Big businesses often fail to innovate internally so forward-thinking retailers should look to external incubators for fresh ideas.

If innovation is the oxygen that keeps businesses moving forward, why does accountability for it not sit at the board level?

Digital innovation is too often seen as an ‘add-on’ rather than a core function. It’s a huge missed opportunity that UK retailers need to address.

The European retail marketplace is seeing more international competition than ever before. To win, boardroom executives need to reconsider how they can embrace the advantages technology has to offer.

“Many big retailers are not geared up internally for innovation”

Scott Weavers-Wright, Haatch

One way to tackle it is internal innovation labs.

Many big retailers have created these as they realise they are not geared up internally for innovation, but they operate outside the normal parameters of the business, and generally without an executive sponsor. So when they try to move the tech into the core business it doesn’t work.

Seasoned start-ups

A better option is external innovation labs. Far from the start-up stereotype of two guys in a garage, they’re run by seasoned business people who have first-hand experience in the retail trenches.

The leadership in these incubators review hundreds of ideas and only get involved where they see potential for delivering results.

Start-ups filtered by entrepreneurs allow forward-thinking retailers access to new thinking with the minimum amount of risk.

It’s an ideal situation that can have meaningful impact on the bottom line.

Making this happen doesn’t have to take a lot of adjustment: a partnership with the incubator is developed and integrated into the business strategy.

Innovation comes in many forms, so it’s important to ensure technology is aligned to business objectives to create commercial impact.

The incubator will support the integration of the tech into the business quickly and easily, mitigating any risk, and the partnership is supported at the board level.

Without an internal champion driving the partnership at the right level it will be challenged by all the people who like to say ‘no’ before finding the few who have the authority to say ‘yes’.

Technology opportunities

Start-ups embrace speed and agility – good qualities for any business, but hard for big organisations. Starting small and iterating fast can make a positive impact, delivering results and reducing the barriers to change.

“The UK market is rich with original thinking and incredible start-up talent”

Scott Weavers-Wright, Haatch

The opportunity for retailers to compete has never been greater.

The UK market is rich with original thinking and incredible start-up talent.

By working in partnership with external innovation labs, leadership teams have a much better chance of bringing the transformative thinking start-ups can offer into their business.

Retailers need to have the courage to implement the lab technology and not simply hold onto the PR benefits of an association with a lab.

More importantly, retailers will be better equipped to rise to the challenges of aggressive international competition and increasingly digitally-demanding consumers.

  • Scott Weavers-Wright, founder, Haatch. Follow him on Twitter: @scottww