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RBTE 2017: Innovation involves improving existing practices and scouting out future trends

A panel of retailers told the audience at RBTE today that the best way to approach innovation is to improve the practices already in place whilst also giving staff the freedom to look outside the business for emerging trends and technologies.

Alexander Allen, director of strategy and business development at Maplin, said: "Owners of all parts of the business have a role to play in innovation. But it should not be purely business-led. If you only look at what's happening today then you'll miss what's accessible tomorrow. Innovation needs to run throughout the business but you also need to be proactive about scanning outside for emerging trends."

The external element can be especially tough to deliver because it frequently leads to serious disruption to existing business practices and roles.

Steve Moore, director of Connected Home at Dixons Carphone, said: "Head office focuses on the day job of selling stuff so they are not the right people to think of [future] innovations. It's difficult to disrupt the business this way. We find a lot of our store colleagues and customers are the people with ideas for innovation rather than [suggestions for] improvements to the existing business."

Like an increasing number of retailers, River Island's head of purchasing, Martin Goldstein, said his business had felt the need to set up an office in the technology-rich area of Shoreditch in London to help attract and retain the required calibre of people to initiate innovation through the business.

Driving innovation is absolutely necessary today, partly because of the changing pace of digitally-driven change that is now hitting the retail industry.

Gemma Jennings, senior manager of strategy at John Lewis, said: "The change is being led by Amazon and the pure-plays. It's now about keeping up." But it is not just about technology though, with Jennings adding that innovation also needs to feed into the products retailers sell, especially as this is an increasingly crucial point of differentiation.