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John Lewis eyes IoT and iBeacon technology

Caroline Baldwin

John Lewis is experimenting with internet of things (IoT) and iBeacon indoor positioning technology to shape the future of retail.

The retailer is working with startup technology companies to explore this technology, as well as other emerging technologies, including smart labelling and 3D room planning.

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Today, John Lewis announced five startups which have secured a place in the retailer’s startup incubator, JLab. The finalists represent a range of ideas which have the potential to change the future of shopping.

Paul Coby, IT Director at John Lewis said: “Our five finalists have everything I’d hoped and dreamed for and are really good in terms of in-store digital management.”

JLab sought out an interesting spread of retail technologies with companies from different backgrounds and in different states of development.

Coby was in San Francisco and Seattle last week and told Computer Weekly how impressed he was by the innovation from the big stores in America, especially iBeacon indoor positioning technology and home automation, which he said are “enormously hot on the West Coast”.  

The five JLab finalists:

  1. Localz, in-store digital engagement using proximity and iBeacon technology;
  2. Musaic, wireless sound system for smart homes;
  3. SpaceDesigned, online 3D room planning;
  4. Tap2Connect, smart labelling for after-sales care;
  5. Viewsy, in-store digital engagement using in-store sensors to track customer behaviour.

One of the JLab finalists is a wireless sound system for smart homes. “It’s an interesting use of technology in an area of the home where a lot of people are thinking how devices connect up,” said Coby.

“We’re thinking about how home automation could get to the next stage,” he said. “We’re trying to do understand where technology is going.”

Home automation

Home automation is making waves in security, music and energy efficiency, and John Lewis is specifically interested in the technologies behind smart devices, smart lighting and how the IoT could interact with large electrical goods.

Coby said it is important for John Lewis to be at the forefront of this technology, because home automation fits into one of the core pillars for the department store – home products. “Large white goods, IT, sound systems – it will help us understand what people want from this emerging technology,” he said.

The five startups will move into the JLab office space in the Level39 technology accelerator and receive initial funding of £12,500 as well as access to John Lewis proprietary technology including platforms, data and APIs. The startups will be mentored by experts including Luke Johnson, chairman of Risk Capital Partners; and Sarah Murray OBE, founder of confused.com, alongside a range of John Lewis leaders.

Following a 12-week incubation period, the JLab mentors will select a winning company who will receive up to £100,000 in further investment and the chance to trial their system in-store.

Coby said it is important for new technologies to fit in with the John Lewis customer values and how customers expect the retailer to behave with them. “It’s really important to understand how one can use iBeacons,” he said. “It’s not going to work if it’s seen as something that’s pestering me any more than a sales assistant going up to somebody in the store and offer something they’re not particularly interesting.”

John Lewis has already experimented with an iBeacon application which connects to a mannequin and currently resides in the IT department. “We build the technology relatively easily, but what is the use case?”

“What we’re really concerned about is the human interaction, not about the technology,” added Coby. “We need to be providing people with things they want in the ways they want to consume and know about them.”

Picking winners in the early days

He said that the point of the next few weeks in JLab is to give the startups space and stimulus to build on their ideas. He said the startups may come out of the process with polished products or even radically different ideas. He said some of the startups may even put their ideas together.

Stuart Marks, technology entrepreneur and partner in JLab, said: “Picking winners and losers is difficult because it is still early days. But the essence of JLab is to allow the startups to develop their product to the next stage with John Lewis guiding, so they have something to commercialise at the end.”

“There are hundreds of companies playing in IoT and iBeacons, but ultimately, you’re only a success if John Lewis is prepared to buy from you.”


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