John Lewis seeks out innovation from technology startups

John Lewis has been investing in technology innovation to keep ahead of the game in the changing landscape of the UK high street

John Lewis has been investing in technology innovation to keep ahead of the game in the changing landscape of the UK high street.

“The fundamental challenge for us is how technology can support us being an omni-channel retailer,” said Sarah Venning, head of IT relationships, John Lewis. “We want to give customers the coherent and consistent John Lewis experience across whatever channel they’re shopping on.”

The retailer defines omni-channel as the seamless experience customers feel when they change between shopping online and in store. 

John Lewis IT director, Paul Coby said: “It is about creating a new way people will shop. It's not just about being in a building or online, but joining these things up.”

One of its omni-channel offerings was launching a store in Exeter last year which was half the size of a conventional store, but heavily integrated with IT. Customers were encouraged to go to a terminal to choose a product and then collect it in store.

The retailer has also experimented with large interactive screens with product information, as well as implementing augmented reality in window displays.

UK startups: essential guide

This article is part of a series where Computer Weekly aims to connect CIOs with technology startups.

If you're thinking of looking for technology solutions from small innovative companies, but you’re not sure where to look or how to approach them, you may be interested in our UK startups articles.

This guide provides you with everything you need to know about startups in the UK, with news, business profiles and advice starting relationships with UK startups.

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Venning says that the retailer is currently looking at wireless technologies like radio-frequency identification (RFID) and tech to support its popular click-and-collect service. But the company is always asking how can it experiment with these technologies, while making it cost effective from a business perspective.

“We use the whole array of tech opportunities to deliver a brilliant customer experience which is cost effective and efficient,” Venning says.

Innovation through startups

One way that the retailer finds innovation in a cost effective manner is by looking at technology startups.

John Lewis works with a wide range of different suppliers from large traditional firms to early-stage startup companies.

Venning finds startups ideal to work with because they are fresh thinking and have the speed to get things done quickly as you deal with fewer people than larger suppliers. 

There’s often a real can-do attitude... [startups] are prepared to tear down walls

Sarah Venning, John Lewis

“There’s often a real can-do attitude,” she says. “They’re prepared to tear down walls.”

She says that when you meet with a very early-stage company - five people, no funding and initial pitches - those conversations are by their very nature different to those with the established players.

When it comes to working with startups she says: “Generally, we tend to be the exception rather than norm.”

Venning says that traditional suppliers are also committed to keeping up to date with the latest innovation, which means that these companies often recommend startups themselves. 

“That’s a good way for small suppliers to get onto our radar,” she says. “It’s a great thing for small businesses if they get a strong network themselves across the broader IT space.

“There are a range of different ways that we find these startups, sometimes these startups find us as well,” she says.

Cold calls

We get a huge number of blanket cold calls, where organisations haven’t even bothered to find out job titles

But not all startups have been smart enough to do their research. “We get a huge number of blanket cold calls, where organisations haven’t even bothered to find out job titles, or tailored differently to different retailers,” Venning says.

And if a startup manages to catch the retailer’s attention Venning says that it is not uncommon for success to overwhelm small companies. 

“They need to make sure that they don’t bite off more than they can chew,” she says.

Last year, the retailer decided to take its search for innovation into its own hands by running a Great British Innovation Event. In the spirit of the Olympics and Jubilee celebrations, John Lewis wanted to capitalise on small British startups to answer some of their technology business challenges.

“We had a big marketplace with well over 100 people from organisations across all sorts of different areas to really understand what these tech solutions are.”

Pitching to the experts

This was followed by a Dragons' Den-style pitch scenario where a panel of experts in retail and online questioned the ideas.

One of business challenges set by John Lewis was to reduce the queuing time in the children’s shoe department.

Black Marble UK rose to the shoe queuing challenge with their idea for advanced bookings using in-store tablets. The solution allows parents to book a time slot to return to the department later.

The retailer is currently working on a proof of concept to be trialed in front of customers in the near future. 

“If successful, we will roll it out to the whole estate," says Venning. "If not, we will learn from the experience and move swiftly on.” 

While there was one winner, John Lewis is continuing to have conversations with a number of companies from the event. “We found exciting new ideas with organisations we didn’t tend to typically work with,” says Venning.

John Lewis plans to run another event towards the end of this year with different business challenges.

“You never know whether innovation is going to be a success, you do it and do lots of innovation to find the one gem,” says Venning. 

“It’s not about every idea being the Holy Grail, there are new ideas all the time - thinking, thinking thinking.”

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