How do you get people to innovate on merchandise

Taking a break from discussing marketing plans during a pandemic and instead answering a reader’s merchandise question.

In response to my recent comments that having innovative products was what mailers needed to survive, a reader emailed me with this question: “Certainly the only way to compete in today’s and tomorrow’s market is to avoid the commoditization of your products. You (and Kevin Hillstrom) are constantly preaching “new products” “new products” all the time and in case I haven’t mentioned it previously it was by reading both your blogs that we got rid of our printed catalog and focused on innovation. I owe you both. But here’s the question – How do you get people to actually innovate? Not talk about it, not have team-building offsite meetings about it, but actually figure out how to hire some imagination, and put it to work. Companies love to hire imaginative people but by and large, they don’t listen to them unless they are desperate. And even then…”

I agree with this reader that many people like to think they are imbued at birth with a talent for being “innovative”. But in my opinion, they are like the people that list “inspirational speaker” as a talent in their LinkedIn profile. Unless you are Martin Luther King or Winston Churchill, you probably shouldn’t claim that skill. Being inspirational, like being innovative, is in the eye of the beholder. Far fewer people possess either talent than those who believe they do.

I believe that you can get reasonably talented and disciplined merchants to be innovative because you already have all the tools and resources you need to do so. (I’ll come back to that in a minute). It is also essential that the merchants have some affinity with the product category. I have a nephew that is a mechanical engineer who can design new machine tools in his head. But I doubt he’s ever cooked a meal in his kitchen, so I’d never expect him to be “innovative” with kitchen utensils. Talent follows function.

But what is it you are expecting to accomplish with being innovative? Several years ago, I was hired to conduct a merchandise analysis and creative review of a gift catalog that sold in a variety of product categories. The prior year, they hit gold with a runaway product that was cute, but which also featured a risqué double entendre. They sold a boatload of them. They never mentioned this when they hired me – they simply said they needed merchandise help. I did my analysis, noted the success of that runaway product and made my recommendations, which didn’t seem to elicit much response when I presented them. Finally, someone said, “But you didn’t tell us how to find another hot seller like that one from last year”.

In too many catalogs, upper management expects merchants to be omnipotent soothsayers with a gut feeling for what your customers want, and what will be the next hot product. No one is satisfied with incremental improvements to existing products or product categories which raise productivity 10 per cent. No, they want another runaway bestseller that generates thousands of units shipped – oh, and it has to have great margin too! How often does that ever happen?

Innovation must have a springboard – something to kick-start the process. As I said previously, you already possess two tools that can be that springboard. First, you have your customers, and too few of you bother to ask them what they want. Second, you have existing products, the sales of which point toward other merchandise opportunities.

You’ve all seen the quote a thousand times before from Henry Ford who said that “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. But we are not talking about inventing here – we are talking about being innovative with merchandise. In cataloging and online activity, to me, that means an incremental improvement to existing products and product categories via the introduction of new products. It means using the information you have on existing products to identify new product opportunities.

So, let’s go back to the reader’s original question: is there a way to get people – particularly merchants – to be innovative, without making it a futile process that wastes everyone’s time?

I’m once again going to cite an example from my good friend Frank Oliver, who is now a semi-retired merchandise consultant. I’m sure some of you are getting tired of my frequent references to Frank, but he is one of the few merchants I have encountered in my career that was analytical – which probably stems from his training as an engineer. I first met Frank in 1989 when he was the buyer for the Brookstone Hard-To-Find-Tools catalog. The product story I’m citing below occurred when he was head of Product Design and Development at Gardener’s Supply.

Frank has always enjoyed making light of the fact that marketing people at catalog companies trade away their most valuable asset – the customer list – to not only other catalogs but to their closest competitors! Meanwhile, I always enjoyed “observing” that Frank continued to run the same products, often for years. Frank called these “Shameless Mail Order Runners”, the kind of products that never grew old, and were in constant demand.

A few years ago, I gave a presentation at a conference, where I called attention to the fact that Frank was still “running” with the garden trike, a product that originally ran in the Brookstone Tool catalog more than 30 years ago, and that he was still pushing the trike in the Gardener’s Supply catalog. I commented that we – catalogers collectively – were boring our customers to death by not introducing enough new products.

Well, word got back to Frank of my comments, and he sent me an email to “set the record straight”. There is a huge difference between the two carts. And that is the lesson here.

Frank sent out over 2,000 email surveys to past buyers of the trike, asking for their comments and suggestions on how to make it better. He based many questions on product reviews that customers had left on the GS website. He concentrated on comments from customers that gave the product a poor rating. Frank stated in his note to me “The results were a treasure trove of user-inspired recommendations. Rather than giving customers my version of a deluxe design, we took the most popular customer critiques and created a re-worked version to satisfy the user’s wishes. Bill, sorry to inform you, the customers are far from ‘bored to death’. Maybe we are boring to a marketing guy (who’s seen it all), but this refreshed design is performing better than ever for sales”.

Wow – I didn’t see that coming. Yes, there are products that some catalogers and some merchants keep in their catalogs far too long. Even though those products might still be selling, in my opinion, they communicate to the customer “that there is nothing new here”. You probably have some of those products in your catalog. (And, let’s not kid ourselves about those products where the merchants change vendors, or change colours, and add a new SKU number, and call it “NEW”. It is still the same product to the customer).

But what if you make the product better, especially if you make it better based on customer feedback? Then, as Frank did, you can add new life/new sales to a product. I see far too many instances where it is easier for the cataloger to abandon a product and test something new, rather than breathe new life into a product that has declined in performance.

Another outcome of this exercise is the entirely new product ideas that come from customer comments. Yes, I know Sir Isaac Newton developed the law of gravity and invented calculus while quarantined at home during a plague that hit London in 1665. Undoubtedly, many new products will result from people tinkering during this crisis as well. But day-in and day-out, great ideas – and certainly new product ideas – don’t come from people staring out the window with a blank slate. They come from using the products in question daily by the merchant and the customer.

In my opinion, it is also more difficult for product ideas and product innovations developed in this manner to be ignored or “die on the vine” because there is already a level of customer acceptance built-in. There is also a sense that the process has been “quantified” through research – it was not just pulled from the air based on the personal whim of a merchant, no matter how talented they may be.

This used to be the hallmark of catalog merchandising. It was those fiendishly ingenious things that merchants and catalog entrepreneurs did with products – old and new – that set catalogs apart. Brookstone and Sharper Image used to do it. I loved it when LL Bean introduced a plaid wool Maine Guide hunting shirt that was washable. Unfortunately, I didn’t love it enough to buy one during the one season they had it. Consequently, I still have my old one that requires dry-cleaning.

For most catalogs today, merchandise innovation has taken a back seat to marketing innovation – which will never win in the long run,

Frank ended his note to me with a final shot over the bow, “Just thank your lucky stars that I wasn’t in the audience at your presentation. Remember, it is not for us to say what product is tired or boring or over-used … it is the customer, that votes with their pocketbook every day.”

That is one way to be innovative in developing products. Next time I’ll discuss another method.

by Bill LaPierre, Datamann, USA

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