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Five key takeaways from John Lewis’ JLab

In the fourth annual John Lewis start-up programme, the prize money was split between two innovative companies which battled their way through the competition impressing judges from John Lewis and Waitrose. Essential Retail speaks to John Lewis futurologist, John Vary, to find out what he learnt from this year’s JLab accelerator.

1. The rise of FemTech

John Lewis recently concluded JLab 2017, with two startups receiving a share of £100,000 investment. In a JLab first, this year’s winners, WeFiFo and Exaactly are both driven by women.

“It’s been great to see so many female-led companies not just apply to JLab, but also be part of our cohort for 2017. It’s brilliant progress and one we’ll continue cultivating as we look ahead to 2018’s programme,” says Vary.

JLab investment is based on a number of factors, from technology innovation to market potential, as well as how each of the teams worked with John Lewis and Waitrose mentors and performed throughout the programme.

Both WeFiFo and Exaactly came into the process with business models that put an interesting spin on the retail and grocery model, observes Vary. Exaactly taps into consumers’ search for more convenience and personalisation in all aspects of their lives.

“They have always been clear that they want to transform delivery in the way PayPal transformed payments, and that’s precisely the kind of focused ambition we appreciate,” he says. “The developments they’ve got on the horizon around more dynamic delivery are incredibly exciting.”

WeFiFo, meanwhile, is AirBnB-meets-the-kitchen table. The platform connects home chefs, supper clubs and professional chefs with paying guests. And following interaction with John Lewis and Waitrose the start-up is beginning to look at hosting its dining experiences in store branches.

The startup’s platform is already used both by Michelin star chefs and people who may not have anyone else to eat with. “That kind of community-minded approach really echoes our own ethos at the John Lewis Partnership.”

2. Spirit of innovation spreads across the Partnership

Vary says the John Lewis Partnership has become bolder in how it embeds finalists within the business to maximise learnings on both sides. For example, in previous years it only held a handful of trials during the programme. In 2017, this expanded to multiple companies.

“The results are clear. We have ultimately become far swifter in both spotting the innovations we want to experiment with and making it happen. This demonstrates just how far the spirit of innovation has spread across the John Lewis Partnership, leading to some fantastic results,” Vary comments.

“We’ve explored hosting a WeFiFo dining experience in John Lewis and Waitrose shops, experimented with new fulfillment schemes for Waitrose with Exaactly and trialled Mucho’s Click & Collect solution during the 2017 programme.”

3. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

John Lewis is something of a pioneer when it comes to retail technology incubators, and various other retailers have since followed in its footsteps.

“As the UK’s biggest retail accelerator, I certainly believe that JLab has played a huge role in inspiring the launch of other programmes. We’re proud that John Lewis was at the forefront of this trend and, far from running its course, I think this programme is building momentum and importance each year,” Vary states.??

What sets John Lewis Partnership apart, he argues, is its rich heritage and knowledge of the retail sector, and how closely it collaborates with start-ups on the programme. Rather than housing the businesses offsite with infrequent contact, it brings the businesses into its head offices and meets with them regularly to feedback on their progress, offer every facet of business insight and people to provide advice on how to develop their models.

“With Waitrose on-board this year, this is now a truly John Lewis Partnership accelerator and can offer start-ups unrivalled access to two of the country’s leading retailers.”

4. Ask not what tech can do for you, but what you can do for tech

Vary believes that the future of retail technology lies in moving away from what tech can do for us, to focus on what we can do for tech.

“There’s a multitude of ways technology can optimise our partners in our shops, for example. This requires an eye on how we will evolve in society and the challenges we’ll face along the way. Only then can you start layering in emerging technologies.”

5. Keep moving and don’t limit yourself to one channel

For the John Lewis Partnership, it’s all about adapting to the continual changes in how customers behave both in-store and online. “Retailers should consider how they can engage with their customers across all channels, rather than just splitting them into strictly online or offline consumers,” says Vary.

He adds: “The most valuable shoppers for us are those that aren’t limited to any one channel alone. It’s about providing the best experiences across every channel, providing customers with multiple efficient options to access the brand.”

With that in mind, what can we expect from JLab 2018? “The purpose of JLab has always been to embrace emerging technologies and explore closer relationships with innovative young companies,” he stresses.

“While we’re always looking to tinker with the programme to learn from previous years, that goal must remain central to any accelerator we run. We’ve got some exciting plans afoot that we’re currently working on and all will be revealed in the coming months.” 

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