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Figuring Out What The Consumer Wants

New York — Creating products that consumers didn't even know they needed is one of the keys to being innovative and increasing sales, according to Professor Patrick Whitney, director of the Institute of Design IIT, who spoke during a panel discussion at the National Retail Federation annual Convention and Expo in New York last week.

Moderated by Kenneth Walker, president of WalkerGroup Designs, the session also featured Ronald Johnson, senior vice president of retail for Apple and a former merchandising executive at Target; and Bruce Mau, creative director of Bruce Mau Design.

“There's been a power shift from the producer to the consumer, so the goal is to create products that consumers didn't know they wanted or needed and now can't live without,” Whitney said.

According to Whitney, people often confuse invention with innovation. “The idea has to be new and has to be adopted. In its early stages, it has to seem like the idea isn't going to work,” he explained.

Mau added, “If you can provide meaning, you are converting usefulness to the product. For example, the iPod brings a new capacity to the world. There has never been a time with more capacity to change the world than now.”

Whitney also said that new uses of technology can help bring retailers back to a “more humane way” of treating customers.

Walker added that because retail is governed by quarterly earnings with 90-day windows, “You have to be able to try things and not be penalized for failing along the way. Innovation usually takes place in three- to five-year windows,” he said.

Whitney responded by stressing the importance of finding ways to prototype ideas faster and easier than in the past, making it cheaper to try new things and less expensive to fail.

Johnson asserted that in order to be innovators, companies have to believe in the ideas. “It's got to be a drive across the whole company. It's got to be culturally accepted by everyone, not just a select group of executives.”

He concluded, “Innovation is about excitement and being new and doing something different. You have to do something that creates meaning.”

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