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JLab 2017 retail startups describe tackling retail’s biggest challenges

This year’s cohort of retail startups in the JLab accelerator describe the retail challenges their businesses face and how the 2017 JLab differs from the rest

Each year, the John Lewis Partnership works with L Marks to run a summer accelerator for retail startups to find some of the newest innovations in retail technology.

Five startups entered the 2017 JLab this summer to take advantage of mentorship from John Lewis executives and, for the first time, Waitrose joined the programme to contribute to helping the startups.

Waitrose’s introduction to the programme saw various kinds of startup enter the lab, many based around food and grocery shopping.

After the lab’s demo day at the end of the summer, a decision will be made about how to divide up possible investment in some of the businesses. In previous years, one winner was selected, but 2016 was the first year that several of the startups received funding and continued to access mentors.

Each of the startups – Mucho, BB1, Journifi, Exaactly and WeFiFo – explained to Computer Weekly what retail challenges they aim to tackle and how the JLab has helped them.


Smart grocery shopping application Mucho aims to provide personalised daily recipes, enabling users to order ingredients based on these recipes when needed.

Shanshan Xu, Mucho’s co-founder and CFO, said she and her co-founder created the business to prevent confusion when visiting foreign supermarkets.

“My co-founder and I are from foreign countries, so when we came to the UK, we experienced an explosion of choices in the supermarket,” she said. “A lot of locals have the same confusion.

“Too much information is not necessarily a good thing, especially as lifestyle is a lot faster nowadays.”

As many people no longer have time to select and shop for recipes, Mucho has developed a “curated” experience based on an individual’s behaviour and preferences.

When joining the service, users are asked to fill out a questionnaire to begin setting their preferences, and over time this could cater to trends such as changes in mood, food trends in the local area and allergies.

Data collected on user behaviour, through in-app browsing and search patterns, will help cater to an individual’s trends, addressing the new consumer trend of impulsive top-up shopping that has developed because of an increasingly face-paced lifestyle.

Xu said: “A lot of the input is around users we have met so far – they want something very quick, something easy, close to them, hence the personalised recommendation so that we understand this person.”

Mucho is particularly interested in input from Waitrose, which already has experience in personalised consumer perks through its myWaitrose programme.

Xu said one of the biggest surprises from JLab was how quickly the time passed. “As the weeks go by, you think ‘It’s not enough!’,” she said. “We knew from the beginning how much time we’d have, but I didn’t realise it would be this intense.”


It can be hard for retailers to track behaviour and footfall in physical stores, so BB1 uses data analytics to track customer flow around a shop.

By monitoring footfall, businesses can predict when more staff are needed, whether displays are drawing in customers or increasing purchases, and make adaptations based on collected data.

Co-founder Justin Staines, who is also CTO for a retail firm, said BB1 was created after he realised measuring footfall using physical CCTV – which is common for many retailers – was not as efficient as it could be.

Instead, BB1 uses freely anonymous mobile phone data generated from phones with location services turned on to monitor when someone comes into a store, allowing retailers to measure a store’s occupancy without expensive hardware.

Staines said: “We want to solve the measuring footfall for retail outlets without having to install cameras and what we basically want to bring is Google analytics to bricks-and-mortar stores.”

Data in the BB1 system can tell a retailer how many people have walked by a store, how many lingered, how many entered a shop and how this might compare to other stores on the high street – details that Staines said would be difficult to find even if a store has footfall cameras.

Staines called this using “clever maths” to connect open data together from places such as Google, Facebook and Foursquare to paint a picture of consumer behaviour.

“We can give an indication of how busy the store is at certain times of day, over the last 12 months and also in real time, but also what we can do is show use compared against their competitors,” he said.

By taking part in JLab, Staines hoped to better understand the mechanics of retailers such as John Lewis and Waitrose, learning how to work with legacy systems or contracts.

After half-writing a product on pitch day to demonstrate the startup’s aims, Staines said he aimed to “fail fast or succeed” to find out whether BB1 could be integrated into retail systems in the future and to gain essential insights from people close to the retail agenda.

“Our mentors are all very well-seasoned retail executives – they know what to do,” he said. “I’m a computer geek.

“It’s partnership, and that’s what I like. They can see if we could increase productivity.”


Creating a seamless omnichannel experience between online and offline shopping is a struggle for many retailers.

machine learning platform Journifi aims to address this by analysing consumer behaviour and offering personalised services to convert online shoppers to in-store shoppers.

Luke Peake, Journifi’s founder and CEO, said the company did not actually exist when he applied to JLab, and was born out of an idea discovered during a hackathon.

“We literally did the hackathon because we thought it would be a fun team-building exercise,” he said. “We didn’t go into it with the preconceived notion of coming up with a great idea we could spin off into another company.

“It just so happened that we hit the nail on the head with the idea of linking online and offline shopping.”

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Journifi uses behaviour analytics to understand when customers might be confused by a decision, for example if they are searching for a product that needs to be tested, and can offer consumers a tailored experience that encourages them into a store to test products and complete a purchase.

“You are turning that potential customer from an online browser into an physical retail purchaser,” said Peake. “We give them a tailored experience on the site that pushes them through to the in-store experience.”

Peake said he thought future shopping will be “a seamless mesh of online and offline” and that John Lewis matches the Journifi concept because of its dedication to the customer experience.

Many of the startups who have been through JLab say the most valuable part of the experience is the access to executives and mentors who can give valuable advice about the retail industry.

Peake said: “What has surprised me most about JLab has actually been how engaged the partnership has been with us as startups. We are sat on the same side of the table working collaboratively.”

Being able to talk to John Lewis executives, as well as visit stores and talk to store managers has helped Peake determine where Journifi might fit into the John Lewis Partnership.


Bea Warner, co-founder and CEO of Exaactly, was living in a rural location that no delivery service seemed able to find when she came up with the idea for Exaactly.

Allowing consumers to submit personalised delivery preferences to the platform, Exaactly makes it easier for deliveries to take place by using photos, instructions and GPS coordinates to designate a clear delivery point.

Many deliveries fail because of the increasingly busy lifestyle that technology is enabling – people are often not home during the day and click-and-collect services are increasing consumer expectation.

As well as the cost of the failed delivery, when consumers do not get their goods for whatever reason, a brand can suffer a drop in loyalty even if it was a courier’s fault.

“When someone feels the pain of a failed delivery and they get carded, they blame the retailer for that – they don’t necessarily blame the courier,” said Warner.

“Knowing that we all live in a very mobile age, no one is really at home during the day and no one is prepared to stay at home waiting for an eight-hour delivery slot.”

Delivery drivers will be able to see consumer preferences for a delivery for a limited time while they are in possession of a product, and in the future, Warner hopes behaviour analytics will be able to determine where someone will be and when, so a package can be dropped off.

Warner described being able to work with the John Lewis partnership as an “insane opportunity” and is particularly interested in working with Waitrose as the cost of a missed delivery for food shopping can be very expensive.

An average Waitrose shopping basket can cost more than £100, and if a delivery cannot be made first time, a supermarket may often have to scrap all the products in that delivery.

Warner said: “You’re not just talking time and cost of redelivery, fuel and man-hours, but also the basket spend itself.”

Exaactly has been working with the Waitrose delivery drivers to see how the service could fit in with the supermarket.


As an avid traveller Seni Glaister, CEO of WeFiFo, has often been invited into strangers’ houses for dinner.

Noticing that this is a rare occurrence in the UK, Glaister thought up the WeFiFo platform to connect people who are willing to cook with guests who have no one to eat with.

As a big fan of the Airbnb platform, Glaister said she wants to use WeFiFo to “do for the kitchen table what Airbnb has done for the spare room”.

Some of the people on the platform are Michelin-star chefs who invite people into their home to eat an expertly cooked meal; others are elderly people who have no relatives to dine with.

WeFiFo makes money out of charging commission for the connection, and the host gets money from the other participants – the more people a user feeds, the more money they will make.

The social aspect of the business interests Glaister more than anything else. “What’s far more interesting than a tech solution is the community we are building around it,” she said.

As Waitrose was taking part in the accelerator for the first time, WiFiFo jumped at the chance when invited to apply.

Glaister said: “It doesn’t matter how much experience you’ve got or how many businesses you’ve worked with, each one is different and we’ve met some extraordinary people.”

Glaister’s attitude towards the accelerator could act as an example to other startups looking to succeed, as the firm applied for JLab despite not being on the lookout for an accelerator.

“If a door is only partially open, you have to walk through it,” she said.

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