an understatement.

Ian Percy

NONE of us are living up to our highest possibilities. Indeed Maslow pointed out that the cause of most of our anxieties, unhappiness and restlessness is caused by our not living up to our capabilities.

That said…are we talking about “creativity” or “innovation?” They are quite different. The former is the entry point—taking ‘what is’ and doing something different to it. “Innovation” is seeing what others don’t see and bringing it into reality.

It’s a pretty common opinion that even in higher education (unless you’re in dramatic arts) creativity and innovation are not exactly cherished. And they certainly aren’t at the earlier levels. Innovation is a threatening thing to most people, especially to those who feel they know the business. Roshi once noted “In the beginners mind there are many possibilities, in the expert there are few.”

My own work in various kinds of corporations is built on one and only one question: “What is possible?” IMHO answering that question is the most critical role of every leader in retail and elsewhere.

Nikki Baird

I once saw the owner of a small, independent retail operation speak at a user conference, and she opened with “I’m poor.” And went on to explain that living as a retailer meant that her biggest fear was risk, because she didn’t have the money to take many risks.

I think that this is the biggest creativity killer out there—fear that if an experiment doesn’t work, there isn’t enough of a buffer in the business to absorb a failure. Do billion dollar companies operate this thinly? No. But the culture is set from the very beginning—every retailer started as one store, even if the store was only online. Growing up out of that, I believe, creates an environment where creativity is strangled by fear and conservative thinking.

Is that true of all retailers? Certainly not. But I’ve encountered it often enough to see that it’s generally true.

Tim Cote
4 years 7 months ago

Where has creativity gone?

Retailers have become accounting-driven machines where failure is not tolerated and often results in replacement of the marketing/buying team. Sadly, accounting and IT have become Teflon coated. The blame has to go somewhere. When this culture is understood, creativity and its companion, risk, are avoided like the plague.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Creativity at retail means providing the experience, products, and services that your consumers want at their store. Having the ideas is one thing, taking the risk to try the new ideas is something else because not all will be successful.

Yesterday we were asked to comment on Target’s idea to making certain products available only online. That is an example of creativity in retail.

Ed Rosenbaum

Ron’s quote from Matisse says it all. Until retailers understand they need to focus on driving customers to them with other than discounts and sales, they will continue to run in place.

Tom Redd

Creativity. In retail, creativity is about eliminating boundaries that shoppers become familiar with. That could be a price, a rack design, store layout, web site design, assortment, and more.

The more you step BEYOND the boundaries that have defined you as a retailer in the past, the more new customers you reach and the deeper you go into the minds of your dedicated shoppes.

Find the RIGHT creative path and you will OWN THE MINDS of the shoppers that spend.

Tom…knowing no boundaries….

Tony Orlando
Creativity is what inspires me to get out of bed every day. I dream of things to cook, and have woken up from a dream about a recipe, and wrote it down for my deli. Am I weird or unusual? Maybe, but creativity lies right beneath the layer of doubt inside everyone’s brain. We have to think outside the box to survive the retail war every day, and I do understand the single store owner who just cannot take it anymore. That kind of thinking will unfortunately put you out of business, but sometimes doubting yourself can also lead you to places you never dreamed of. The study of human behavior has been a passion of mine for many years, and being able to read the tea leaves about another person’s thoughts without any words being spoken is something we can all learn. Creativity is how bridges are built, and the Hoover Dam was made, and there are things today we never thought were possible only 20 years ago, but now we have at our fingertips. Wegmans, Trader Joe’s, and Apple come to mind, for creative companies, but I believe that the greatest successes are achieved by many small business… Read more »
Shep Hyken

Creativity in retail is at two levels. First is the ability to come up with new, innovative and unique customer experiences, which includes the in-store or online experience as well as the advertising/promotion experience.

The second level is the ability to create from what technology has to offer. Taking advantage of technology is one thing. Pushing it to the next level is another.

Lee Peterson

Steve McGowan forgot one: Creativity IS Retail. Without it, we’d still be selling goods from tables in a bazaar. The sad part about the story of the relationship between creativity and retail has been the saga of the last 20 years: thousands of boxes opening up across the landscape without much thought other than ‘stack it high and let it fly’. A sorry state of over consumption driven by tactics, like price, location and inventory.

But not to worry. The age of the box is coming to a close as consumers look to do the menial tasks of shopping from the comfort of their homes—leading them to challenge retailers with this question: ‘why should I come to your store?’

And so, after a long hiatus, creativity is making a comeback. And there’s a lot of ground to make up. Why should they come to your store? You’d better have a creative answer for that.

Vahe Katros
I believe you are asking two questions: Q1: How can retailers support creativeness amongst their customers/how can retailers be more creative as it relates to supporting customer creativity/who is doing it best? I think it’s interesting to look at what’s happening in the craft trends found at ETSY, Maker Faire, YouTube, Burning Man, Caf Press, etc. This is where the customer becomes the creator and the merchant. Williams Sonoma owns West Elm here in Palo Alto, Urban Outfitters owns Terrain. They are both tapping the crafts/locally-sourced movement. Staples launched a “3d Printing service—in Europe only. Shapeways and Sculpteo are offering 3D printing/manufacturing. American Apparel clothing online allows you to create custom shirts and tee shirts. Q2: Regarding the question “Has Retail Lost it’s Creative Edge?” Our problem is how to get creative about getting creative. It’s much cheaper to make things real these days. I bet your cashiers have some great designs they work on in the evenings. Here are two ideas. During the year, especially during key contexts, challenge the organization to capture ideas: ideas on process, products, services, segmentation, app ideas, whatever. Queue the ideas, put them on a collaboration server? Vote and then perhaps twice a year,… Read more »
gordon arnold
The single greatest obstacle in the path of creativity in business is resistance to change. This resistance is created, nurtured and allowed to persist for many reasons such as leadership style, apathy, and of course the all time leading culprit—communication failure. The preceding statement sounds supportable and politically correct yet it is nowhere close to accurate. Creative solutions must endure a cost/affect test that allows for no change or attempt to make change that costs any amount above of what is being spent for today’s production. The current economic climate has forced staff reductions that allow for few meeting minutes beyond those needed for basic two way situation feedback. Tasking itself is assessed on the fly for its necessity due to the time constraints of working individuals at all levels. There are many that may take issue with this observation, but few that doubt the existence of delayed and abandoned tasks being on the increase with decreased staff sizes. Creativity costs money. The ability and willingness to pay for this openness, need, or luxury is now realized by few and supported by fewer corporations. A willingness to include all of the employees and/or the public is further from reach than… Read more »
Vahe Katros

I always have my copy of Management Horizons 1990 report, “Retailing 2000,” handy to remind myself that we, as an industry, are always on the eve of destruction. That’s why our path to survival rotates around the ideas of creative destruction.

Not everyone will get that and they will die. That’s the lament of retailers, specifically: we sell 150 year old brands and struggle to make it through a decade.

The problem is that retailing is a reflection of culture and culture is always changing — especially over the last two decades. Here are some things you might want to check out on the way to the funeral:

Regarding the “abandoned tasks and ideas,” check out the Pretotype it PDF found at: http://www.pretotypelabs.com. Also, check out the book, Rework, at: 37signals.com.

Regarding the comment that “Creative solutions must endure cost/affect tests,” here is a model that might entertain and inform: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delta_model

I’ve been in retail since 1985 and I’ve seen a few of the more recent illustrations of our demise. That’s why Bluto’s motivational speech from Animal House connects with me:

“What? Over? Did you say ‘over’? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”

Ralph Jacobson

There are many great retail AND CPG examples, some of which have been mentioned here already. The key is also to look outside our industries to airlines, hospitality, etc. for some great ideas.

gordon arnold

There are many viewpoints that can arouse interest and provide seemingly intelligent point of order for information purposes. However the first step in solving any problem is collecting accurate information over time and reviewing this data for similarities. This is true even for empirical issues. Confounding accurate observations as they are seen in a daily process and procedure with satire and surrealism serves no purpose and creates little in the form of resolution to the problems of dwindling creativity at the workplace.

A look of the retail business survivors and failures since the mid 1980s will show a large majority are gone. Much of this is due to the failure of the company to recognize the need for change in time and or to properly respond incorporating open creativity as an asset tool. Retail leadership is a difficult endeavor even in the best of times. Inspirational ideas from their mentors and teachers is often needed to stay sharp while inspiring with reassurance, guidance and awareness.

If you are in a leadership position, beware of inspiration from Bluto or those that find him enlightening.

Mike Osorio
Mike Osorio
4 years 7 months ago

The explosion of readily available examples of creativity creates this feeling of inadequacy (only 25% feel they are creative). Of course, the reality of metrics/P&L focused leadership and boards stifle creativity as well.

Just like customer-centricity, leaders can ignite the creativity that is waiting to be unleashed in their ranks via their authentic commitment to the value of creativity and curiosity.


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