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Who Is The Mother Of Invention When There’s No Necessity?

Its an old saying – ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.” And in all areas of human endeavor it has been proven true time after time. World War 2 delivered most of the scientific and engineering breakthroughs that powered the 20th century. The fuel crisis gave us compact cars. The energy crisis lead to solar power. Over-crowding led to miniaturization. And on it goes.

The worry for retail is that we exist in an age where almost all consumer necessity has been satiated. To apply Maslow’s Hierarchy, most people that live in mature western markets have all their basic needs covered. A thousand times over. In an endless sea of grey sameness, mainly driven on price.

In the 21st century customers are not driven by need or necessity, they are driven by self-actualization or want. And as retailers enjoyed a boom in Australia that lasted pretty much from 1995 to 2008 with growth at double the fifty-year average for retail in this country, necessity has also been lacking from many retailers motivational vocabulary also.

Now that we are back to the fifty-year average growth rate for retail and customers are living within the means provided by full employment and low but steady growth, what will fuel invention?

Right now customers are bored. They have established very clearly in their own minds what they see as basic commodities and they are ruthless at getting those things for the cheapest price. But they have also established very clearly what they are engaged by and in these areas they have an insatiable appetite for new ideas. New ideas that inspire them to part with their money.

Accept that retail in general isn’t really delivering new ideas to them right now.

Guzzling at the fountain of easy growth intoxicated too many retailers and the brain cells that spawn invention were killed off by their haste to reduce costs and rake in the profits and pay the bonuses that this extended boom provided.

Now we need invention – or perhaps more correctly reinvention – many retailers simply do not have the capability. With an extended period of slow, steady growth forecast for Australia and technology demanding a rethink, now is the time that investors must change their expectations and allow an investment in innovation and re-invention.

Perhaps the media and politicians are right. Perhaps fear is the biggest motivator. If that is the case, then the new mother of invention for retail is fear. Because without re-invention, innovation and a constant stream of new ideas that will attract customers to buy more and sooner, the retail heroes of the past 20 years will very quickly become dinosaurs.

If you look closely enough, there is a sea of consumer necessity created by being forced to cope with contemporary social change. But you have to open your eyes to see it and change to capitalize on it.