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John Lewis startup incubator Jlab has seen its first round of pitches from small businesses hoping to take part in the programme’s second year.
A panel of judges has heard pitches from 24 startups that have been picked to share ideas for retail technology products.
“Retail is so competitive in the UK that if you can just move the dial a little bit it makes a difference to where people shop and how people perceive your brand,” said technology entrepreneur and angel investor Stuart Marks.
Marks, who heads the Jlab programme, highlighted that although John Lewis has a lot of creative and innovative people internally, it’s important for it to look outside of the organisation for new ideas.
The startups pitched their ideas to senior executives at John Lewis, who find it important not only to invest money in small companies, but also time and advice.
“We’re looking for someone who is really going to take on board what their mentors tell them,” said Marks.
“We hope people will take our advice, we’re looking for companies which, beyond the programme, are going to be able to integrate their service quickly into the John Lewis system – sometimes easier said than done,” he said.
The retailer is looking for startups aiming to solve a particular issue the industry faces.
The pitches focused on many different areas, falling into one of five categories. These were meshing the digital and physical, effortless payments, Epos smart partners, connected home, or surprise us.
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The ideas addressed challenges such as point of sale, home automation and queue management, but a main theme of the day focused on tackling the difficulty that many large retailers face when dealing with an omni-channel customer – tracking the journey from online to in-store to offer personalised loyalty.
Five to 10 of the startups will be chosen to take part in the summer incubator, during which they will receive some funding and guidance.
A final winner will then be chosen to receive the full investment of £100,000 and a contract to trial the technology in John Lewis stores.
“At John Lewis it’s incredibly important for us to be constantly innovating. We’ve been successful for 150 years because we’ve got innovation in our DNA,” said Sarah Venning, director of IT operations at John Lewis.
“We’re doing a lot of stuff internally – we’ve got a lot of people and a lot of great ideas. But it’s incredibly important to us to be able to reach outside of John Lewis and really tap in too the amazing thinking and creativity that’s happening in the startup scene,” she added.
Venning pointed out that although finding new and diverse directions is very important, the firm is not interested in “innovation for innovation’s sake”, but needs to find startups to address business issues and fit with the retailer’s “strategic priorities”.
As a business that’s “constantly reinventing itself” and addressing many challenges before other retailers in the UK, John Lewis finds it important to embrace disruption.
“It’s both the concepts – the technologies that they’re bringing to us and the customer experiences – and it’s a totally different way of working that brings new life and new thinking into our very rich innovative heritage.
“The thing about John Lewis is that, in terms of our long-term values and our long-term proposition, we’ve been absolutely consistent. It’s served us incredibly well, and it means something to our newest customers as well as our customers who have been buying their teacups from us for 40 years or so,” said Venning.
“We’ve always really embraced disruption in some ways, and the opportunities that technology disruption has brought us in the past 15 years have been absolutely massive.”