Airlines, Innovation, and Piggly Wiggly

Piggly Wiggly is a dwindling chain of grocery stores that operates mostly in the southern United States. Unknown to most, it had a dramatic impact on everything we know today about branding, marketing, and shopping. Prior to Piggly Wiggly, grocery shopping (“makin’ groceries” if you are in New Orleans) involved walking to a counter and handing your list to a store clerk. They milled about behind the counter and gathered the items on your list while you waited. You paid and left happy. No impulse buys, no comparison shopping, no fuss. Simple!

In 1917, the founder of Piggly Wiggly (Clarence Saunders) patented the concept of a self-service grocery store. Instead of one clerk checking the shelves for items, customers entered a turnstile which led to a one-way path of stock aisles. Customers would retrieve items on their own as they walked through the rows of goods. At the end of the last aisle was a cashier who would tally the items and collect payment. Not only did it save time and effort, but it forced a new focus on branding and marketing. With people now taking the time to look at and compare similar items on store shelves, standing out was suddenly critical.

It’s worth noting that Saunders also created the concepts of checkout stands, price marking items throughout the store, and providing shopping carts. Fast forward nearly a century and it is hard to imagine the grocery shopping experience without these once brilliantly innovative changes.

And then there is innovation today, in the air travel industry.

I just read an article outlining a bunch of concepts for new airline seat designs. The terms award-winning and innovative were sprinkled throughout like confetti raining down on a parade. Several of the ideas seemed unimpressive at best, and downright silly at worst. Few struck me as truly innovative.

A design by Zodiac Aerospace proposed making the middle seat in a row rear-facing. Imagine: not only are you wedged awkwardly between two strangers, but the three of you can now spend the whole flight avoiding awkward eye contact. What was once one disgruntled flier resigned to a middle seat has now been replaced by a whole row of social discomfort. Even Zodiac’s own description is cringe-worthy: “The HD 31 concept would feature two forward-facing seats sandwiching a single backward-facing seat.”

Sandwiching is not a term likely to instill a sense of comfort in any seat-selecting passenger.

Another notable miss: A much ballyhooed two-tiered armrest to solve the “who gets the armrest between the two of us?” dilemma. While I applaud that someone is trying to solve this problem, this particular solution (called the Paperclip armrest, by the identically named Paperclip Design firm) ignores that most people do not have waif-thin arms. More disconcerting is that it basically puts two strangers in a position so intimate that I have not even been in it with many of those that I have dated.

“Feel free to rest your elbow against my pec. I’ll rest my forearm on top of yours. And tricep to bicep. It’s like a backwards hug. Nice to meet you!”

I prefer my go-to solution for this problem: “Let’s treat the armrest like a fence. You stay on your side of the line and I’ll stay on mine.” Since not everyone respects this unspoken proposal, my fallback position is usually “you take the armrest while I cross my arms like a petulant toddler for the whole flight.”

Paperclip Design also won an award last year for their “Checkerboard Convertible seating.” By folding down the middle seat, Checkerboard convertible seating lets airlines convert a standard economy row of 3 seats into a roomier row of 2 seats with table between. This idea should be award winning, because it quickly adds flexibility and space. What is perplexing is why this firm won an award for it in 2013, more than five years after Icelandair already deployed an almost identical concept in its planes.

Either someone is defining innovation very loosely, or we are just giving out awards to anyone that presents fancy renderings. Many of these ideas seem like change for change’s sake and replace one problem with several that are potentially worse. The only real innovation I see here is the ability to stir up PR buzz for ho-hum ideas.

“Look Frank, I replaced the armrest ashtray with a built-in pair of nail clippers! No one can smoke on planes anymore, but everyone that flies has fingernails, right?”

Innovation! Awards all around!

Innovation is change that solves an obvious and recurring problem, in a novel way, with few drawbacks. Change without careful thought and purpose is just change.