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Agile Reinvents Retail

By September 24, 2012Article

On July 14, 2012, Oddyssea, a first-of-its-kind retailer, opened in Half Moon Bay, Calif. Equal parts science, nature, games, magic and furnishings, with a generous dash of whimsy, Oddyssea thematically is dedicated to exploring, creating and discovering. What’s most interesting about the Oddyssea retail experience is it was conceptualized, designed, implemented and continues to operate using Agile. The Agile software engineering model.  But Agile is unrelated to the store’s point of sale, inventory management or financial systems. Rather, it’s completely focused on defining the retail experience.
Early on, while thinking about his next startup, Oddyssea’s founder, Mike Harding, who is a veteran technologist with product leadership stints at Juniper Networks and Sun Microsystems, hit upon the idea of integrating Agile and retail. It was a combination that would directly influence both what Oddyssea offered and what the store was.
Since its public release in 2001 through the seminal “Agile Manifesto,” the Agile software development methodology has become the successor to traditional methods for software development such as Waterfall. Leaning on iterative and incremental development practiced by small, self-organizing teams, Agile has become the de facto standard within both early-stage and mature software companies and is rapidly finding a foothold within industry.
A 2010 report by the global research and advisory firm Forrester Research showed that Agile was firmly in the mainstream. Fully 35 percent of the software developers surveyed said that one form of Agile or another best represented the way they create applications. That is a far greater proportion than any other method, including Waterfall.
From first-hand experience, Mike knew the Agile methodology emphasized individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, collaboration over contracts and the flexibility to change versus following a rigid plan. His idea was to use the best elements of Agile to build a retail operation that was flexible and open to customers, collaborative with his target market and, most importantly, change ready.
Oddyssea would not be defined solely by what Mike and his wife Ellen thought would attract and sell, but also by what the market, their customers, told them was worth buying or engaging with.  It would be “continuous Agile” supporting the product development life cycle. Only in this case the product was Oddyssea. Here’s how they did it.
They started by enumerating the retail businesses they admire, enjoy and routinely visit. They observed what made each of the businesses compelling to them personally and then made an educated guess about what to incorporate in their initial approach.
In addition, they collected images from all over (not just retail), which represented the right look and feel they wanted to achieve. Or, in other words, the right UI (user interface). Finally, they wrote a brief narrative that combined these elements to establish their “True North” as they progressed.
The design process started with the agreed-upon narrative and progressed to the image-based storyboard. It reminded Mike, the former Juniper and Sun leader, more of the build-out of a Web commerce platform than the launch of a store. The founders then started looking for the right physical space in which to test their concepts. They quickly found the right location in the historical Northern California tourist and day-trippers coast-side destination of Half Moon Bay. Much of the store design happened in real-time through multiple iterations.
The development process, from the selection of fixtures to the selection of a wide variety of unique, often unrelated products to pricing and important back-end processes, was completely organic. The couple evaluated choices against their True North to determine consistency and continued to iterate until they found the right approach.
Like Agile software development, testing is simply embedded in everything the Oddyssea proprietors do. Each day is a trade show of working and testing the retail experience. The store and its products and services are all tweaked continually. These may be small changes (such as how a product is displayed or priced) or very substantial changes (such as the reconfiguration of a large product area). On a weekly basis, they review the success or failure of those tweaks and then they iterate again.
Most of the people involved with the store have no concept of Agile. They are artists and retail specialists. But they see how Agile enables the founders to stay fresh and stay aligned with customers by teasing out unarticulated needs through observing behavior and testing.
The adaptive process leads to success in innovation
Oddyssea offers an interactive retail experience that the founders hope will engage visitors of all ages — including certain adults who have retained a child-like wonderment. They hope the experience will shake up the retail industry.
Every day brings something new to the store for visitors to engage and interact with. New, hands-on projects designed to engage the mind are periodically introduced. In the future, Oddyssea plans to offer expert guidance-led education sessions for visitors to acquire a new skill or hone an existing skill while having fun along the way.
While Oddyssea has only been open a few weeks, the best early indicator of success is the return visit. Not only are visitors returning, but they also bring friends and family when they come back. The increasing frequency of these “boomerangs” as the proprietors refer to them, is not only one of the best early indicators of success, it is tangible evidence that Mike and Ellen are steadily improving Oddyssea while remaining true to their vision.
While the 2001 release of the Agile Manifesto marked a positive turning point for global software engineering, its authors likely never imagined where it might lead. The ultimate “adaptive” method, Agile greatly improved on the legacy “predictive” process. Agile allowed software engineering teams to adapt quickly to changing realities. Predictive teams, on the other hand, have difficulty changing direction. In the world of retail — where this year’s must-have children’s accessory, Silly Bandz, sold in 18,000 stores nationwide with 250,000 followers on its Facebook page alone, but may be next year’s unwanted Cabbage Patch Kid — it pays to be adaptive.
John Hitchcock has over 20 years of experience in the software industry. Currently a director at Avantica Technologies, one of Latin America’s largest nearshore software engineering services companies, for the past decade he’s managed teams in India, China and Eastern Europe. Earlier John was head of U.S. and Central Europe field marketing for Cambridge Technology Partners, later acquired by Novell. He’s held leadership positions both at fast growing startups funded by Sequoia Capital and Austin Ventures, and the technology group of GE.

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