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How to Win in Today’s Boundaryless Retail World

Before we blink, televisions will be obsolete, iPhones will be passé and it will take little more than a thought to get a device to do what it does.

Whether in the form of products or services, consumers will be captivated by things they haven’t yet experienced or those they didn’t yet realize they need.

According to HSNi’s vice president of retail innovation Johnnie Rush, who spoke at last week’s Americas Apparel Producers’ Network (AAPN) annual meeting in Miami, 34 percent of retailers today believe a not yet known technology will be the main driver in changing customer expectations, and 43 percent say that mobile will become the most important channel by 2020.

“The acceleration of technology is really the thing we are living right now,” Rush said. “We are actually living in the most exciting time in mankind’s history.”

We have reached critical mass and the culture of “cool hunters” Rush said. Doing the norm won’t cut it with consumers—brands and retailers need to hunt for cool.

And cool comes in a glut of forms. Mimo developed a smart onesie, dubbed Kimono, which has built in respiratory sensors to monitors a baby’s vitals. Withings Smart Body Analyzer measures weight and body composition and sends prompts via mobile that tell the user how much she needs to run or eat to reach a goal. A Beam Toothbrush tells parents how well their child is brushing.

“The Internet of things is going to be really weird for a while because people are desperately trying to be cool,” Rush said.

In the cool hunting development cycle, you want to have the coolest product at the rise of a normal bell curve.

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There are three phases of cool hunting, according to Rush. There’s the actual hunting, when companies hunt for trends and technology knowledge by observing people through the Internet, blogs, newspapers, mass and market interactions. Then there’s cool farming, or sharing those findings at creative market recaps with all interested parties, and finally sharing developed designs.

So how are brands to use constantly changing technology to accommodate their constantly changing consumers with offerings that are not common, but cool?

Storytelling, says Rush.

“Storytelling is the vehicle we use to convey emotion,” he said. Consumers are transitioning to something called a presumers market, which is all about the product, the story and the status. “Consumer involvement with products and services pre-launch is set to go mainstream.”

That’s why firstism, stories, belonging, new platform, off and on-line are the words retailers should be channeling when putting plans in place for innovation.

Kickstarter, the global crowdfunding platform for bringing projects to life, has been a prime place for firstism, for example, and many budding brands got their start there. Now, companies like Indiegogo and Fundable have also tapped the crowdfunding trend, and Tiny Lightbulbs offers a place for crowdfunded companies to sell their new-to-market wares.

“Storytelling breeds trust and trust is currency,” according to Rush, who used HSN as an example, explaining that it isn’t just a place to buy goods—consumers can learn how to use their products, how to curl their hair with a new tool, and the available experiences have created a community around the brand.

Take Lululemon. The beloved athletic brand isn’t just selling yogawear, it is selling a community.

“When people think of Lululemon, they’re not just thinking of yoga pants, they’re not saying they can’t forget those see-through pants—they’re saying ‘I love that brand because it means something to me,’” Rush said.

Rush, who was formerly Disney’s vice president of Imagineering, said the key is creating conversion, which happens when creative content, digital and physical experiences and product design overlap.

Disney tested what it called the Bippity Boppity Boutique, where little girls could have a princess doll made in their likeness, and the concept may not have hit home until the company found Star Wars savants who would line up to have a storm trooper made to look like them, but, Rush said, “The whole point is: how do you combine great products, great stories, great storytellers? Because this is the new social currency.”

The biggest problem with brands, however, is that most of them just aren’t getting it.

“Up to the last couple of years, a brand has been a ‘what,’ it’s been a thing. But that’s not true anymore,” Rush said.

What a brand really should be instead, is a “stand.”

Before, a brand was a what, had a point of difference, was competitive, had employees and consumers and marketed with ads. A stand, however, is a why, a point of view, distinctive, has missionaries and advocates and markets with actions.

Brands that are “stands” are the ones that will win with consumers.

It all boils down to four key factors for success in the boundaryless retail world, Rush said: use emotion to build an intimate relationship with your customer; use a systematic approach to innovation; leverage your consumer trending and cool-hunting to add relevancy and uniqueness to your products; and leverage your social currency toolbox to make your storytelling contagious.