BrainTrust Query: Navigating Retail’s White Out

Nov 01, 2012
Carol Spieckerman

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from the newmarketbuilders blog. The article first appeared on the Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association (LIMA) blog.

Identifying and seizing white space opportunities was once a lot easier, back when retailers stayed in their lanes and relied heavily on brand marketers for direction and differentiation. Today, it requires hitting a moving target, as retailers continue to market their own brands and opportunistically jump into new categories, services and business models.

In my experience, suppliers and brand marketers miss out on white space opportunities by going to one of two extremes. Either they cede control and give retailers complete authority over how opportunities are defined or they myopically pursue initiatives based on outdated assumptions or legacy relationships.

The sweet spot is in developing collaborative models that enlist retailers’ evolving perspectives. The following are a few tactics for uncovering white space and engaging new decision-makers:

Dig Deeper

Visiting stores and following news releases on store openings and volume achievements should still play a role in your retail strategy, but doing so will only give you part of the story. Dig into financial calls and quarterly releases on retailer websites, and make a list of recent acquisitions, brand partnerships, new hires, top initiatives, and the buzzwords and phrases that have been assigned to them. In my experience, very few companies take the time to explore developments that they can’t directly connect to their interests or current contacts.

Connect the Dots

Map out the commonalities between developments and incorporate the themes you discover into your retailer-facing discussions. If a retailer has just acquired a video-streaming service, launched an app, and hired a digital guru, for example, you can bet that their white space will focus on engagement, and that entertainment will be part of the mix. In contrast, a retailer eliminating several middle management roles is most likely trying to speed up decision-making and foster agility. Leverage those themes in a way that showcases synergies with your brand values and collaborative processes.

Branch Out

Keep an ongoing record of organizational changes, key new hires, and partnership plays. Put new faces on your list for your next trip out to retailer HQ, and commit to conducting at least three “listening sessions” with people outside of your usual contact base. These meetings should be pitch free and instead focus on drawing them out about their responsibilities, goals, and the ways that they envision brands and suppliers playing supporting roles. Incorporate the insights from your listening sessions into future meetings with your contacts, both legacy and new. You may be surprised by the influence that your new contacts have over decisions affecting your business.

What are some obvious and less obvious strategies for brands to identify white space opportunities in the retail space? How do you see retailers’ evolving organizational structures changing the way new opportunities are identified? What additional collaborative models make sense in today’s environment?

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7 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: Navigating Retail’s White Out"

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Ryan Mathews
6 years 9 months ago

Here’s one — do something different! I know, I know retail is all about imitation and trying to figure out how to do the same thing somebody else is doing with lower gross margins and net profits, BUT what if “suppliers and brand marketers” encouraged their retail partners to do something that was — shudder, shudder — actually new?

As to the idea of actually listening to your trading partners instead of trying to jam a PowerPoint presentation down their throats — hold on fellas, that’s just going way too far.

Connecting the dots? Another novel concept!

I guess the point here is that partnerships shouldn’t be one-dimensional. I have an admittedly simple mind, but I really don’t understand why we seem to favor these elaborate descriptions of what ought to be everyday good business practices.

Want to sell something to somebody? Know who they are, what they need, where they are going and who their customer is. The “white space opportunities” will take care of themselves.

Ralph Jacobson
6 years 9 months ago

Interesting how the approach ties in the retailers’ ops and org structures, etc. CPG new product development and introduction should also include market analysis to define marketplace revenue opportunities for each new brand introduction or extension.

With new product failure rates exceeding 70% globally after the first year of introduction, I believe more real world insight needs to be captured, rather than the almost “gut feel” process that happens so often today. Retailers can collaborate with CPG to leverage consumer data and sentiment trends to develop products with a far stronger propensity for long-term success.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
6 years 9 months ago

Many partners that use the Global Scorecard Capability Assessment focus on one area, as determined by past collaborations. While this approach makes conversations more efficient and focused, it narrows the focus. Doing at least a cursory review of all the topics forces partners to think about a broad range of collaborative possibilities.

Gordon Arnold
6 years 9 months ago

This was a great article demonstrating the core purposes of what CEOs, CFOs, COOs and all the other C?Os are trained for, paid for, and there for. One might even be able to use this to create a measuring tool for executive selection and performance evaluation.

Martin Mehalchin
6 years 9 months ago

The article sounds more like sales coaching and less about true “white space” product or service development.

Finding white space and developing innovative products and services has to be about the consumer first and come primarily from consumer insights. An unusual channel strategy can be part of what makes the offer unique, but only a part.

I used to work with the authors of “Blue Ocean Strategy.” The book is still worth a read, especially for CPG companies that want to innovate in well established markets.

Ian Percy
6 years 9 months ago
Excellent article Carol. I’m an organizational psychologist, not a real retailer, so I go immediately to seeing what Carol describes as a commentary on a lost ability to think in new ways. We have been conditioned and rewarded for thinking in linear problem-solving models. We’re so proud when we can ‘correct’ something, but generally have not a clue how to ‘create’. Of course when you fix a problem, wait a minute and you get to do it again. We need to abolish the stupid metaphor of ‘thinking outside the box’ because as long as you can still see the box you’re actually still in it. The past is about solving problems; the future is about seeing possibilities. And that’s what’s missing. Can understanding current situations and movements stimulate an awareness of white space and possibilities? Yes, of course. But even that is limiting. There’s also a difference between ‘looking’ for white space and ‘creating’ it. My best example of the problem comes from the concrete industry where the mind set far too often matches the… Read more »
Dave Wendland
6 years 9 months ago

Aligning brand strategies with corporate initiatives is a noble idea, but I would add the caution that consumers must remain a vital part of the decision process. With more and more retailers looking to become neighborhood-centric, understanding the dynamics and potential “white space” within each local setting/strategy will create a far better outcome.


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