Once again for this 101st edition, Expo Riva Schuh&Gardabags is dedicating special attention to innovation in its many facets and possibilities for development, hosting the Innovation Village Retail, the ‘fair within the fair’ where start-ups and young companies have the chance to share the culture of innovation and network with established players. June’s protagonists are ten, coming from all over the world: BLASTER FOUNDRY (Italy), BUYBUDDY (UK), DCYCLE (Spain), FIBBL AB (Sweden), GEL PROXIMITY (Italy), JUSTINSHOP (Italy), RADD (Israel), TYMELY (USA), VANONGO (Estonia), YOUADDICT (Italy). We asked them what it means to be truly innovative today, which solution is today the protagonist of a real revolution and which paths the retail world must take to innovate.

What features a solution must have to be truly innovative

An innovative solution must first of all be easy to use and be able to provide a tangible result in solving a need. In other words, at the basis of any innovation there must be a clear need to be answered. An individual who interacts with an innovative solution obtains immediate value (e.g. a better experience or a saving of money or time) and his willingness to repeat the experience immediately increases.

Then originality is important: the ability of an innovation not to be a simple optimisation of something that already exists. An innovative solution can also bring something into people’s lives that they did not know they needed, but which significantly improves some aspect of their everyday life or offers a new service. For example, you may not think you need an app that shows the products closest to you, but from the moment you have it, it is hard to do without.

Another key element to be taken into account today is sustainability, which is not only about avoiding environmental impact, but also contributes to improving society and, of course, is economically viable. This means thinking about how the solution can minimise waste, reduce energy consumption and use resources efficiently. It is also about considering the long-term effects on communities and ecosystems, ensuring that innovation contributes positively to society and promotes a healthier planet. Sustainable solutions are not only good for the environment, but can also lead to cost savings and greater efficiency in the long run.

Moreover, to be appreciated, an innovation must have value, both for those who develop it and for those who benefit from it. Only then can it be accepted and, consequently, fully appreciated.

Flexibility is also crucial. As market trends and user needs change, an innovative solution must be able to adapt and remain relevant. Also to be considered is scalability, i.e. the possibility for a solution to grow and be applied on a larger scale, without losing its effectiveness.

Moreover, innovation often comes from collaboration: when people with different backgrounds and skills work together, they can find more creative and effective solutions. Therefore, fostering a collaborative environment is really important to promote innovation.

Not least, in today’s age, an innovative solution must make an existing, standardised process more fun.

For instance, obtaining a coupon: one can ask to subscribe to one’s e-commerce newsletter and get a (standard) 5% discount. Or you can create a wheel of fortune where you invite the user to play, asking them to provide their e-mail and accept the terms and conditions; at the end of the experience, they will get the 5% discount code (innovation).It may seem like a process that lengthens the end-user’s customer journey, but in reality, in a good percentage of cases, it results in increased conversion to purchase.

The innovation revolutionising the world today

Looking at the world of retail, but also broadening the perspective, it is impossible not to think of artificial intelligence and its ongoing developments: it is capable of unleashing enormous computing power and creativity, as well as automating a whole range of processes and building customer loyalty. For example, in customer support, AI can reduce costs by 70 per cent and minimise response times, handling support requests in minutes instead of days, which makes customers much happier, and a happy customer is a returning customer.

AI is transforming several industries, in particular through the generative models of Runway or OpenAI. These models improve content creation and are used in creative ways, such as synchronising the lip movements of actors in different languages for films and creating realistic avatars for marketing and training. This technology is becoming increasingly accessible, allowing small businesses and individual developers to exploit sophisticated AI without massive investments in infrastructure.

But AI also harbours potential, enormous risks and dangers. It should give pause for thought that Geoffrey Hinton (godfather of AI, winner of the Turing Prize in 2018 and the world’s third most authoritative voice in the field of AI) claims to feel like Oppenheimer and that he resigned from Google in order to speak freely about the dangers of AI.

Many important innovations have also been made in the field of sustainability. Renewable energy technologies, particularly solar energy, are becoming more efficient thanks to innovations such as the addition of tiny crystals to solar panels, which significantly improve their energy conversion rates. Heat pumps, which can heat and cool buildings more efficiently than traditional systems, are gaining popularity and helping to reduce emissions and energy consumption. These advances are key to combating climate change and moving towards a more sustainable future.

How retail can evolve

According to the start-ups featured in the Innovation Village Retail, the main needs of the fashion retail world today are investment in e-commerce (which has grown from 5.1% of retail purchases in the US in 2007 to 16% today and is set to quadruple by 2024), the integration of advanced personalisation through AI, a strong commitment to sustainability, and the implementation of the principles of circular fashion, transparency and ethical practices.

Speaking of advanced personalisation and the fact that consumers today expect shopping experiences that are increasingly tailored to their individual preferences and needs, it should be noted how AI is already able to offer personalised recommendations based on past purchases, browsing behaviour and even social media activity. This not only improves the customer experience, but also increases loyalty and satisfaction. A personalised dialogue with the consumer could also be built with gaming strategies, which is an increasingly sought-after universal language.

Secondly, the industry must prioritise sustainability. Fashion is one of the most polluting sectors, often characterised by overconsumption and waste. To address this problem, brands must adopt sustainable practices throughout their supply chain. This includes using environmentally friendly materials, promoting recycling and upcycling, and encouraging conscious consumption. By creating durable and timeless garments, brands can reduce the frequency of purchases and their overall environmental impact. Another important requirement is the implementation of circular fashion principles to significantly reduce waste and promote a more sustainable fashion ecosystem.

Finally, transparency and ethical practices are becoming increasingly important to consumers. Retailers that provide clear and honest information about their supply chains and take measures to ensure ethical working practices will build trust and loyalty among consumers.

Another central theme is Instant Commerce: there is a tendency to significantly reduce the time between the purchase of a product and its delivery. Data sharing between the different actors involved in the purchasing process, e.g. on the progress of the order, is therefore crucial. For this reason, innovations at the technological level that facilitate the contact points between the different actors involved in the sales and purchasing process are the element to watch in the near future, not only with regard to deliveries, but also with regard to returns.

Sustainability is also important here, because it is true that customers demand fast deliveries, but there is also a strong focus on the environmental impact of shipments. The best solution is therefore to use alternative and sustainable means of transport, such as cargo bikes, which are already being tested in many European cities, including Italy, and especially in North America.

What innovation is a priority for retail

According to our start-ups, one of the priorities is the personalisation of the shopping experience, an area where AI could make a real difference in the future. By analysing my past purchases, browsing history and style preferences, artificial intelligence could suggest products that perfectly match my tastes. Saving me time and helping me discover items I would never have considered, ensuring that I am more satisfied and less likely to make impulse purchases.

A virtual stylist, guided by artificial intelligence, could also help me see how new items can be integrated with my existing wardrobe, maximising the versatility of my wardrobe and ensuring that new purchases complement my current style, as well as promoting more conscious consumption.

Product customisation options also add more and more value to the shopping experience. The ability to customise shoes or a bag according to my preferences, for example by choosing the colour, material or adding monograms, makes the product special and ensures that it meets my specific needs and corresponds more closely to my sense of identity.

Just as it is becoming increasingly important to create a fun buying process with game-oriented strategies using gamification techniques. Web-branded games are easy to integrate, and retain the user for several minutes, allowing them to give visibility to the brand and offer in-depth product call-to-actions. Many brands have already taken this route, such as TEMU, which uses games extensively to offer new discounts to its customers and encourage them to buy, or Gucci, which offers over 20 video games through its Gucci App and has a dedicated game development department within the company itself.

Another important aspect is product reviews, which are increasingly expected to be authentic and created by real people in the future. Once product reviews are personalised and individual, they will save the user time and money, allowing him to quickly explore only the items relevant to him.

Remaining in the area of online shopping, the fluidity of the experience – from start to finish – is also crucial. This is achieved with an intuitive search function that allows the user to quickly find items that match their style, size and price preferences. The buying process should be safe and straightforward, with timely delivery and, after purchase, quality customer service becomes paramount, especially for returns or exchanges, with 24/7 access to efficient and knowledgeable support – direct interactions with service agents who resolve issues without resorting to ineffective FAQs or chatbots. This level of service would greatly enhance the online shopping experience and win user loyalty to the brand.