Attack Of The Disruptor Brands: 5 Key Lessons For Retailers


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They’re fierce. They’re hungry.

And they’re coming for you next.

Disruptor brands, that is. Scrappy startups turned consumer crazes. No one is safe; even the largest, most well-established retailers are running for their lives.

From Dollar Shave Club to Warby Parker to Birchbox, retail disruptors are taking advantage of the current industry landscape and redefining the retail customer experience. They’re challenging once dominant competitors to ramp up the pace of change. And more and more retailers are struggling to keep up.
Disruptor brands have a lot to teach us about the art and science of innovation. Whether you’re looking to enhance your brand experience or completely revamp your business model, you’d do well to heed these industry lessons. Your brand’s survival may depend on it.

1. Innovation Is a Quest.

Successful innovators focus on tapping into consumers’ unmet needs (emotional and material) and maximizing convenience and customer satisfaction.

They look for new ways to reach their customers and beat their expectations.
They look to improve (perhaps by upending) the way they do business.
They make brand-relevant changes that reflect their brand promise.
Co-founded by a grad student who couldn’t afford glasses for an entire semester, Warby Parker has taken what once was a dull, expensive, time-consuming chore (buying glasses) and turned it into a hip, affordable, enjoyable experience—both online and in store.

2. It’s an Unwavering Commitment.

Disruptor brands have people who are dedicated to pushing the boundaries and pushing the business forward. These companies keep trying new things; they take what hasn’t worked, and they make the next iteration better.

These brands aren’t afraid to fail. In fact, they expect to fail from time to time (see lesson #4). But they understand that a home run can change the shape of the business and, perhaps, the entire retail category.

Amazon, for example, continues to charge ahead without fear (and without equal). The company could settle for $88 billion in sales and roughly 47 million Amazon Prime members, but it’s far from complacent. Today, Amazon is working on replacing third-party shippers with its own shipping operation.

3. It’s a Discipline.

Successful innovation isn’t an assumptions game. It’s a practice of constant listening—of culminating all customer input mechanisms company wide. These include customer satisfaction surveys (CSATs), social media interactions, and internal discussions—anywhere and everywhere contact is made.

Feedback (via social media) and measurement (via CSATs) serve two different purposes. But they’re both important.

Feedback is what’s on customers’ minds. It’s unsolicited and unstructured. It raises issues and ideas that might not occur to retailers otherwise.
Measurement involves asking specific questions about the customer experience and analyzing responses in the aggregate, over time.
Online beauty retailer Birchbox relies heavily on customer data, requesting customer feedback on every product it ships in order to continuously refine customer/product matches. Founded in 2010, Birchbox now has over 1 million subscribers and over 800 brand partners.

4. It Can Happen in Unexpected Ways.

Some innovations result from structured data collection and analysis. Others come from far left field (or seemingly from nowhere) simply by addressing obvious challenges in a given category.

Disruptor brands step outside their comfortable retail space. They stay attuned to buyers, competitors, and cultural shifts. They don’t react to developments; they create trends. They go bold in ways that resonate with consumers and make sense for the brand.

In 2010, a digital marketing guru and a product development expert met at a holiday party. In the course of their conversation, they came up with the idea for Dollar Shave Club—now a $615 million company known for its unabashed marketing and intensely loyal members.

5. It Won’t Succeed Every Time.

Even retail giants lose their way now and then.

  • Amazon Fresh hasn’t performed nearly as well as FreshDirect. But Jeff Bezos says the experience has taught him valuable lessons.
  • Walmart Express was the retail giant’s ill-fated attempt to compete with dollar stores. The company’s operational model (go big to keep costs low) made the express-store concept a bad fit. Walmart’s decision to locate these stores in rural areas, not far from its superstores, didn’t help.

Industry observers are often dismissive of failed ideas (“How could they not see this coming?”). But when retailers score a runaway hit, the question is always, “How did they know this would take off?”

Disruptor brands tune out the noise, the fear, and the uncertainty. When they fail, they take detailed notes. They internalize the lessons. And they move ahead at full speed, poised for even greater success.

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” – Henry Ford

What’s Stopping You?

Innovation isn’t easy. Success is hard won. But with the right mindset, the right customer research tools, and people dedicated to the cause, you can position your brand to achieve industry-leading breakthroughs.

What do you see as the biggest barriers to retail innovation? Which retail success stories inspire you (or baffle you) the most? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

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This article was originally posted to our blog where you can find more posts like this at ICC/Decision Services Blog.

Kevin Leifer
Kevin and his team at StellaService help their clients build solutions that optimize front-line team performance and improve customer experiences across contact centers and stores.


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