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Shedding The Cloak of Complacency: A Retail Story

Complacency suppresses growth, both personally and in business. Why? Change is hard, and it is much easier to ride the train of success rather than preparing for a disruption. Before finding my way to Upward, I worked for the same retail company for nearly 15 years. I coasted on my success and found little fulfillment in my career. When offering ideas to innovate on behalf of the company or incite change I was often met with, “this is the way we have always done it,” or my favorite, “if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Fortunately, in most cases, it just hadn’t broken yet.

Just when I had reached a breaking point in my retail career, I found Upward: a social enterprise with a mission to reinvigorate American legacy cities by matching innovative tech solutions to the needs of local industry and the larger community. I joined this forward-thinking company with zero startup experience, and was completely blown away that leadership not only listened to my ideas, but actually found them interesting...and actionable. As I reflected on my own feelings of surprise, I soon realized how severely we had been failing our employees when we became complacent in the retail business. It caused our top performers to feel less challenged and stifled. Employees became robotic and lost their motivation to offer new ideas and ways to improve the business.

This stifling effect is all too common across industries, discouraging top talent from realizing their personal potential and maximizing their impact on behalf of the business.

Thrust Into Innovation

I have always admired Kroger, one of the primary grocery chains leading the way in retail innovation. Jody Kalmbach, Kroger’s Group Vice President of Product Experience recently pledged:

“To better serve our customers, we're continuing to invest in technology that enables us to expand our digital services to deliver anything, anytime, anywhere.”

Kroger has not only invested more into their online marketplace to boost e-commerce sales, but also launched collaborative pilots with startups contactless pay, autonomous delivery, and robotics technology solutions to aid in their fulfillment centers. These acts of innovation were all well before COVID-19.

Not many retail companies welcome innovation like Kroger. In fact, the retail industry was one of the most impacted by the COVID pandemic, yet one of the slowest to have embraced innovation. The vast majority of brick-and-mortar stores were forced to react and move to online shopping models. While this helped those retailers with an established e-commerce presence to easily embrace a pivot, most were forced to create direct-to-consumer outlets for the first time.

Now, there is a surge in demand for technologies that will help the retail industry survive. This involves the development of more sustainable e-commerce logistical processes or introducing solutions that ease the consumer back into a new world of shopping. This shift begs the question of why it took a pandemic to drive innovation in this industry? The answer: complacency.

COVID broke the retail industry. Now, it’s time to fix it.

Putting Complacency On The Shelf

So how do we fix this essential industry? Change starts from the top, with the active participation of business leaders and decision-makers. They must challenge themselves to challenge the status quo and invite innovation: step out of the normal day to day, and find ways to make the business more inviting to the entrepreneurial spirit and new technologies. Make change exciting, welcomed, and normal.

One of the most significant differences between working for a large retail chain and working alongside several startups is the energy level in a room. Entrepreneurs are always open to new ideas and better ways of accomplishing their tasks. They are risk-takers who embrace others' brilliant ideas, always working toward ways to drive innovation.

The retail industry was pioneered by innovators. Let’s embrace and promote that same level of entrepreneurial spirit throughout our organizations today. If you are a leader or decision maker in your industry, listen. Listen to your employees and be open to internal avenues of innovation. Listen to the startups who present new solutions to challenges you didn’t even know were challenging.

Let this be the way we always do it. It's time for us to fix what is broken.

About Jeanette Hawkins

Jeanette Hawkins is the Program Manager for Upward Labs at the company's flagship location in Hartford, CT. She supports the company's endeavors by building strong enterprise relationships and sourcing additional partners who recognize the value of external innovation. Working alongside Upward's portfolio of mature startups, Jeanette facilitates opportunities for investors to meaningfully connect with viable and lucrative companies and technologies.With 15 years of experience at one of the world's largest retailers, Jeanette has expertise in merchandising, human resources, facility and operational management. Jeanette is passionate about helping startups scale and seeing these investment dollars working to help companies grow and hire within the city of Hartford.

Upward is determined to reinvigorate our nation's second and third tier cities by transforming them into thriving hubs of innovation, community, and co-creation. America's most critical industries are in need of mature innovation and our multi-city network connects unique and viable resources with local industry titans and progressive educational institutions in vibrant downtown areas. Our goal is to stimulate regional development, strengthen native talent, foster opportunities, and create economic prosperity and Upward movement for all. Join us at


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