Street-level Retail Innovation In Mexico City

Innovation. The mere word conjures up images of serious-looking scientists clad in crisp, all-white jumpsuits working in an impossibly sterile lab, tinkering with the latest gene-splicing method that promises the cancer cure. Engineers putting the final touches on a clay model of the latest hybrid vehicle, and programmers brainstorming on software platform and apps for the latest touch screen tablet gadget, in response to Apple's iPad.

This is how we commonly view innovation, correlating it directly with R&D, often overlooking the fact that innovation is not the exclusive domain of the developed economies and can come from any corner of the planet.

"Necessity is the mother of all innovations" and the trigger point to innovate is fundamentally human. This can be equally found in the high-tech labs of Tel Aviv and Tallinn, Seoul or Silicon Valley, as well as on the streets of a mega-metropolis like Mexico City, in the mud villages of sub-Saharan Africa, or deep in the tropical rainforest of Borneo. The latter category is best described as street-level innovation.

While in Mexico City recently, I was enjoying an al fresco lunch in the Art Deco-adorned neighborhood of Condesa, when a fruit vendor caught my attention. His mobile fruit stand-cum-retail device was a wooden plank placed on a wheelbarrow. A glass-enclosed box displayed jicama and all the other tropical fruits, with rows of plastic containers for the salsas, lime and condiments, and a "Jicaleta" sign adorned the front. The first hint of innovation, a hybrid combo of "jicama" and "piruleta" (Spanish for lollipop). And to top it off; customers were given little Styrofoam saucers to keep the sauce from dripping. Street-level innovation at its best!

Later, while sitting in traffic at a busy intersection, I noticed a street vendor walking between the long lines of cars. He was selling water, soda, candy, cigarettes and snacks. It seemed like a lot to carry at first glance. But instead of doing a nifty balancing act, he donned a fisherman's vest with multiple pockets for all the different merchandise. A convenience store on foot.

I glanced across the other side and saw a man in a clown's suit, replete with a red nose, showing off his juggling prowess. An instant entertainment to take your mind off of gridlock, all for some small change.

And while some people from the developed world will argue that such sights are displays of urban poverty, I beg to differ, as this is human ingenuity finding solutions for daily challenges. Solutions that don't go unnoticed by the international corporate world.

During the Asian crises in late 1990s, Unilever, after having observed Indonesia's fragmented retail landscape of small street-side convenience kiosks across the country, decided that was the most effective distribution channel to reach the masses. It launched "micro packaging," pushing everything from body wash to shampoo, detergent and cooking oil in small sachets. The profit margins may also have been "mini"-sized, but the world's largest archipelago with over 220 million people made up for it in volume, handsomely.

It is therefore prudent for any marketer, advertiser and brand-builder to understand the local culture and habits, including the retail landscape. And as in the case of the "Jicaleta" wheelbarrow, salsa and other food-related brands might consider using these unique mobile retail devices and branding them accordingly.

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