Are Shark Tank-like competitions a path to retail innovation?

Discussion
Photo: Stew Leonard's
Jun 18, 2019
Tom Ryan

Grocer Stew Leonard’s, The Meadows, an open-air shopping complex in St. Louis, and Title Nine, the women’s activewear chain based in Emeryville, CA, are all orchestrating competitions mimicking the hit show, Shark Tank, to discover fresh ideas.

The first-ever “Stew’s Tank” competition invited New York-based food companies to upload their “best sales pitch video” to Stew Leonard’s website. Selected vendors advanced to the next round to meet with the grocer’s buying team for a sales presentation. The grocer will test the products chosen by its buyers and track sales during June at the chain’s East Meadow store.

The best-sellers will then be judged by a panel of local chefs and Stew Leonard, Jr., CEO, and the winners will be added to all stores in New York and Connecticut in July.

“Stew Leonard’s launched rock star brands like Newman’s Own, Bear Naked Granola, Rao’s Marinara Sauce, and Long Island’s Butera’s Meatballs,” said Mr. Leonard. “My family and I are excited about Stew’s Tank and we can’t wait to taste our next best-selling product!”

The Meadows, owned by New York-based Cohen Equities, in late May launched its first RetailNEXT competition to find the “next big thing in retail.” The Meadows asked existing brick & mortar retailers, online retailers and start-ups currently in business to submit ideas for a new concept, meet with judges and conduct a final 10-minute presentation in front of a panel of retail experts, including Maxine Clark, founder, Build-A-Bear Workshop.

The winner will be assisted in launching their concept at The Meadows and earn free rent for a year. The Meadows’ statement read, “The goal of this competition is to accelerate successful concepts that will work, not only for the entrepreneurs, but also become a model for malls to find future tenants — in St. Louis and beyond.”

In September, Title Nine will launch its second Movers And Makers Pitchfest competition to give women entrepreneurs a chance to earn mentoring and a purchase order from Title Nine.

Shark Tank-style pitch competitions are fairly common at high schools and colleges, as well as at trade shows. Municipalities have also used them to explore new ideas.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you think of Shark Tank-style pitch competitions as a way for retailers, shopping center owners or vendors to discover new ideas? Are such events likely a bigger PR benefit than a source for innovation? How can they be executed most effectively?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"If the competitions are genuine and well-planned, they are far more than a PR stunt. They can actually incubate new ideas and help new brands gain solid footing more quickly."
"Real innovation doesn’t always come so nicely packaged complete with its own movie star endorser..."
"By the way, ideas can yield both PR benefits and be a source for innovation."

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21 Comments on "Are Shark Tank-like competitions a path to retail innovation?"


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Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Potentially, this is a good way for individual innovators and smaller businesses to attract the attention of larger retail players and get a leg-up in the retail world. However, these schemes are not a replacement for everyday innovation within retailers, nor are they suited to every business.

It is also vital that ongoing support is given if innovations are to reach their full potential. Incubators like John Lewis’s JLAB are excellent at doing this and create sustainable outcomes for both retailers and innovators.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

Thank you for the heads-up on JLAB. Looks like the real thing … a real laboratory with real experiments with real and measurable outcomes.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

It’s becoming extremely difficult to reinvent the wheel and come up with a product or design that will drive the innovations that will benefit our lives. However, everyone loves the gamification approach to driving innovation, and these Shark Tank pitches may just drive the right amount of interest for PR and surface some new ideas.

Either way, these grassroots level Shark Tank pitches help to tie together local communities, provide a forum for emerging talent, and drive some new innovations that may not have otherwise had a chance. Ultimately, Stew Leonard’s and The Meadows will benefit from a PR perspective. The net benefits for the emerging entrepreneurs are much more significant.

Dave Wendland
BrainTrust
In my opinion, such pitch competitions are a wonderful idea. Not only does it provide a platform for potential suppliers to hone their message and present their product for critical evaluation, but it also affords the retailer a unique opportunity to see the why behind the buy. Having participated on several Shark Tank-styled panels, here are three imperatives that I feel contribute to effective execution: 1.) Honesty – this should not be a platform to placate potential brands, rather it is a heart-to-heart with a brutal assessment of the likelihood that a product or service would fit within the retailer’s operation; 2.) Creativity – the supplier should be able to think on their feet and offer thoughtful, innovative approaches to marketing, pricing, promotion and other key attributes that answer the retailer’s concerns; and 3.) Sincerity – don’t waste each other’s time … if the product isn’t right, tell the supplier. If the supplier isn’t ready for broader distribution, tell the retailer. There should be no surprises! Finally, if the competitions are genuine and well-planned, they… Read more »
Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust

These are manly PR opportunities for the host and contestants with a potential path to secure future funding and the occasional breakout.

Innovation is not borne out of a shark tank. If anything, an environment like this can stifle true innovation as contestants cater to a panel’s idiosyncrasies in search of low hanging fruit.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

Excellent. You have provided an insightful “reality check” to this concept Mohamed. As I wrote, though not as well nor as succinctly as you, innovation does not come from replication.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

If the original intent remains intact, I love the idea to help drive innovation in retailing. Far too many retail formats have largely remained unchanged for literally decades. Stores look and operate basically the same as they did in the past, and few are willing to risk breaking through the paradigm.

Ron Margulis
BrainTrust

Never really cared for Shark Tank. The “investors” always seemed to be grandstanding for the audience and the “entrepreneurs” often appeared to be deer caught in the headlights. Almost as if the whole thing is scripted…

Now if the experts and the folks pitching ideas were sincere about developing products and services that generated shopper demand, it might actually work. Stew is the real deal in terms of generating shopper engagement, so if he can’t make this work, I’m not sure anyone can.

By the way, ideas can yield both PR benefits and be a source for innovation.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

I’ve actually been involved in a similar project before. The good news? It’s a great way to quickly find all the holes in a proposed item, format, offering, etc. The bad news? You aren’t really seeing the best and brightest, just the slickest and most marketing savvy. Real innovation doesn’t always come so nicely packaged complete with its own movie star endorser like Newman’s Own or a legacy of restaurant success like Rao’s. I’ve written a book about why you can’t find real innovation so close to a mass market, and so far the conclusions have held up pretty well. That said, again, great way to test an idea, but in my experience a panel of diverse experts — production, packaging, marketing, sourcing, etc., etc. — trumps a celebrity panel every time. Bottom line: I’ve seen it work in practice, but this sounds more like a PR play to me.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

There’s a multitude of websites claiming to expose the reality of the Shark Tank experience. As with pretty well all “reality ” shows, there’s not that much reality.

What is well worth consideration, however, is how to tap into the noumenon, Kant’s ethereal world where all possibilities exist. “Me too” approaches, where we but mimic what has already been done to find innovation, seem somewhat oxymoronic. Innovation generates innovation, not replication.

There have been several versions of the Shark Tank model and, in truth, Shark Tank itself is a copy of the original idea. All that said, is it still worth a try? For the PR maybe.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Ian — Extra points for the unspoken Dragon’s Den reference.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

Well, “We the North” Canadians are a humble people. Though … did I mention that Toronto is THE greatest NBA championship City since Naismith, a Canadian, invented basketball and since 1946 when the very first NBA game ever was played in Toronto?

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

I might have missed those references.

Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust

Only a truly innovative mind can introduce Immanuel Kant’s noumenon in a RetailWire discussion as we make intelligible the material world as it exists in itself.

Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

A step in the right direction! To be effective these programs need two things: 1.) The ability to attract and vet a great selection of companies to be there and 2.) A broad cross-section of retail execs to review, discuss and take action. The more these retailers are able to support that, the more meaningful they’ll be.

Steve Dennis
BrainTrust

They are necessary, but hardly sufficient. What most retailers get wrong about innovation is they think it’s about ideas. You need great ideas, but you need an innovation process, funding and skills. You need to cultivate a culture of experimentation. You need practice. You can have all the great ideas in the world, but if you don’t know how to scale them you might as well not get started.

I worked with a retailer recently (and know of another) that had dozens of pilots and proof of concepts in the works. They had more ideas coming inbound than they could vet. Their issue: everything was stuck in discovery mode. A good innovation process starts a lot of small experiments, shoots the losers quickly, builds and pivots as we learn and proves and moves quickly on the concepts with promise.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

Shark Tank has become pop culture. There will be many events that run their “competitions” like Shark Tank. Some will be true competitions, looking for ideas, while others will be more for fun. I see corporate “Shark Tanks” where employees get to pitch improvements to their leadership team. Regardless, we’ll see great innovation in many areas, all thanks to the originators of the real “Shark Tank.”

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust
3 months 16 hours ago

Bluntly, no. Shark Tank-style competitions succeed based on one thing: How well they fit the mythology of the competition — not how well they succeed in the market.

More than two decades in the “sell it on TV” (as well as retail, etc.) business made many things clear:

  • Success on Home Shopping Network didn’t mean the product could be successful elsewhere;
  • Competitions for success on TV choose products which are good for TV but quite often bad in reality;
  • Many products succeeded on TV but failed in stores. Stores are a more complex world without the potential to aide shopper thinking;
  • Only a small portion of products chosen in QVC’s national competitions succeeded in the market.

TV is a very effective ad medium. And getting featured makes for tremendous PR. But any competition of this type (televised or not) succeeds on mythology — not reality.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Well hell yes! But … how are the “idea” people going to get paid? When debating an hourly fee once, we told a customer that we could give them several worthless ideas, but one of them, only one of them, could save or make them millions. Therefore, our fees are tiny in comparison. Same is true here.

Begs to ask the old HR question: what’s in it for me?

William Hogben
BrainTrust

These competitions will grow because of their PR value but they’re a dead end for actual innovation. Like hackathons, the format promotes style over substance and concept over execution — absolutely the opposite of what delivers real results in retail. However, for a company looking to bump their stock price, it can be a worthwhile investment — just don’t start driving tech decisions from a judges panel.

Heidi Sax
BrainTrust

As many others have said, this strikes me as a clever way to garner buzz and deepen connections with the local community more so than a source of innovation. Instead, retailers keeping an eye on the industry’s streak of tech incubators — L’Oreal’s Open Innovation Program, Target’s Accelerator, Kroger’s Zero Hunger Zero Waste Innovation Fund, to name a few. Allowing tech startups closer access to corporate leaders helps the technology advance to meet the industry’s needs. Meanwhile, retailers can hand pick startups that are tailor made to solve their exact problems.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"If the competitions are genuine and well-planned, they are far more than a PR stunt. They can actually incubate new ideas and help new brands gain solid footing more quickly."
"Real innovation doesn’t always come so nicely packaged complete with its own movie star endorser..."
"By the way, ideas can yield both PR benefits and be a source for innovation."

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