Innovation is: having nothing to choose from

By Jan Kroon, art director with Jos de Vries The Retail Company

Retailers are going all over the place in 2009; we want to be all things to all people, we provide good service, we are cheap, we have everything you need, and so on and so forth. Target groups are becoming larger and larger, or even being done away with completely…we’re a store for everybody! If you compare all retail concepts, a good 80% will be essentially identical.

Making clear choices and actual innovation are often seen as too risky. We don’t want to lose customers, or put up too high a threshold. It’s special offers that draw the customer into the store. It’s all about price.

But there are other ways to do things. I recently visited a Dutch sporting goods store specialised in running equipment. When you enter, you sign up for a personal talk with one of the running experts. You spend the brief time you’re waiting wandering around the store; sports shoes in all shapes and sizes. When your number comes up, your feet are measured using special equipment which clearly displays the type of foot you have. You are then given a pair of test shoes to try out in the store’s running track. Camera images subsequently examine how your foot settles. All of your personal details are collected and you receive a pair of shoes that feel like they were custom made for you: they fit perfectly. You ask for an alternative pair, but they’re not any better. You decide to purchase the shoes without asking how much they actually cost. When you reach the checkout counter, there’s a guy who just dropped by to say how much faster he ran the half marathon with his new shoes.

This store is known to be the best in its field. They invest time in a highly personalised service. They gain it back via the targeted choice they make. The store makes the choice for the customer…

You decide to purchase them without wondering how much they cost.

Another example is El Bulli in Roses (Spain), the most talked about restaurant in the world. A laboratory for experimental gastronomy, you will have to wait for years for a table (over 400,000 reservation requests per year). The location and décor are subordinate to the culinary surprises that grace the table. The staff is dressed in dark, sober Mao-like outfits, discretely but attentively present. They may not draw attention away from the food on the table, but are there to accompany you on your journey in experimental dining. The dishes (flavour bombs) provide a bit of spectacle every time. Consider spherical green olives and mozzarella balls, caipirinha sorbet served in a frozen lemon peel with a spoonful of tarragon extract, marshmallow made of parmesan cheese… an entire palette of experimental tapas, familiar flavours in unexpected shapes and colours, unique combinations - a re-education of the senses, as it were. You can’t choose what you get, and you always pay the same amount (excluding drinks). When you leave, you get a printout of the menu, describing the 25 to 30 courses.

What Ferran Adria does is radically different from anyone else, and that’s about more than his experimental daring. The atmosphere in his restaurant is relaxed, never stiff, never snob, a true breath of fresh air for gastronomy at that level. He brings guests back to the essence of eating. He wakes you up with playfulness and humour in colour, form and flavour, wiping away culinary clichés and old eating habits.

Forcing a choice can be done by offering something unobtainable. A hotel in Galle (Sri Lanka) charges over 10,000 euros for what the owner calls the most expensive desert in the world. The desert must provide the guests of the Fortress hotel with a unique experience. The Italian cassata ice cream, enveloped in gold leaf, is flavoured with Irish cream. It is served with mango, pomegranate mousse and champagne sabayone. The exclusive treat is decorated with a chocolate figurine of a fisherman hanging on a pole – a local custom – and an 80-carat aquamarine gemstone.
To date, nobody has ordered the desert…

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