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Why Topshop is playing the long game when it comes to digital transformation

Topshop is working with start-ups in every area of its business, from marketing and in-store tech through to creating new products.

Like its competitors, the retailer has been quick to use catch-all terms like ‘innovation hub’ and 'accelerator schemes' to describe its efforts but unlike others it’s not in aid of facilitating the longed-for ‘learn fast, fail fast’ attitude. Instead Topshop, whist fully aware of the importance of being a nimble organisation, is being more considered, cautious and altogether slower in its approach to working with start-ups. Perhaps surprising given its reputation as a leading digital retailer.

It’s an impressive stance given the state of the high street; you need look no further than its former sister-brand BHS to see the effects of not moving quickly with the times. Whilst some retailers – spooked by the rhetoric of what happens to brands that fail to innovate – will readily commit to finding a start-up, embracing the tech and getting it into stores (even if that means putting something out that consumers aren’t ready for), Topshop is steadfast in its belief that it will move as fast or as slow as the customer does.

Take its recently revealed 'Top Pitch' innovation programme which aims to find start-ups it can work with in the wearable tech space. It has the backing of top boss Sir Philip Green and a plethora of other experts in the business on hand to help the fledging companies coming through its doors to make their wares ready for the Topshop customer. Indeed, there's no doubt that it wants to crack a space still mired by those early and ill-conceived promises of phone-charging trousers or Internet-enabled t-shirts that to this day remain very “gimmicky”. But technology is changing exponentially and it might not be able to find the right start-up for the right venture. This is a just the start as far as Topshop is concerned.

“We’ve have had our eye on wearables for some time. It still hasn’t reached any adoption state and is still quite gimmicky,” global marketing and communications director Sheena Sauvaire told The Drum, admitting that any start-up with an idea will likely need a lot of work to get it customer ready.

Elsewhere in the organisation, every few months it will host a ‘Dragons Den’ style session inviting all senior stakeholders to hear from the myriad of start-ups that have got in touch. Sometimes this will result in a partnership, other times not. However, as with 'Top Pitch', the underlying message is that nothing will be forced or pushed quicker than the customer is moving.

By the same token, it’s aware it needs to be on the front foot especially when it’s serving a demographic more demanding of an in-store experience and uncompromising on what mobile shopping should offer.

Brands are increasingly starting to think about innovation in this way, with many taking on more responsibility for the way they work with entrepreneurs to foster a sustainable way to disrupt themselves.

Topshop's marketing strategy has gone some way to embedding in customers’ minds that it’s a pioneering brand which supports what Sauvaire dubs "the new and next", giving it leeway to take its time on the bigger things. From making products on the Fashion Week catwalk available within seconds of them first being revealed to using virtual reality tech before it was the must-have tool in a marketer’s armoury, Topshop has been quick off the mark to experiment when it sees the right opportunity and continues to eschew traditional media channels in favour of digital.

“We’ve always looked at how to create really interesting content that will dive talkability and shareability,” said Sauvaire .

It’s currently reaping the benefits from being one of the first advertisers on Pinterest after launching ‘Colour Palette’ which serves up product suggestions based on the colour schemes of Pins a person has saved.

Today, Sauvaire claimed that “Pinterest is the social platform that drives the most amount of sales”.

Offline, the work with Pinterest also saw Topshop merchandisers completely rethink the way they stock its stores. While fashion trends had previously dictated the merchandising of a shop by reflecting what it was doing on Pinterest and grouping products based on colour, it was able to surface key items which would otherwise be lost, something Sauvaire said has been commercially effective.

So it’s clear that whilst Topshop’s wearable tech department might be some way off and other in-store innovations may take time to bubble to the surface, its unrelenting desire to ensure it's where customers are is keeping it on the brink of the new and next.

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