Its a big week for the World Retail Congress. One of the important new initiatives that forms a key part of the programme for 2009 is the Retail Futures Challenge - a global competition amongst retail business colleges to create a new retail concept for the year 2012. Three colleges are participating in this launch year - the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, the Hong Kong Polytechnic and the Fashion Retail Academy in London.
So far, New York and Hong Kong have held their preliminary heats to select the teams that will go to the final in Barcelona. This week sees London select its team. It has already proved to be a fascinating exercise, but more than that, it has given all the retailers that have been involved as judges, great heart for the future. All of the student teams competing - the winners and those that didn’t make the final - understood the issues currently facing retailing and had refreshing ideas and an open-minded approach to creating viable solutions and new concepts. This is clearly what the retailers had in mind when the idea for this competition was suggested. The industry needs to refocus on innovation and it needs inspiration, retailers told us. Even better that it should be provided by students of retail business who will - hopefully - move into the industry and become the leaders of tomorrow.
The theme of innovation is without doubt one that resonates most loudly with the retailers that we are speaking to at the moment. Coping with the downturn is just the norm now, what is important they say is finding ways to inspire customers with new ideas. This has been summarised strongly by some of our key speakers for 2009. Betsy McLaughlin, CEO of fast-growing US youth brand, Hot Topic, stated that: “Teen consumers are smart, savvy and enjoy a high level of stimulation in their lives. It’s no long enough just to ’sell stuff’. Progressive retailers will create a destination shopping experience that marries technology, community, individuality and merchandise.”
And then, speaking recently at the NYU Stern in New York, the Group President of The Estée Lauder Companies, John Demsey stated that in these “turbulent times” you cannot compete on price alone. You have to reframe the value proposition because consumers are returning to the brands they trust. And the real point of difference is innovation. “The same old, same old, will not fly,” he said. Innovation is more important now than it ever was - even for trusted brands.
The ideas that will be unveiled in Barcelona as part of the Retail Futures Challenge will certainly put innovation centre stage where retailers need to see it.