Innovation: it's all the rage these days. From the likes of Elon Musk with his ground- breaking Tesla to 3D printers that actually regurgitate a finished dish from the raw ingredients, technology is marching at a frightening pace. Even the human side of innovation is set to break new ground with the imminent prospect of shop floor workers taking up board positions. At first glance, you could be mistaken for thinking that innovation is the exclusive playground of the rich kids - a long way from the make-ends-meet world of the independent speciality food retailer struggling to come up with a budget for staff welfare, let alone a drone delivery system. It's not surprising then that the idea of embracing innovation can be as daunting and confusing as its perceived accessibility. And even if there is a determination to embrace it - with so many directions run in - which way do you go?
Personally, I always think there's nothing like referring to a dictionary definition to get focused. It seems to strip things down and keeps it simple. According to Collins, "an innovation is a new thing or a new method of doing something". Brilliantly simple. It makes sense then that a few nifty side steps are always going to be preferable to trying to outrun the big boys in the same competition. In other words, step out of competing in the same race.
What new thing can be done that cannot be implemented by those e-commerce behemoths? It's time to play to strengths. There are two glaring differences between the e-commerce route and the retail outlet: personal interaction and sensory stimulation. Make no mistake, being able to engage in person, and the power of engaging with the senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste are a big deal. And given that we're talking here about the pleasure-giving side of the food and drink industry, that is one hell of a plus.
Continuing down the simple, logical path then, what new method of getting the customer to see, smell, taste and touch can be introduced, and furthermore, how can that be done through manipulating human interaction as oppose to leaving the customer to their own unpredictable devices? Luckily the independent retailer has three key elements at his or her disposal: the customer, the staff and the damn fine sexy product that reputation has been staked on. All of which can be supported and promoted by that very cheap, if not free digital tool box of social media and the mailing list.
According to a report in campaign.co.uk, Nathan Watts, Creative Director at retail and brand consultancy, Fitch, says retailers are starting to "gamify" their stores by "blurring the lines between retail and experience to make that a more fun experience". Furthermore, research conducted by Mindshare, stated that 83% of respondents to their 'Future of Retail' survey think stores are important because a customer can touch, feel and see products. Armed with this kind of information and referring back to our dictionary definition, innovation suddenly seems not only infinitely possible, but straightforward too.
The opportunities for seasonal tasting experiences or just simple in-store engagement offering products to the customer to touch, smell and taste are endless. The proprietor of my local fruit and veg store, more often than not delights in offering me a taste of his latest, new season line, always accompanied by a beaming smile of genuine flavour-fuelled excitement. It may be just a few almonds, olives or a couple of Medjool dates, but the impact is enormous. Why am I ever going to buy my fruit and veg anywhere else? Innovation really can be that simple.
Notching things up a level, a TV screen can project images or video footage of your far-flung coffee source - picking, processing and packaging in their spectacular mountain location. Site an open bag of beans on a table below the screen and customers will feel like they've been miraculously transported to the plantations themselves. These days, DIY videos as quicker and easier to put together than Ikea furniture. This is where email data capture can really deliver. Imagine a quick, punchy video of the asparagus harvest for example; close up shots of the new season produce being pulled straight from the ground and then received at the farm shop back door by excited staff. All this sent directly to your customers phone via an emailed newsletter.
Thankfully, this year's Farm Shop & Deli Show has left no stone unturned to bring you the brightest sparks in the business today to share their innovation secrets. Personally, I can't wait to welcome the indefatigable geniuses of innovation that are Steve and Dave Flynn AKA The Happy Pear to the live speaker stage. Roll on April!