Which retailers are the most innovative in the business?

Sources: Nike, The Citizenry, Depop, Italic
Mar 16, 2021
Tom Ryan

All the companies on Fast Company’s list of the 10 most innovative retailers of 2021 all found success during the pandemic helping deliver the “immersive, seamless experiences” increasingly demanded by consumers.

The top ten were:

  1. Shopify: As in-store shopping faced restrictions, Shopify’s tools enabled small shops to pivot to drive sales online and capitalize on demand for local purchases, alternative payment methods and shoppable ads on TikTok.
  2. Nike: The activewear giant shifted toward more direct engagement with customers by moving to end relationships with several wholesale retailers, including Belk, Dillard’s and Zappos, and bringing free workouts and other experiences to apps.
  3. Resonance: Resonance’s platform offers goods on-demand for brands from its factory in the Dominican Republic and ships directly to customers, eliminating the problems of being over- or under-inventoried.
  4. Depop: The resale marketplace for GenZ works like a social networking platform by enabling buyers to follow and interact with sellers.
  5. The Citizenry: The home foods retailer partners with global artisans to bring consumers ethically sourced, sustainable, premium home goods at an affordable price. 
  6. Ulta Beauty: The beauty chain scaled up its GLAMlab during the pandemic to enable customers to do AI-powered virtual try-ons for hair, eyelashes and foundation matching.
  7. Italic: The membership model works directly with factories to make label-free versions of luxury items. For a $120 annual fee, members are able to purchase the items at cost.
  8. Carewell: Described as “the Amazon of home health products,” the marketplace for family caregivers stands out for its advice.
  9. Rebag: The luxury resale site has spent five years building Clair, an index that allows anybody to quickly appraise the market value of their bag. In 2020, the company debuted an AI-powered version.
  10. Canada Goose: The outerwear firm has outfitted some stores with Cold Rooms where customers can test coats in a small glass box surrounded by ice sculptures.

Other similar lists include:

  • CI&T’s recently-released top 10 ranking of the most connected retailers, which included Nordstrom, Target, Home Depot, Staples, Walmart, Foot Locker, Gap, PetSmart, Bass Pro and REI;
  • Boston Consulting’s 2020 list of the most innovative retail companies: Apple, Amazon, Alibaba, Walmart, Nike, Target, Adidas, Costco, JD.com and McDonald’s.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Which companies would land on your list of the most innovative in the retail space over the last year and why? Is there a common theme that drove innovation at retail during the pandemic?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"It is great to see so many companies creating innovative new ways to serve their customers, especially during such disruption."
"My top innovative retailers would be Nike, Sephora, Target, Best Buy, and you can’t have a retail innovation list without Amazon either."
"Canada Goose – This story was one I heard a few years ago about having the cold-test chambers. Immersive experiences!"

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21 Comments on "Which retailers are the most innovative in the business?"

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Suresh Chaganti

That’s an impressive roster of companies and innovations. E-commerce growth has leapfrogged five years. Innovation too seem to have kept pace and is getting caught up. I am looking for a much more ubiquitous use of AR and virtual try-on technologies. Any innovation that directly improves customer experience is a winner.

Ken Morris

I’m surprised Walmart and Target didn’t make the list. Their leverage of RFID and Walmart’s usage of micro-fulfillment centers have moved the bar for all retailers. Their ability to understand their inventory in real time and pick, packing and ship robotically make them my innovative retailers of the year.

Neil Saunders

A lot of retailers have been extremely innovative over the past 12 months, so there are more than can be added to that list. Target is one of them, Best Buy is another, Both adapted to pandemic conditions very quickly. Amazon should be on there too, if only because it is constantly innovative in so many different ways. Dick’s is probably another I’d add, not just for its shifts during the pandemic but for its long-range plan to increase private label development which is working well.

Oliver Guy

I like this list but Amazon defines the pace that others need to follow. There are some great ideas here but I also like some of the other organizations attempting to blend physical and digital – for example Ferragamo and Dixons Carphone who have both attempted to allow in-store staff to help customers at home using video-based technologies.

Zach Zalowitz

My top three are Nike, Ulta and Canada Goose. Nike has been focusing on a closer and more direct relationship with consumers. The stores are engaging, but not overwhelming. Their app is designed very well. Ulta has innovated in the AR/VR space in the last few years. They’re also centering their omni-strategy on “all things about her.” Finally, Canada Goose – This story was one I heard a few years ago about having the cold-test chambers. Immersive experiences! REI has done similar things, which I love.

What’s common about all three is that they focus on the customer and their experience, then create the technology and physical experience to center around it. All three also track their customers religiously and have very flexible and trusting returns/exchanges policies.

David Naumann

The top three most innovative retailers on my list would be Walmart, Nike and Sephora. Walmart has continued to test innovative technology in its stores, acquired brands to extend its product line and has developed a marketplace that competes with Amazon. Nike has introduce custom designed athletic shoes, significantly expanded its direct-to-consumer channel and behind the scenes it acquired Celect’s cloud-based analytics platform to optimize inventory across its omnichannel environment through hyper-local demand predictions. Four years ago, Sephora was one of the first brands to introduce augmented reality with its Virtual Artist makeup app that allows customers to virtually see makeup colors applied to their face.

Zach Zalowitz

Great call outs on Sephora David!

Rick Watson

I don’t follow this post. Many are not retailers — Some are technology companies (Shopify), some are brands (Nike, Canada Goose).

There are a few marketplaces in this list, which I could squint and count as retailers according to one definition, but most brands would not consider them retailers.

Dr. Stephen Needel

I agree Rick – I’m looking at the list and most are online only. While brick-and-mortar retailers need to be seamless, these companies don’t have that issue (except Ulta and Canada Goose). I don’t know if that means we need a new definition of retailer, new sub-genres, or if we should ignore lists from places like Fast Company.

Craig Sundstrom

Dr. Needel, I agree: we need a list … of top lists!

Kathleen Fischer

It is great to see so many companies creating innovative new ways to serve their customers, especially during such disruption. I especially liked Ulta Beauty’s rapid ramp-up of their GLAMlab as a means of continuing the ability to allow customers to interact with products and, in fact, growing the business.

Richard Hernandez

That is a very impressive list of innovative businesses. I believe the pandemic drove shoppers to find the unique and new. Customer service and experience are the ultimate result and if companies can achieve it and remain consistent, they will continue to do very well.

Lisa Goller

Among Fast Company’s list, Shopify was well positioned to serve startups launched out of passion or necessity during the pandemic. It offered a timely solution for local businesses shuttered in every city. Partnering with Walmart, TikTok and Facebook emphasized its momentum.

Ulta Beauty’s partnership with Target and swift pivot to virtual try-ons keep it competitive as demand grows for omnichannel beauty.

Also, Amazon, Target and Walmart consistently invested in innovation. I’ve been swooning all year. They are strengthening the retail tech infrastructure with their leadership in connecting companies and consumers for efficient supply chains and superior service.

DeAnn Campbell

I would include 7-Eleven on that list: they were among the first to bring partnerships into their store and to integrate Amazon lockers. They created their own cosmetics line, and were among the first to add delivery pre-COVID-19 with their 7Now App, using geo-location to deliver anywhere you can drop a pin on Google maps. They began testing their own version of “Just Walk Out” technology two years ago, are experimenting now with refillable containers in-store, a bar serving kombucha on tap, and food delivery from ghost kitchens. That’s a lot of innovation!

Raj B. Shroff

Amazon is Amazon, they are in a class by themselves, already suited for basically anything that would get thrown at them. I’d say Target, they were quick to adjust to the pandemic, focusing on safety and contactless. They continue to evolve their digital touch points to optimize around their guest. It’s a business that understands what insights matter and how to take action based on them.

The common themes seem to have been improving supply chain to get products on the shelf and keep up stock, building trust through smart health and safety policies for staff and guests, e-commerce and BOPIS.

Ricardo Belmar

I’m scratching my head a bit at Fast Company’s definition of “innovation” and what they call a “retailer.” For example, I agree Shopify is wildly successful and has introduced fantastic capabilities into their platform for retail businesses entering e-commerce during the pandemic. However there’s a difference between smart feature development and true innovation. I’d call Shopify and Ulta Beauty, for example, smart rather than innovative in this case.

My top innovative retailers would be Nike, Sephora, Target, Best Buy, and you can’t have a retail innovation list without Amazon either. Walmart deserves a nod, too, as they (and Target) continue to lead the industry in innovations that push customer convenience and value even further. Today, true innovation is built around leveraging digital capabilities to drive convenience and value for customers. Convenience is being measured by how seamlessly technology improves customer engagement and by adding increasing layers of personalization. As personalization and convenience improve, so does the perceived value by consumers – and that is what’s driving innovation in retail today.

Brandon Rael

Before and during the pandemic, the common themes have been to focus all your strategies on the customer experience, accelerating revenues, streamlining your costs, and focusing on relentless innovation. This is an impressive list and certainly has a wide variety of retailers, DTC brands, marketplaces. These companies have had a laser focus on innovation and purpose-driven transformations to improve the customer experience.

We should, however, include Best Buy, Walmart, Target, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Home Depot, and other larger retailers, who have invested significantly in digital transformations that have driven improved customer experiences and translated into accelerated revenues. While we don’t typically lump these larger firms into the more agile DTC groupings, what they have accomplished before and during the pandemic has been very impressive.

Craig Sundstrom

Maybe I’m being cynical here — OK, I am being cynical, but one can never be too careful in weeding out the unworthy from the endless list of … lists, but I have to chuckle at some company paring back its distribution channel(s) being described as “shifted toward more direct engagement.” I call it “trying to keep more of the profits.” Innovative? Uhm….

Venky Ramesh
I agree with some others here — this list is incomplete without Walmart, Amazon, Target (or even Best Buy) featuring on it. Walmart will be on top of my list for not only pivoting to meeting consumers where they were during the pandemic, but also for all the investments they did even before the pandemic that paid off serendipitously — e.g. retail Innovation Lab (retail AI pilot), micro-fulfillment centers, in-store robotics, handing samples during curbside pick up, temperature-controlled storage at the doorstep for fresh food delivery, AI-based cost-optimized returns where they refund but don’t take the product back — the list can go on. One common theme I have found with all the retailers who were successful during the pandemic is they took a very human-centric approach to re-designing the way they engage with the consumer, putting their needs at the center, and sometimes even not caring if they didn’t make profits to meet the consumer needs (e.g. As per one Forrester study, all delivery models except micro-fulfillment based curb-side pick up, where losing coming… Read more »

I wonder if “fresh” business models (like apparel resale) and use of technologies like AI have motivated this list, more than simply looking at retailers who continue to “sustain leadership through innovation.” If you were to look at the success of embracing a culture of serial innovations, names like Amazon, Walmart, Alibaba and Target should be in the list all of the last 3 years, and especially so in 2020.

Casey Craig

This last year propelled companies to think outside of the box and create digital products that help customers experience their items in new ways and increase convenience by strengthening BOPIS and delivery functions.

The companies that I think did it best are Target, Ulta Beauty, and Casey’s General Store.

Target has continued to seamlessly expand its omnichannel offerings to meet the new and unique needs of its customers such as using stores as micro-fulfillment centers for the continued growth of Shipt and establishing drive-up for curbside pick-up.

Ulta Beauty is using AI for virtual try-ons to set itself apart in the cosmetic industry.

Casey’s General Store revamped its customer experience with a mobile app, a new website, a new loyalty program, marketing automation tools, and an ordering platform that streamlines the purchase process and enables online payments.

"It is great to see so many companies creating innovative new ways to serve their customers, especially during such disruption."
"My top innovative retailers would be Nike, Sephora, Target, Best Buy, and you can’t have a retail innovation list without Amazon either."
"Canada Goose – This story was one I heard a few years ago about having the cold-test chambers. Immersive experiences!"

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