U.K. Chain John Lewis Makes Vendors Pitch Retail Tech TV-Style

How far can retailers go to get beyond retail technology that's the same as what every other chain has? U.K. department store John Lewis held a TV-style competition this month that forced start-ups to pitch ideas for solving specific problems defined by the upmarket chain—and it was judged by business-side managers alongside IT management.

The result, as Rebecca Thomson from our media partner Retail Week learned, isn't just that vendors were pulled into thinking in terms of actual retail needs. It also pulled non-IT managers into thinking about IT. As John Lewis Retail Operations Manager Mark Lewis said, "It sparks ideas in our minds."

The cameras are rolling, a formidable-looking panel is listening intently and, in front of them, a start-up company is pitching its ideas in the hope of winning business.

But while John Lewis' first technology innovation day might look a bit like the television show Shark Tank, it isn't quite as cut-throat. The stakes are certainly high—the winning technology start-up is to try out its solution at John Lewis stores—but the whole affair is imbued with a more welcoming ethos than might be expected from a hotly contested competition. The aim, John Lewis IT Director Paul Coby says, is not to intimidate participants—instead, he hopes to give them opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have had and to find a way to sift through myriad options available to retail technology bosses.

"You get lots of E-mails from all sorts of people pitching new ideas," he says. "It's hard to know what to look at. I know some great start-up companies with great ideas, and we wanted to give them the chance to pitch, but in a structured way."

Coby came up with the idea of running a competition for technology start-ups, with the goal of boosting innovation at John Lewis and giving U.K. IT suppliers an opportunity to voice their ideas. Participants were asked to provide answers to specific retail-related problems, and entrants could choose one of three scenarios to respond to. Six finalists were chosen to present their ideas at the innovation day last week.

The retail-focused approach meant the start-ups were required to think about how their technology applied directly to John Lewis, avoiding sales-style presentations. "We wanted to come up with real-world challenges," Coby says. "We're not working in a university lab here. We're in a real retail store trying to get solutions that will benefit customers."

The retailer asked universities to help it find innovative start-ups, as well as utilizing its own network of contacts. The responses varied widely. From a system designed to give online customers access to expert advice at all times, to a system that uses QR codes to track collection items in stores, suppliers' answers to the problems were certainly imaginative.

The winning idea came from Black Marble, a Yorkshire-based software development company that tackled the issue of how to cut queues and improve stock availability in the children's shoe department. Its technology will be piloted in John Lewis stores, probably in the new year after the peak Christmas trading period.

Next Step

Black Marble suggested using RFID tags on shoe boxes in the store room so staff can find out whether products are in stock at that moment, helping staff to keep track of items on busy days.

The company also suggested managing queues using QR codes. Customers can register their presence in the shoe department by entering their name at an in-store kiosk when they arrive. They will be assigned a place in the queue, and screens around the store will show the queue's status, enabling them to browse the rest of the shop while they wait. Customers also have the option to enter their phone number into the system. If they choose to do so, a text message will arrive 10 minutes before their allotted time. In addition, the kiosks will display a QR code once customers have entered their details—if the customer chooses to scan this with their smartphone, they can keep track of the queue's progress on their mobile. The aim is to lessen the load on staff during peak times, such as at the end of the school summer holiday, and to improve customer experience by keeping shoppers informed and helping them to avoid waiting around in the shoe department.

Black Marble Engineering Director Richard Fennell said the opportunity to pitch was a good way for tech start-ups to get their voice heard in the industry. "The event is probably unique," he says. One of the main advantages, he adds, is being able to speak to staff from all over the business. "As an IT company you tend to talk to IT buyers and the IT department. But you always get a better solution if you can talk to the end users. Some places have a barrier that stops you from doing that."John Lewis Retail Operations Manager Mark Lewis says it's becoming more important for the business as a whole to be involved with technology decisions. "Consumers are more aware of the role technology plays in their lives and how it can be used, and as business leaders it's really important that we are also aware and have interest." He says listening to the start-ups' ideas can help generate inspiration of his own. "Something like today is fantastic because it enables me to hear about the latest ideas and what the latest thinking is. It sparks ideas in our minds."

With some notable exceptions, retailers haven't always been known for their innovative approach to technology. Coby hopes to change that, and says part of the purpose of the competition is to help foster innovation in John Lewis. "I want John Lewis IT to be known for being open to innovation," he says. "Technology is revolutionizing retail. It's driven by online, but it's more profound than that. IT is moving into a different position in the retail world."

As technology changes rapidly and new gadgets come thick and fast, it's a good idea to try to harness some of this energy—as the John Lewis competition shows, the benefits can be felt far beyond the IT department.

Retail Week is the U.K.'s leading provider of retail industry news and insight, top retail jobs, key retail market reports and data, from across the entire retail sector. Visit www.retail-week.com for the latest breaking news, views and analysis on the U.K. retail sector.

Sidebar 1: Good Ideas Welcome

The retail scenarios that technology start-ups were asked to respond to:

  • Customer collection in John Lewis shops. Respondents were asked to come up with ways to improve the customer and staff experience and increase the efficiency of the service.
  • John Lewis children's shoe department. Respondents were asked to come up with services that would improve stock management in the children's shoe department. They were also asked to look at how to cut queues and improve customer service.
  • Customer service across channels. John Lewis has invested heavily in its in-store customer service and the third challenge asked respondents to look at how this can be replicated and communicated in other channels.

Sidebar 2: The Competition Finalists

Corporate Group
This software supplier came up with a system to try to improve customer collections at John Lewis. Its social shopping platform would enable customers to find out their queue status and chat online to John Lewis staff. It also aims to connect online shoppers with in-store specialists, enabling shoppers to talk via video chat to a specialist sales assistant—helpful for buying big items such as mattresses or white goods.

Its solution was also designed to improve customer collections. The company advocated using mobile devices to process collections using QR codes to track products as they made their way to the collection point. Shoppers could receive texts when their collection was ready.

Black Marble
Competition winner Black Marble suggested a queue management system using in-store kiosks and mobile phones to deal with crowded children's shoe departments. It also suggested putting RFID tags on each shoe box to help staff track stock levels.

It also tackled the children's shoe challenge. Its system would enable shoppers to register their place in the queue and receive a text when it was their turn.

Cardinal Group
This company looked at how to improve online customer service. Its solution would connect online shoppers with store staff members who have specialist knowledge, giving those shoppers access to the same expertise they would get in-store.

This online video service would offer John Lewis shoppers access to virtual online experts, who can be accessed via PCs, mobile devices or kiosks.