Retail sector's success shows the importance of innovation

Jobs data from the Department of Labor released Friday show that among the 165,000 jobs added overall were 29,000 in the retail sector, results that industry trade group the National Retail Federation heralded as possibly boding well for the economy in the future.

While the numbers themselves speak volumes, it's important to consider some of the factors behind them that explain why the sector has thrived.

From omnichannel to new store formats to new products and ways of merchandising them, retailers have used a variety of innovative techniques to get customers to the store - whether physically or virtually.

During Sears Holdings' annual shareholder meeting last week, chairman and CEO Edward Lampert touted the company's investments in "integrated retail," such as online and mobile commerce and allowing customers to buy in-store and ship to their homes.

Convenience is also on the minds of supermarket operators, such as Ahold USA, which has been expanding its Peapod online grocery service and online ordering, as well as concepts like the virtual grocery stores at commuter rail stations in many major cities.

Another mass-merchandise chain, Target, partnered with the editors of Wired magazine to install Wired-branded displays featuring an assortment of products, including four available for the first time at Target, which has also been busy opening small-format stores for dense urban areas such as Chicago and San Francisco.

Walgreens has been opening Well Experience stores in major cities around the corner, creating a store that looks less like a traditional drug store and more like a small supermarket, convenience store and high-end cosmetics store rolled into one. Rite Aid has updated its Wellness store format with an even more modern look than the previous versions, while CVS has been opening Urban Cluster stores as well. All three formats are designed for the same purpose: keeping up with the times, catering to customers who are more urban, more refined in their tastes and more interested in taking responsibility for their health and wellness.

While its outside the pharmacy-retail space, Seattle-based men's clothing store Hointer has turned the concept of omnichannel on its head by using robotics and mobile apps in the store.

Throughout the early half of the 20th century and well into the latter half, researchers at Bell Labs made a world of scientific and technological breakthroughs, without which many of the consumer products people take for granted today wouldn't exist. Bell Labs is long gone, but it was a good example of the importance of innovation in a modern economy. Today, retailers are showing that to be true as well - and reaping the rewards for it.