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Retrovation – Another Path to Innovation

Friday, March 9th, 2012

Shopping at LUSH recently, I noticed an impulse product near the cash register that I hadn’t seen before: Toothy Tabs. They’re little pills of solid toothpaste – great for traveling. And the packaging even calls them “revolutionary” and “innovative.”

The thing is, the ancient Romans used tooth powder. Tooth powder tabs were popular in the 40’s and 50’s. Non-paste toothpaste has been around for a loooong time. So what LUSH really did was marry up an outmoded offering with a modern need and gave it new relevance. That’s retrovation.

As humans, we have a natural affinity for stuff that has happened in our lifetimes. Karl Mannheim called it the “theory of generations”. C.S. Lewis called it “chronological snobbery”. This concept makes it easy for us to forget good ideas of the past, and view something that simply hasn’t been seen for a while as dazzling innovation.

Retrovation is popping up in restaurants and grocery stores all over the country. With a renewed interest in understanding where food came from and what went in it, there’s a market for more “old-fashioned” methods. Organic farming, GMO-free and local offerings are becoming more available and mainstream.

We see retrovation at retail as well –shrinking store footprints and blending formats all hearken back to General Store days, but with modern meaning. And who would have thought that human checkout clerks would usurp robots in a John Henry-like victory of man over machine?

What other examples of retrovation are emerging at retail? What other good ideas from the past could be brought back into the light?

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