Retail innovators: Clarks' Chris Towns

Since first meeting him during a Palm Vein Scanning project, I was fascinated by Clarks' innovations manager Chris Towns' approach to innovation in the retail market. When the opportunity arose to undertake a series of interviews he was a natural choice as a first subject. I went to see him inside the very impressive creative  development centre in Street to talk to him.

David Lowrence (DL): Hi Chris. To open at the beginning, how and when did you start delivering innovations into retail?

Chris Towns (CT): Interesting question, I seem to have fallen into the retail arena via the various technology advances in consumer products. My job as head of innovation is all about product enhancement; it's about understanding, filtering and distilling social insight and trends, it's about our customers and their journeys with us. It's this understanding that has led me to deliver innovation in our retail space.

DL: So where did you start and what did you do before?

CT: My background was as a trained cabinetmaker, taking commissions for individual designs. I then went on to study and gain a degree as a product designer. This eventually led me into a career with Clarks as a product designer, bringing a very different approach to designing footwear for the children's market. Soon after this, I was asked to set up and lead a team of product designers exploring the many facets of beneficial product enhancement.

DL: So in that 15 years how have you seen both Clarks and the market change?

CT: The biggest changes have occurred in the last five or six years since the launch of Apple's iPad, which completely revolutionised the technology landscape for both the consumer and the retail space.

I think the capability of devices that have the ability to connect on all levels, leads us to understand more than ever before the connections that can be made through a deeper understanding of both technology and social behaviours. Indeed, there is a whole world of opportunity ahead of us as we learn more about the technology landscape and its impact.

DL: What do you regard as your biggest achievement?

CT: My biggest and most proud achievement to date is the iPad foot gauge! The idea came from an internal conversation around new markets, the ability to excite and provide a unique product experience that could set us apart from the competition.

There was no budget set and no time frame, it was just one of those amazing moments where a seed of an idea started. As the hype around the forthcoming iPad launch from Apple started to build, the realisation that this multi-million-pound development could actually be our starting point to measure feet dawned.

At that point, I picked up the phone to our design and development partners Designworks (who bolt seamlessly onto my team) to discuss how we could capture and measure feet accurately using the device.

As we worked through all the prototypes and ideas we ensured we understood not only our retail teams’ and staff requirements, but the need to make this an enjoyable interactive experience for our consumer. We managed to encapsulate this feedback into the final design, bringing all the various interlinked technologies and manufacturing processes to a single point where it was ready to be rolled out to all our retail outlets. As part of the package of work, we also designed how the product would integrate into the interior of the store, providing a complete end-to- end solution.

It was extremely satisfying to get the feedback we had hoped for; both staff and our consumers absolutely loved what we had created. To top it all, we then found out that our foot gauge had also been recognised externally for its outstanding design credentials as well as providing a unique and complete service by winning the international IF Design award and other accolades.

DL: So looking at innovation across your peer organisations and other companies what is the innovation you most admire?

CT: Having just talked about Apple, they always appear to be an obvious contender, as they offer a seamless consumer journey, ticking all the boxes on all fronts all of the time. Organisations like Apple, develop an in-depth understanding of the consumer, allowing innovation to capitalise on that understanding.

The two organisations that I feel do this well are Nespresso and Tesla.  Nespresso, the way in which it has understood and developed that deep understanding, how it has allowed technology to seamlessly integrate and improve consumer engagement. The boutique interior of the physical stores allows you to feel, smell and really touch the brand. Combine that with the personalised customer service and it's a really powerful piece of innovation and brand engagement.

On the other hand, Tesla has used raw technology innovation to eliminate a whole layer of the supply chain, turning accepted wisdom around car ownership upside down, and delivering a personalised experience like no other seen in the car industry to date. They have developed a brand experience that is both unique and extremely exciting.

DL: Having looked at the successes, in which areas of retail do you think there is most room for improvement?

CT: I believe that our staff offer unrivalled customer service; the time we spend with our customers to understand their needs, our staff's ability to assess and prescribe the right shoes for the right feet, insuring the best possible fitting shoes. Where we can improve with technology, is at our busiest times, (for example during back-to-school) we have periods where inevitably we have waiting times. This is largely due to the overwhelming demand on our stores. It's the ability to provide our unrivalled service with no queuing or waiting times, that could be enhanced with technology.

DL: As an innovation leader in your organisation – what is the ratio of pass to fail in the projects you undertake  

CT: My challenge is to provide many more solutions than there are opportunities, there are literally cupboards and databases full of fantastic product solutions for those challenges that aren't yet apparent.

To answer the question of ratios, our passes are probably running at about 20% with pending solutions at around 80%. Clearly, the marketplace and rapid advances in technologies mean that we are continually striving to understand what it is we need to provide, ahead of the need or desire of the consumer.

DL: I used to get irritated when organisations asked me to "bring them some innovation" as I don't believe innovation is something you can take off the shelf – How do you go about the process of innovation in Clarks?  Do you have a fixed process that you go through or is it 50% seat of the pants and 50% detailed monitoring of projects?

CT: In my view, process and innovation never sit well together, although we do need a methodology/journey to underpin it. It’s an ability to predict and solve challenges with ground-breaking solutions, by understanding and filtering consumer insight and translating social trends into tangible ‘must have’ solutions. Although there is no set formula, the journey of innovations relies on these principles along with a deep knowledge base of the technology landscape.

The truly exciting moments are when you know you have a solution that not only aligns with the business strategy, but also underlines that we have understood where the consumer is going by providing solutions and product enhancements ahead of the market.

DL: If you had the power, what would be your manifesto for retail?

CT: The journey. To re-align all the requirements of how today’s consumer wants to shop ‘tomorrow’ integrating a seamless transition of technologies to enable a personalised service.

DL: Thanks Chis – it's been a pleasure talking to you.

David Lowrence is a retail IT consultant with over 30 years' experience working in retail. He is founder of the consultancy Gatherum, and works with clients across the retail and hospitality sectors on developing IT strategy.

Over the coming months, Essential Retail will be using extracts from his blogs, which cover technology and the wider retail industry. He will also be conducting a series of interviews with retail's innovators.

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