20 ideas worth stealing for 2018

Use the word “steal” around retail employees, and you likely won’t land any fans.

Talk about stealing innovative concepts and insight, however, and you might just become MVP.

Once again, STORES magazine sets the year off right with a tone of creativity, bold ventures and sheer chutzpah. Fair warning: The annual list of “ideas worth stealing” is always a popular read. So gather up that inspiration now to turn into your own home run. Others will be clamoring to reach the next base right behind you.

Disruption comes from outside

In another indication that the fashion industry is starting to confront the waste created by clothing, Petit Pli has introduced a line of durable outwear for children that grows right along with them. Children change sizes seven times in their first two years of life, the company says, creating a lot of wasted clothing.

Aimed at children ages 6 months to 3 years, Petit Pli’s heavily pleated design allows garments to stretch as the wearer grows; it received the James Dyson Award for student designers in 2017.

In 2016, Newsweek blamed fast fashion for creating “an environmental crisis,” sharing statistics to back it up: Americans discard 80 pounds of clothing per person annually; the Environmental Protection Agency says diverting these into recycling would be the equivalent of taking 7.3 million cars off the road.

Children have long been purveyors of fast fashion, just by how quickly they grow. While Petit Pli isn’t cheap, if it cuts down on the need to buy outerwear seven times over a two-year period, the value certainly will be there.
Its business model also offers something worth watching: By its very design, Petit Pli has removed the ability to sell its product multiple times. An aeronautical engineer is behind this potential fashion revolution, proving that disruptors often appear from the outside. — S.S.

Use creative tech to engage and delight customers

What’s a smile worth? KPRO, a KFC offshoot in China, began offering a “Smile to Pay” terminal in the fall that allows users to sign in to their Alipay account through a face scan. Alipay is China’s leading third-party mobile and online payment platform.

The implementation began with a new KPRO restaurant in Hangzhou, billed as the “first commercial application of the facial recognition payment technology globally.”

“Elevating the customer experience through new design, flavors and technologies has always been central to our approach at KFC in China,” Johnson Huang, general manager of KFC, says in a statement.

The menu includes seasonal produce, made-to-order salads and paninis, craft beer and premium ice cream; an open-kitchen layout allows customers to see meals being made.

Aimed squarely at China’s “burgeoning population of urban professionals,” tech is a big part of the picture: The payment system uses a multi-step process, including both the facial scan and entry of a mobile phone number. Customers order at digital kiosks or via mobile phones and QR codes.

Yum! Brands holds rights to KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell in mainland China. KFC is China’s leading quick-service restaurant, and Pizza Hut is the leading casual dining brand in China. As for Taco Bell, it opened its first restaurant in China in late 2016. — F.S.

Taking a stand can draw new fans

The next time a colleague tells you a campaign is “too risky,” show them what German supermarket Edeka did in its Hamburg store.

Over the last decade, Hamburg has seen several major riots, all related to xenophobia — in 2008, right-wing and left-wing extremists clashed violently, and Hamburg has been home to demonstrations on both sides of the issue in the years since, including a 2015 rally that drew 14,000.

It was in this powder keg that Edeka took a stand. An August campaign removed all foreign products from its stores, replacing them with signs such as “Our selection now knows borders” and “This shelf is pretty boring without diversity.”

It was a risky move: As if removing products from shelves wasn’t dicey enough from a profit standpoint, restricting consumers’ choices certainly makes a point.

Some U.S. companies have found that taking a stand has negatively impacted their bottom lines — or at least drew some Twitter flares — though staying silent on important issues also has its risks.

Enso’s World Value Index says brands that promote “meaning” did better with millennials, a group expected to control $24 trillion dollars by 2020. Taking a stand is a chance, but one that just might pay off. — S.S.

Recognize the opportunity in ignored markets

Two out of three women in the United States are size 14 and above, and a 2016 study showed the average woman in the U.S. was actually closer to a 16/18. Plus size is growing faster than the overall apparel industry, yet there has long been a disconnect between fashion and plus size.

theCURVYcon is out to change all of that. The two-day event, timed in conjunction with New York Fashion Week for the first time, included a keynote address from “This is Us” actress Chrissy Metz and panels focused on body acceptance and representation in fashion.

Retailers and designers representing ModCloth, Lane Bryant, Target and Macy’s were in attendance; plus-size styling service Dia&Co provided daily fashion shows, and attendees could try on clothes at a pop-up shop.
Organizers of the event, the brainchild of fashion bloggers Chastity Garner Valentine and CeCe Olisa, say they are looking for bigger space in 2018 and hope to triple the number of attendees.

There’s clearly a demand for plus-size fashion — with an emphasis on the latter word. Retailers would be wise to pay attention to this important group. — S.S.

Get those shoppers inspired

What retailer hasn’t wished it could get inside the heads of consumers?

A pop-up experience last fall from eBay and London’s Saatchi Art came close. Guests at “The Art of Shopping” donned an electroencephalogram headband and walked through an art-filled gallery while the tech, which monitors electrical activity in the brain, tracked moments of inspiration — which was then used to create personal shopping carts based on subconscious preference.

Guests were asked to stand in front of 10 pieces of art they liked best for at least 20 seconds. The artwork included paintings, sculptures and installations chosen by Rebecca Wilson, chief curator of Saatchi Art. Rob Hattrell, vice president of eBay UK, told British architecture and design magazine Dezeen that the technology was “the future of shopping.”

“Shopping has always been intensely personal,” he says. “It’s an expression of what makes you, you.”
The event also highlighted different kinds of shoppers: those who enjoy looking for unique things and those who buy mainly to be like others, dubbed “shop-y-cats” by eBay UK.

“We created an event to take shop-y-cats out of their comfort zone, into the inspiration zone, to shop more personally,” says Julia Hutton-Potts, eBay UK communications director.

Inspired shoppers, according to eBay, “embrace a more intuitive approach, purchasing unique things they truly want as an expression of their individuality.” — F.S.

Authenticity at every turn

New York-based food delivery service Tyme focuses on food without preservatives, additives or chemicals. It promotes vegan meals, but rather than pursue the niche of full-time vegans — estimated at about 6 percent of the U.S. population in 2017 — Tyme promotes a green-friendly, part-time vegan lifestyle.

“Most of us love meat, but eating too much of it is harmful for us and the planet,” the website says. “Plant-based food is the future. But let’s be honest, most ‘healthy, natural, vegan’ food can taste a little too … raw.”

The food comes in flavors like soba, Mexican, Indian and Italian, but good taste is only one aspect of the service. Packaging is designed to be durable with less material; lids include nutritional information in an easy-to-read format. Shoppers are encouraged to return empty containers for $1 off their next item, and forks and leftover food are composted.

Tyme showcases the importance of knowing everything that’s meaningful to niche customers — and ensuring that every brand touchpoint backs up that understanding. — S.S.

Expand the idea of “mainstream”

There it is on the ASOS website: liquid under-eye concealer, liquid foundation and bronzer, right next to an angled brow and beard filler brush from luxury male beauty and grooming brand MMUK MAN. The line also includes “manscara” and “guyliner.”

MMUK MAN is not new — the brand was founded in 2012 — and, frankly, neither is the idea of men in makeup. But the brand’s placement with ASOS is a major move into the mainstream.

ASOS also sells prestige makeup for women, including brands such as NARS, Benefit and Stila; last fall, the London-based fashion and beauty retailer introduced its own line, ASOS Makeup.

MMUK MAN joins numerous other men’s grooming products already in the offering. A 2013 survey of 1,000 U.S. and U.K. adults conducted by marketing communications company J. Walter Thompson Intelligence showed that 9 percent of the men polled wore foundation, 10 percent concealer and 11 percent bronzer. Overall, more than half used skin care products like moisturizer and eye cream.

It’s unclear if these men were borrowing such items from the women in their lives or buying them themselves. Considering how gender lines continue to blur in popular culture, it wouldn’t be too surprising if others follow ASOS into the mainstream. — F.S.

Widen the audience with new technologies

Anyone who’s ever used subtitles — regardless of reason — knows they draw attention away from the faces of the performers. Screens often are set near the action, convenient for those in need, but in the way of those who aren’t.

The National Theatre in London’s pilot system for deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons uses Epson augmented reality glasses that display floating subtitles of what’s happening onstage. They’re available for all performances, rather than just a select few, and allow users to stay completely engaged in the action. Users can adjust the color, font size and position of the text using a handheld remote.

The theatre — whose repertoire runs from Shakespeare to contemporary works — is one of the U.K.’s largest publicly funded performing arts venues and recently went through a $124 million refurbishment and expansion.

The glasses are far from its first foray into digital. The National Theatre regularly streams performances to U.K. schoolchildren, in addition to presenting an ever-growing library of podcasts, videos, digital exhibits and more.

The glasses seem a logical next step — especially for a theatre that already offers audio-described and signed performances, touch tours and relaxed performances for those with learning, sensory or communication disorders.

Jonathan Suffolk, the theatre’s technical director, told the BBC that the glasses would be available for a yearlong trial. Some users have reported that the glasses were a bit cumbersome, but they’re a creative and unique solution all the same. — F.S.

Celebrity tie-ins still work

German grocer Lidl’s fashion collaboration with supermodel Heidi Klum was an instant hit. Aligning with the grocer’s mission of quality at a cheaper price, everything in the collection was priced between $6.99 and $29.99 and sold at the rate of 106 items per minute in the U.K.

Thanks to the supermodel’s star power, the line — and, by extension, the grocery chain — got some pretty good press in the U.S., landing in People, Business Insider and Marie Claire. It was good publicity, especially given that the retailer did not really wow consumers in its first six months in the U.S. Dow Jones Newswires reported in October that the chain had lured customers away from competitors, but wasn’t able to sustain it. Still, Lidl continues its expansion throughout the Eastern Seaboard.

Whether Heidi Klum can help draw attention to Lidl in the long run remains to be seen — the company says it has plans for periodic “Fashion Weeks” throughout the year — but aligning with a supermodel certainly enhances its tagline of “rethink grocery.” — S.S.

The sharing economy continues to expand

Uber. Airbnb. Rent the Runway. DSW? It could happen. The shoe retailer is moving shoe rentals beyond the bowling alley.

Why not? It’s frustrating to buy a pair of shoes and then get to the gym or the jobsite — or just stand in them for 30 minutes at a wedding — and suddenly find they pinch and hurt.

DSW is evaluating the concept, among others, in 2018; physical stores are undergoing a makeover, too, returning to the company’s warehouse roots. But the shoe rental service — if adopted — shows the most potential to be a disruptor.

Places like Rent the Runway have proven consumers are OK with borrowing someone else’s clothes. Will shoes work? There is such a personalized fit — and the yet-unanswered question of whether consumers want to put their feet where someone else’s stinky toes might have been.

There are logistical challenges, too. How many pairs and what styles need to be available? What is the cost-per-wear? If DSW can figure all of that out — and how to overcome the cleanliness factor — consumers might be one step closer to never owning anything. — S.S.

Consider the benefits of cashless

Salad superstar Sweetgreen stopped accepting cash in select stores about a year ago, touting faster service for customers, greater safety for employees and reduced theft. There are other benefits, too, including the ability to gather customer data through digital payments.

People considered it a “hare-brained idea” at first, says Jonathan Neman, co-founder and co-CEO, but he pronounced it “so far, so good” last fall.

Speaking at Code Commerce in September, Neman reiterated the benefits of safety and speed, and noted that the move had not affected the company’s bottom line.

Those first out of the gate typically are the first to come upon hurdles. Sweetgreen is no different in this; other retailers interested in committing to cash-free commerce would do well to take note of how it handles the challenges. Sweetgreen’s policy, Fortune magazine reported, does raise “delicate issues about excluding certain groups of people — particularly seniors or low-income people who use only cash — from its stores.”

Some simply prefer to use cash for reasons like budgeting and anonymity, though their numbers are dwindling. A 2017 U.S. Bank survey reported that 50 percent of respondents carry cash with them less than half the time.

Data website MarketingCharts reported in 2016 that those ages 18 to 34 are 13 percent less likely to pay with cash than older generations, and Gallup says 62 percent of American adults believe the country will be cashless within their lifetime. — F.S.

Immersive experience: the sequel

Everyone wants to be the star of the show. At Disney’s new Star Wars-themed resort and theme park, they can be. The hotel will be an immersive experience, with an interior crafted to resemble a spaceship and each guest given a part to play. The staff will all be in character, further driving the adventure.

“From the second you arrive, you will become a part of a Star Wars story,” says Bob Chapek, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, in a statement. “It is 100 percent immersive, and the story will touch every single minute of your day, and it will culminate in a unique journey for every person who visits.”

There is currently no estimate as to when the resort will open, but it amps up the expectation for immersive experiences everywhere. Immersive experiences have been all the rage in marketing for the past few years; the Overlook Film Festival last year included an immersive horror film experience.

It’s not hard to see how this could transform retail, just as retailers have begun to get a handle on customer experience. Savvy companies will watch the entertainment realm and start to discuss how this desire to be involved — as opposed to just watching — can be implemented in retail. — S.S.

Follow the customer to urban areas

All eyes on Boston for a new idea of a neighborhood “anchor”: The Boston Globe tells of a wave of grocery stores coming to housing developments around the region.

“From the South End to Waltham, builders looking to fill their ground floors with businesses that double as amenities are teaming up with grocers who want easy access to an upscale clientele,” the news outlet reported. “The result: A new hybrid, something between the corner grocers of old Boston and the vast supermarkets of suburbia.”

Recent groceries include offerings from Roche Bros., Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market, in addition to Stop & Shop’s bfresh division. Others in the planning stages of urban/neighborhood stores include Star Market, Stop & Shop and Market Basket.

These grocers are not just putting their traditional models in these spaces, but rather seeking differentiation and innovation. With Trader Joe’s, extra insulation was added to lessen the noise for residents above, and a loading dock and dedicated elevator provide access to and from the building garages.

“If a grocer like Whole Foods believes in a location, it’s going to be a pretty good location from a high-end demographic standpoint,” Travis D’Amato, a broker at real estate firm JLL, told the Globe. “That’s generally what an apartment building owner wants, too. There are some obvious synergies.” — F.S.

Partnerships don’t have to make sense

Hy-Vee announced two bold strategic partnerships last year. The Iowa-based grocery chain will build, own and operate 26 Wahlburgers — doubling the chain’s size in one fell swoop — and begin offering nutritional services for Orangetheory Fitness members and locations in or near stores.

Wahlburgers is the family burger joint run by Paul Wahlberg, older brother to former New Kid on the Block Donnie and rapper-turned-actor Mark. All three brothers appear in an A&E reality series about the restaurant.

Orangetheory Fitness, meanwhile, offers group training in 750 studios nationwide and is on track to triple in the next two years.

The partnerships “represent a bold step to deliberately evolve our business to meet the change in our customers’ lifestyles and spending habits,” says Hy-Vee Chairman, CEO and President Randy Edeker.

Grocery has been feeling the pinch as meals eaten outside the home surpassed meals in the home last year. Millennials spend 44 percent of their food dollars annually on eating out, according to the Food Institute’s analysis of the USDA food expenditure data from 2014.

Partnerships with a burger chain and fitness facility showcase the value of innovative alliances, giving customers a chance to work off that triple burger with a side of mac and cheese in advance. They might just grab some milk and bread while they’re at it. — S.S.

Instant gratification: More important than ever

Consumers just don’t want to wait. They expect groceries delivered within two hours, appliances and power tools the next day. Why should they wait a month for custom-designed clothing?

Vans and Nike have capitalized on the merger of trends and technology to allow customers to design their own products. The two shoe companies are not alone: Shoes of Prey allows shoppers to design their own heels; Adidas customers can select any number of color combinations and personalize with their name imprinted on the sock liner. In both cases, however, shoppers must wait weeks for the custom products to arrive.

As technology has improved, Vans and Nike have taken advantage. Shoes can now be made in mere minutes: Nike does it in 90 minutes while Vans can do it in 15.

Customization has appeal, particularly for millennials. According to a recent Y Pulse survey, 75 percent of those ages 13-34 say they are interested in buying products customized to their tastes, while 40 percent say they have created custom products. — S.S.

Explore opportunities in AI

Looking for just the right vacation spot? Try adding a little artificial intelligence. Global hotel search platform Trivago has acquired the assets of machine learning travel startup Tripl to “enhance trivago’s product with personalization technology which uses both big data and a customer-centric approach.”

Tripl — which won ITB’s Start-Ups Battle 2016 — developed an algorithm that helps tailor recommendations by identifying trends in users’ social media activities and making comparisons with “in-app data of like-minded users.”

“When visiting a restaurant, I prefer those with few hand-picked entries on the menu, that exactly match my taste,” says Tripl algorithm creator Hendrik Kleinwächter. “That is what I believe a modern travel website should look like. There are billions of combinations, but the user is really only interested in the most relevant ones.”
Rolf Schrömgens, founder and CEO of Trivago, says the company’s competitive advantage is the speed of learning. “We have always focused on machine learning and the area of semantic analysis,” he says. “Tripl’s personalization technology is unique and individual in its approach, putting us one step closer toward bringing each traveler into their ideal hotel.”

Trivago offered access to more than 1.8 million hotels in more than 190 countries as of last summer, and can be accessed globally through 55 localized websites and apps in 33 languages. — F.S.

Marketing to millennials: Focus on changing the world

If it seems a lot of these steal-worthy ideas are focused on millennial trends, it’s for good reason. According to spending data from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, millennials spend more of their income on electronics, hobbies and clothing than any other demographic group — but marketers must adapt to reach them.

Bobby Jones, chief marketing officer at Peace First, and Afdhel Aziz, marketing strategist and speaker, provide a road map in their new book, “Good Is the New Cool.”

“Media-savvy millennials, and their younger Gen Z counterparts, no longer trust advertising, and they demand increased social responsibility from their brands — while still insisting on cutting-edge products with on-trend design,” the authors says. “As always, brands need to be cool — but now they need to be good, too.”

Focusing on millennials as citizens — not consumers — will help, and taking a stand on social issues will resonate with this group.

The book includes interviews from next-generation marketers, social entrepreneurs and brand leaders like Zappos and The Honest Company as well those who work with trendsetting artists like Lady Gaga and Pharrell.

“We wrote this book because we were at the point of becoming jaded and disillusioned with marketing; we wanted to find a way to marry our knowledge and experience of working with brands and pop culture, with our desire to help companies succeed by ‘making money by doing more good,’” the authors says. — S.S.

Teach millennials and win

Another thought about millennials — and a significant one at that.

The biggest single age cohort in the country — all 4.8 million of them — is 26 years old. The challenge is that 26, and the ages slightly older and younger, don’t look a whole lot like they used to.

Along with the generation’s much-recounted “delayed adulthood,” it appears there’s been some delayed development of basic skills as well, and a wave of companies want to be resources of information instead of just sources for products.

Brands including The Home Depot, Procter & Gamble, West Elm and Sherwin-Williams are offering classes and online tutorials to teach such skills as using a tape measure, mopping floors and mowing lawns.

It would be worth giving some thought to what else millennials might not know how to do — and how to incorporate those learnings into company offerings in a non-condescending way.

No doubt this is how meal kit delivery became a $2.2 billion and growing industry, as Chicago-based food industry consulting firm Pentallect reported in 2017. But even there, it wasn’t supermarkets or food retailers that invented that trend.

Savvy retailers who identify and act on the need can be the winners. Consider the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, which offers gardening lessons for young homeowners that cover basic tips — like making sure plants receive sunlight.

“These are simple things we wouldn’t have really thought to do or needed to do 15 to 20 years ago,” Jim King, senior vice president of corporate affairs for Scotts, told the Wall Street Journal. “But this is a group who may not have grown up putting their hands in the dirt growing their vegetable garden in mom and dad’s backyard.” — F.S.

Seek unique collaboration with startups

As beauty giant L’Oreal continues to grow its digital impact with tech-savvy services, it is launching a program of startup collaborations focused mainly on beauty tech and digital native beauty startups.

L’Oreal and Station F will run a “global beauty accelerator” in Station F’s 366,000-square-foot Paris campus. The L’Oreal beauty accelerator will welcome “high-potential early-stage” startups which will receive an onboarding period, the creation of proof of concepts, scaling through L’Oreal’s worldwide network and a summary of key learnings.

The company is also working with London-based digital accelerator and incubator Founders Factory.

“We believe that innovation will be key to identify new disruptive ideas and co-develop new services to meet the aspirations of our consumers,” says Lubomira Rochet, L’Oreal’s chief digital officer, in a prepared statement.

Founders Factory’s involvement will include “growth, product, design, technology, AI, data science, marketing, partnerships and fundraising with an in-house 60-person team.”

It’s a strategic move for L’Oreal: The world’s largest cosmetics company is looking specifically for startups tackling data, ecommerce, retail transformation, AR/VR, personalization and the like.

L’Oreal spends 35 percent of its media budget on digital campaigns, and has grown its staff in this area from roughly 150 five years ago to more than 1,600. “The world of beauty has already become very digitalized,” L’Oreal Chairman and CEO Jean-Paul Agon says. “This will allow us to go even further than what we do today.” — F.S.

Consider every aspect

Every touchpoint with a brand matters, including its packaging. Lumi works with brands including MeUndies, Ritual Roasters, Rockets of Awesome and Threadless to create just the right packaging, ranging from drawstring cotton bags to rigid kraft mailers and butcher paper.

Lumi “streamlined the production of seasonal packaging for MeUndies, reducing packaging costs by 20 percent while also speeding up the design process. The fun designs, ranging from a sunglass-wearing cartoon panda to colorful lipstick kisses on a black background, increasingly show up in social media feeds.”

Lumi worked with Parachute to create a line of packaging focused on reliability and affordability, in addition to clean lines that echo the sensibilities of Parachute’s modern bedding. Lumi consolidated purchasing and reduced packaging costs, but that’s not all: Parachute could move box production significantly closer to its fulfillment center, cutting down emissions by 95 percent and lowering freight costs.

Product packaging has long been a unique identifier, but things are moving to a whole new level. Brand consistency is a beautiful thing — all the more so when packaging can help with awareness, sustainability and cost reduction, too. — F.S.