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Employee ideas hold the key to innovation in retail

Even before coronavirus pressed the pause button on vast swathes of the retail sector, it only took a wander down the high street to see how the retail landscape is changing, and fast. In the UK alone, 143,000 jobs were lost with stalwarts such as Mothercare, BHS and T.M. Lewin falling recent casualties to changing consumer demands and behaviours.

As with much in the business world where standing still is often the same as falling behind, survival requires reinvention, with retailers needing to adapt and open themselves to becoming more experimental and experiential. With coronavirus making the stakes higher than ever before, some of the biggest retail businesses are now looking for new ways to deliver a seamless and unique omnichannel experience while simultaneously demonstrating their sustainability credentials.

If the current global pandemic has demonstrated anything, it’s that employees – and specifically frontline employees – play an invaluable role in businesses. Because of this, it would be foolish for retail business leaders to overlook one of the biggest and innovative resources available: the workforce. The majority of these employees have no direct contact with senior management in the head office but, significantly, they’re also the people with unique insight into a business and its daily processes. More often than not, they’re the ones best-placed to spot opportunities to innovate and improve ways of working through their own experience and informed ideas.

It’s the reason why some the industry’s biggest names (and some not so big) are already looking to employees for their ideas, harnessing insight from their frontline workforces who are regularly interacting with customers and best placed to spot innovative ways to improve the retail experience, reduce costs and develop new product innovations. Here are five retailers leading by an example the rest of the sector should follow.

Marks & Spencer

It’s also not just about improving on a winning formula. Despite widespread brand recognition Marks & Spencer, like much of the high street, has fallen on hard times as purchasing behaviours have changed. The company’s CEO, Steve Rowe, believed employee ideas would play an important role in the business’ turnaround programme, so invited them to suggest their ideas. In a particularly brave move, he even went so far as to invite employees to send ideas straight to him, pledging to personally respond to each person (no mean feat, given more than 1,000 ideas were submitted in a single week).

The initiative’s focus of bringing back the ‘voice of the store’ was a central pillar of the retailer’s cultural transformation to restore the basics, improve the business and retain both loyalty and pride in the brand. To date, some 13,500 ideas have been submitted, including one resulting in Marks & Spencer reducing their environmental impact by cutting down on plastic packaging and asking customers to bring in their own containers for certain types of food.


Unsurprisingly for a DIY business with brands such as B&Q, ScrewFix and Brico Dépôt, Kingfisher were keen to give their people an opportunity to roll their sleeves up, get their hands dirty and share ideas to return the business to profitability. 

A turnaround plan is a big task for any new CEO, and Kingfisher presents the even greater challenge of owning so many different brands and having so many disparate employees to engage. However, like Sainsbury’s they were able to leverage their Yammer network to enable employees to share their ideas. Combined with some quirky branding to raise awareness, CEO Thierry Garnier found he had plenty of engagement in his campaign to source ideas from each store in the portfolio, proving again that employees were more than up to the challenge to turn things around.


Sports equipment retailer Decathlon have huge ambitions for harnessing ideas from both employees and customers. Innovation is a constant force within the business, and employees are encouraged to come up with continuous improvements for existing products and co-create new ones with other Decathletes. This is done through innovation hubs, with additional input from customers and via Workplace by Facebook. They’re particularly proud of their iconic blue bags, a project developed by an employee.

Decathlon is on a mission to completely reinvent their way of working, and as part of the Vision 2030 initiative, employees and the public were encouraged to submit their ideas on a public portal to ‘co-write’ the vision. Teams of ‘vision leaders’ within Decathlon were established across the world, building a community of changemakers and putting the future in the capable hands of decathletes. With a goal of 1 million contributions, it’s certainly one of the more ambitious ideas projects, but with tens of thousands of motivated, creative Decathletes and loyal customers behind them, reinvention is bound to be an easily-won race (excuse the pun).


Starbucks has a history of implementing employee ideas, with the humble Frapuccino resulting from a store manager’s idea back in 1993. Since then, the company has taken employees’ ideas even further. The CEO, Kevin Johnson, believes in bringing ideas to action within 100 days, as he’s aware that even a successful enterprise like Starbucks runs the risk of falling behind if it fails to innovate. This starts with embracing unusual ideas, and constantly sourcing and listening to new ones. 

Ideas are captured via an online suggestion box, open to employees and customers alike. Meanwhile, Workplace by Facebook is used internally for employees to surface day-to-day problems and find collaborative solutions. These channels all feed their innovation labs, where dedicated teams harness this insight to develop new flavours of iced beverages, apps to improve the customer experience and improve the business all-round.

Examples to follow

As these examples demonstrate, the most effective methods meet employees where they already are, piggybacking existing communication tools to avoid disrupting existing ways of working. So, despite the uncertainty in the industry, whether it is addressing specific businesses problems, ensuring their best foot is put forward for growth, generating ideas for product innovations, customer experience or sustainability, employees invariably hold the key. If leading brands are increasingly trusting in their people and crowdsourcing ideas to improve their business, then it would be remiss of the rest of the sector to ignore their example.

By Buki Sule, product marketing manager for Sideways 6, an innovation management company Trusted by some of the world’s leading companies. Their goal is to help build better businesses with employee ideas.

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