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Retailers are holding back real innovation, reveals departing leader of Neiman Marcus iLab

The head of the Neiman Marcus iLab, one of most established retail innovation programs in the world, no longer believes internal teams can deliver the results needed to drive the industry forward.

Incubation units dedicated to innovation through technology are held back by the culture of the legacy organizations in which they have been built, and the cumbersome procurement processes that surround them, Scott Emmons highlights.

Emmons is backing his statement by departing the lab he founded in 2012 to take up a new position as Chief Technology Officer at TheCurrent Global, a consultancy transforming how fashion and retail brands intersect with technology.

“Corporate innovation programs seem to start strong and sharp, but over time, they are devoured and diminished by surrounding day-to-day business processes, making it nearly impossible to maintain momentum. It’s one thing to talk to agility and risk, but when you’re not built for either, measured by cost reductions and operating within a silo, results tend only to be incremental. It’s time for that to change. For fashion and retail brands to succeed, they need to shift from an internally driven culture to one focused on open innovation with the world’s top technology and talent,” says Emmons.

The move marks a new era for retail innovation. Traditional businesses introduced internal innovation teams at a time when digital transformation was the primary goal. Increased competition from nimble digital players, or those willing and able to take risk, resulted in a need for experimentation.

The promise of these incubation units was around driving change from an operations, marketing and corporate culture standpoint in the context of toughening market conditions and ever-increasing consumer expectations. But with the majority of retailers focused on solving and building solutions internally – instantly limiting them on resource and breadth of expertise – successful results have been relatively sporadic.

Neiman Marcus has always been a frontrunner in the retail innovation space, largely thanks to the work Emmons has done. This has included a memory mirror, 4K touch table lookbooks, store associate IOT communicators, intelligent mobile phone charging stations and new fitting room technology.

But Emmons now believes corporate culture and processes are counterproductive to recruiting, onboarding and maintaining relationships with startups or innovative solution providers. He joins TheCurrent Global to focus on that aim alongside founders Liz Bacelar, Chief Executive Officer, and Rachel Arthur, Chief Innovation Officer. Founded in 2017, TheCurrent Global has worked with clients including Gucci, Burberry, Tiffany & Co, Mulberry, Shiseido, Swarovski, LVMH and the British Fashion Council to bring open innovation and actionable insights to fashion and retail brands.

“I am honored to join the team at TheCurrent Global to integrate top technology solutions from around the world into a multitude of retail and brand partners. This methodology is what the industry needs – an agile workforce that can act as an extension of your team,” says Emmons.

Liz Bacelar, CEO, TheCurrent Global, comments: “Real innovation can only happen today by tackling problems in a new way. We all know it is insanity to expect different results using the same approaches. With the help of outside experts, businesses can achieve growth in a new way, with both speed and efficiency. What TheCurrent Global brings is the ability to take the incredible work Scott has done at Neiman Marcus and take it to CEOs who want to lead the innovation conversation. We do that by relying on our industry expertise and access to an ecosystem of thousands of curated startups, technologies and entrepreneurs from around the world.”

UPDATE: Emmons’ story has hit headlines this week, including in WWD, The Business of Fashion, Glossy, Fashion United and more. Before this amazing press coverage, we sat down with him for our Innovators podcast to discuss his reasons for leaving Neiman Marcus, and exactly what he’s going to bring to TheCurrent Global. You can listen to it here or via the links below.

Listen here: Apple Podcasts | Android | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | RSS

e-commerce technology

Amazon’s CTO on how customer centricity drives innovation

Amazon CTO Werner Vogels
Amazon CTO Werner Vogels

Amazon’s goal is to be the most customer-centric company on earth, said its chief technology officer, Werner Vogels, on stage at the WIRED Smarter conference in London yesterday.

“Focusing on the customer gives direction to our innovations,” he explained.

The business is mandated to always start from the customer and work backwards, including by writing a press release and a basic FAQ of what the end product or service will look like, before beginning to build it. Within that will always be why said focus is useful for the customer, Vogels noted, even if the customer today wouldn’t yet know it for themselves.

“We always think of innovation being this glitzy new stuff, but [we’re focused on] what the things are that our customers will all love, and love forever,” he emphasized. “We need to know that what we are building is exactly what they want.”

Keywords like convenience and price always therefore come into the decision making, he explained. “No one 10 years from now will say, ‘Oh I wish Amazon would be more expensive’.”

To do this, Vogels said the most important part of the internal culture at Amazon is about a willingness to continuously experiment.

“Decisions are most often two-way doors – you can mostly always back out again, but if you wait too long the opportunity might have already passed,” he noted. He talked to the idea of culture, learning from doing, taking risks, failing fast and, through relentless measurement, taking something from each step along the way as a result.

On that basis, he referenced a letter from Amazon founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, written to shareholders in 1997, that reads: “We will make bold rather than timid investment decisions where we see a sufficient probability of gaining market leadership advantages. Some of these investments will pay off, others will not, and we will have learned another valuable lesson in either case.”

As a recent example, with something like its voice technology, Amazon Alexa, the company was making a big bet, but it knew if the seed was going to grow it would make a big impact, Vogels explained. He referenced the flurry of new devices recently released by Amazon to bring this further into people’s homes, including a microwave and a smart plug.

“At Amazon we are strong believers that if we stop innovating, we will be dead in five to 10 years,” he added.

How are you thinking about innovation? We’re all about helping you build innovative integrations and experiences. TheCurrent is a consultancy transforming how fashion, beauty and consumer retail brands intersect with technology, powered by a network of top startups. Get in touch to learn more.