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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.

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Editor's pick technology

Neiman Marcus trials smart memory mirror – NRF Big Show


You might remember the Intel MemoMi mirror from the NRF Big Show in 2014 – a smart device for the fitting room that captures 10-second clips of shoppers in their new looks.

Using patented “perspective-distortion correction” technology, it shows 360-degree back and side views of each outfit, and “remembers” each of them so they can be reviewed from the mirror interface afterwards.

It was back again this year, and this time with Neiman Marcus signed as a partner.

The US department store is currently trialling the mirror in its Walnut Creek store in California, where it’s been receiving incredibly strong feedback, says Scott Emmons, enterprise architect within information services at the company’s innovation lab, also known as its iLab.

“We loved this because it can give an amazing experience for the customer as well as real insight into what she wants to buy,” he told me at the NRF show earlier this week. Indeed the benefit of the mirror for retailers is being able to gather data on things like demographics, body measurements and fit, as well as preferential styles and conversion rates on different pieces.

In an additional use for the mirror, Neiman Marcus also found its sales associates wanted to create an account where they can record videos of models in new looks and send them directly to shoppers to take a look at. Emmons says doing so is already leading to conversions, proving the device also has potential as a sales tool.

Neiman Marcus is planning to follow up on the pilot with two more stores in San Francisco and Dallas.

“We will spend a few weeks learning what’s working and what isn’t, and make a decision if it is to be a chain-wide roll out from there or not. I’m pushing for it to be that; it’s a really exciting project,” said Emmons.

According to WWD, Neiman Marcus is also running another test in a number of stores with Apple iBeacon technology, enabling shoppers to receive notifications on their mobile devices regarding discount promotions, new product arrivals, designer appearances and other special events.

Both technology introductions at Neiman Marcus are part of a wider trend evident at NRF’s Big Show towards the connected store or the internet of things. Alongside beacons and smart fixtures were insights on clienteling solutions, analytics and a series of innovations spanning touchless checkouts to connected fitting rooms.