U.K. Retailers Hatch Incubators to Boost Tech Innovation

John Lewis Launches JLAB With a $166,000 Ideas Competition

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John Lewis' famous The Bear and the Hare spot
John Lewis' famous The Bear and the Hare spot

U.K. retailer John Lewis, best known for its cosy Christmas commercials and royal connections, is launching an incubator, called JLAB, to drive technological innovation by tapping into the London start-up community.

As it gears up to celebrate its 150th birthday, John Lewis is looking for five start-up companies to work with JLAB between June and September this year in search of a retail breakthrough. A John Lewis spokesman said, "We are absolutely in this for the long run and we hope this year's success leads onto more opportunities for JLAB."

The winning start-up will receive an investment of $83,000 from John Lewis, matched by another $83,000 from technology entrepreneur Stuart Marks. And just as valuable: the opportunity to try out the idea in John Lewis stores, with the possibility of a rollout across all 40 branches.

Paul Coby, IT director at John Lewis, said in a statement, "As a big business we have a certain way of doing things and this is a chance to inject some of the spirit of a start-up. As this is an in-house project, the companies will have regular input and help from the mentor team to ensure all ideas are aligned with our brand values, whilst fulfilling the strategic innovation brief."

Russ Lidstone
Russ Lidstone

Russ Lidstone, CEO of Havas Worldwide London, works with U.K. retailer Mothercare, and was planning director on Tesco while at Lowe. He said, "In the retail world you can try new things in one or two stores for relatively little upfront investment, which makes it a rich environment for innovation."

The John Lewis competition is split into four categories: customer data, improving retail experience, the internet of things, and a category called "surprise us" for ideas that can't be categorized.

Mr. Lidstone added, "An accelerator enables you to liberate innovation from the day-to-day running of a complex business. Everyone's trying to smash down the barrier between on- and off-line, and to get a slice of the 'smart shopping' pie. As Angela Ahrendts demonstrated at Burberry, it's as much about sensation per square foot as it is about sales per square foot."

Credit: Argos' Digital Hub in London

John Lewis is not the first British retailer to develop an incubator in the hope of breaking new technological ground . In January, Argos, a catalog merchant with bricks-and-mortar stores for instant fulfillment, launched the Digital Hub in London to tap into the city's start-up energy. The store's digital director, Bertrand Bodson, said in a statement, "This is about creating a space for collaboration and innovation. Building our agile capability is a strong boost to Argos' transformation plans, allowing us to bring digital solutions to the market faster and in a more timely and relevant way."

Another British retail institution, Marks & Spencer, launched its Digital Labs a year ago, assembling a small team of specialist technologists in-house to develop concepts, try out new technologies, and build prototypes.

Cameron Day, director of business development at retail agency The Marketing Store, said, "Outside of the non-profit organizations, retail campaigns won the most awards at Cannes last year, which shows what an innovative and creative sector it is. John Lewis has built strong credibility in combining the on- and off-line worlds, but it still feels like the potential to interact with customers and understand their habits and influences is untapped and underutilized."

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