Changing the Innovation Game

To most people in B.C., “innovation” means geeks in lab coats dreaming up some new scientific or technological wonder. But true innovation doesn’t involve new technologies at all; it changes business processes and entire business models.

One B.C.-based retailer scored a major innovation coup, and changed the retail game forever, when it figured out how to bring the in-store expertise sales model to a much wider community – anytime and all the time.

Electronics retailing giant Best Buy (BBY-N), which took over the B.C.-based Future Shop chain in 2001, is a known driver of innovation, and it put out notice that it expected everyone in the organization to develop innovative ways to deliver its brand promise of providing consumer electronics.


This filtered down to Robert Pearson, director of e-commerce for Best Buy Canada, and Thierry Hay-Sabourin, senior merchandise manager at The two began musing in 2006 about how to use the Future Shop website to connect customers to technology experts. Future Shop had already begun converting the traditional sales model in its stores into one that was more consultative, positioning its staff as the go-to experts for tech questions. But it was limited by its in-store experts’ capacity to serve customers. So, how to offer authoritative advice to off-site customers and potential customers, and do it 24-7?

As the Future Shop duo mused about converting traditional sales to more consultative interactions, they hit on an innovative process that would translate the in-store expertise to both the French and English websites. Why not, they thought, create an online system where technology enthusiasts could get ongoing answers from trusted experts through an ever-expanding body of knowledge?

The goal was to harness collective intelligence on technology and products available in Future Shop stores and establish, via a community of product experts and tech enthusiasts, a trusted source of technology information. There were some nascent community-building tools around at the time, but this was before the crest of the social media wave, so Pearson and Hay-Sabourin had to adapt existing programs and add a system to manage all the various contributors they envisioned. They’d have to find and manage experts, source and manage customer enthusiasts in a kind of peer-to-peer advice network, and bring in vendors to supply their expertise as well.

To put it into a framework that would engage both Future Shop insiders and outsiders, the two created a web-based “avatar” – a video-based version of an in-store product expert – who guides customers to the information they require. They also created, through advertisements, contests and a ranking system, a large technology community featuring “brand heroes” who help others solve their technology problems.

The result of their efforts? The new Future Shop site, launched in July 2007, is now Canada’s largest technology-community site. It received 86 million visits in 2007 and, as of last January, had 36,197 members. By allowing customers to put questions out to the community, the site has lowered customer-support service costs by 13 per cent. It has also boosted the company’s efforts to recruit talent, helping to conquer one of the toughest problems in retail today.

And finally, the company is patenting the process the two innovators created, and in April this year Pearson and Hay-Sabourin were among seven employees sharing in the ­$1-million annual Best Buy innovation awards program.

• You have to understand it. Innovation is not just about creating some fantastic new technology; it’s figuring out how to do things better, preferably in a way that changes your industry forever.

• You have to champion it. Because it’s new, you’re probably going to have to educate people inside and outside the organization on why the new model would be better.

• You have to nurture it. Innovation doesn’t happen like a bolt of lightning from above. It’s a methodical process that creates ideas, develops them, and adapts them for commercial value.