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Waitrose joins John Lewis for Jlab 2017

The 2017 JLab will see Waitrose, John Lewis and JLP Ventures band together to mentor and develop several retail technology startups

Luxury supermarket chain Waitrose has joined John Lewis for the first time to mentor and grow startups in the retail technology sector.

Waitrose, part of the John Lewis Partnership, aims to use the accelerator to find food technology startups that can improve customer experience in stores and tackle some of the challenges faced by supermarkets in a digital era.

Sarah Venning, IT and strategy director at John Lewis, said as technology and omni-channel has changed customer expectations, experience has become a huge part of food shopping, and this is something Waitrose wants to work on through Jlab.

“This is about enabling Waitrose to see what the opportunities are around experiential shopping and food services,” she said.

Entering its fourth year, the 2017 Jlab introduced a category called Food Experiences, alongside its other categories called Store Experiences, Effortless Shopping, Health and Wellness, Smarter Supply Chain and Surprise Us.

Venning stated the categories are aimed at solving “real business problems – things that we’re worried about today and we haven’t got an answer to.”

Although the Food Experiences category is aimed at finding technology innovations aimed at improving the Waitrose supermarket experience, Venning said many of the categories are “relevant across the partnership” due to the similarities between the customers who visit Waitrose and John Lewis.

“Our customers really value it when we do things brilliantly together, such as click and collect, they’re some of the most popular parts of our business,” said Venning.

“It’s interesting seeing some of the food experiences and the health and wellness startups – it’s quite an overlapping sector.”

A total of 26 startups attended the accelerator’s pitch day to win one of the possible places in the 12-week programme where participants will gain access to mentors from both in and outside of the group, as well as the chance to win up to £100,000 of funding.

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Previously, a single participating Jlab startup would be chosen at the end of the programme to receive the full amount of funding available, but last year John Lewis selected three of the startups to receive money and further support rather than pick a single winner.

Venning stated this is a trend that may carry on into the future. “There are things other than just the investment that matter, so it seems to work better for us and it works better for startups that we can take that fluid approach to how we want to place our investments based on the companies that come through,” she said.

But Venning, and many of the startups who have passed through the Jlab’s doors, said for many of the small companies seeking time in the accelerator, cash isn’t the most important part of the experience.

For many startups, especially those beginning their first trip into entrepreneurship, mentorship can be “gold dust” and ,in many cases, mentoring relationships carry on after the programme.

“For some of them, the investment itself is quite important. But, for most of them, that’s not the primary thing they want to get out of it. They enormously value the mentoring relationships,” added Venning.

But, as always, the accelerator is a two-way street where John Lewis, and now Waitrose, will gain just as much from the programme as the startups taking part.

Although John Lewis is a large and old organisation, it has used technology to ensure it is still catering to modern customers while maintaining what is “really special” about the firm.

“It’s important for us that we enrich our own understanding of the tech industry, of how consumer behaviour is changing and how the startup scene is working so we have to look really carefully at what we learn.We’ve got no interest in being just another accelerator,” said Venning.

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