Where are the Innovation Hot Spots for Retailers?

Where are the Innovation Hot Spots for Retailers?
Amazon was recognized for its recent innovation, but other retailers missed the mark.

At a time when retailers are eager to be seen as innovative, a new ranking from Fast Company shows they aren't. In fact, the only retailer to appear on Fast Company's second annual rankings of the Best Workplaces for Innovation was Amazon.

Seattle-based Amazon came in at No. 18, and had the highest ranking of any U.S.-based retailer — indeed, the company represents the only clear-cut U.S. retailer on the list. That’s notable, given that the ongoing rise of online retail and mobile commerce, combined with the troubles caused by the pandemic, have put increasing pressure on U.S. retailers to innovate.

In general, companies had to apply to Fast Company to be considered for inclusion on the list, and 865 businesses and organizations did. The top spot went to Alsac/St. Jude, a nonprofit based in Memphis, Tennessee, that funds efforts to fight childhood cancer.

The absences, however, are as interesting as the winners, at least when it comes to retail. There is no Walmart nor Target, for instance — chains that have fostered a culture of innovation and have the money to fuel sustained innovation efforts.

In recent days, Bentonville, Arkansas-based Walmart has launched a new voice-assisted mobile app designed to help employees provider better customer service. Just a few weeks ago, Target CEO Brian Cornell talked about how the immediate concerns of the pandemic have led to more improvisation and different types of planning on the part of retail leaders — other ways the outbreak is influencing retail innovation efforts.

As for the world of food retail, certain companies have embraced pandemic realities to create notable innovations in regard to store experiences, business models, product deliveries and other areas. All that is happening as new and updated health care services become a bigger part of the overall retail experience, including for food.

The new list also includes various players in digital and so-called alternative payments — a signal of how vital innovation in payments have become as shoppers and retailers embrace digital commerce and learn how to better integrate transactions into the overall consumer experience.

Even though the new Fast Company list was light on U.S. retailers, it did contain other businesses that play major and increasing roles in commerce. Additionally, the reasons that those companies were praised could inspire other innovations, including in the retail world.

Those companies include:

  • Alibaba, No. 7, where “small-team” innovation impressed the Fast Company judges.
  • Nestlé USA, No. 28, which operates an “open channel initiative (that) lets any employee submit product ideas, and, if selected, receive training to launch products.”
  • Etsy, No. 48, which was able to “shift 15% its engineering headcount to customer experience and innovation” after putting its data in the cloud.
  • PayPal, No. 58, whose innovative culture has produced such a product as a “credit card reader made of ocean plastic.”
  • Chobani, No. 67, which has opened a 15,000-square-foot Innovation and Community Center at its Idaho campus.
  • PespicCo, No. 70, where employees are encouraged to suggest and vote on innovation ideas, with the winning team getting to donate $50,000 to a charity of its choice.
  • Square, No. 88, where a company hackathon produced Square Capital, a flexible loan product.
  • Shopify, No. 96, which offers its employees confidential career counseling — 6,000 such sessions took place last year.  
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