Comment: Three start-ups, three themes

Retailers wishing to understand the key trends in retail technology – and more importantly, how they can engage with them – would be well advised to keep a close eye on the start-up scene.

Start-ups have an uncanny knack of identifying a specific pain point or key trend and addressing that with laser focus. With that in mind, Kurt Salmon co-founded XRC Labs, an innovation accelerator investing in innovative entrepreneurs and start-ups in the retail and consumer goods industries, leveraging emerging technologies regardless of start-up size. As well as investment, the selected start-ups receive mentorship, education and access to potential investors and customers. Siobhan Gehin, partner at Kurt Salmon, looks at some of the innovative concepts that have emerged from the XRC and how these address retail challenges.

Theme 1: Labour scheduling is broken

We've heard a lot in recent years about how power has shifted from big corporations to the consumer – power to the employee may well be the next trend. Many employees still work on zero hours or low hours contracts, with little control or insight into their rotas or cashflow for the weeks to come. Likewise, employers are increasingly challenged to attract and motivate better front line service teams and to achieve right people, right place, right time. Doing this without negatively impacting profitability – and Brexit and the National Living Wage will not help here – is becoming a real pain point for retailers and restaurateurs alike. Enter Forge, a San Francisco-based start-up that applies Uber's taxi service principles to the production and management of employee rotas and schedules. "Our vision is to fix how hourly labour is scheduled, trained, and managed", says CEO Stacey Ferreira.

Employers use Forge to hold details of their current employees, including skill levels, safety training. They can also use it as a platform for holding details of potential candidates and receiving job applications as well as for posting rotas and available hours. Individuals in turn can look for jobs in companies that interest them, can get pre-approved by attending an interview, completing induction and training modules and offering their availability for the shift times and dates of their choice. And, just as with Uber, Airbnb and other similar platforms, the review system allows the employer to recognise employee performance, but also allows employees to rate the store manager – valuable information for both the manager and for field management/ head office teams.

Theme 2: Wearables

Wearables is already a huge market, estimated to hit $14 billion in 2016 and forecast to grow to $34 billion in 2020. Devices such as smart watches and fitness trackers have dominated so far, but smart fabrics is another area with huge potential. How great would it be to have clothes that heat up or cool the wearer and adjust the level of protection from the sun depending on the weather?

Loomia (formerly TheCrated) is a smart apparel platform that won Topshop's wearable tech programme. Loomia says: "We turn fabric into circuit boards, replacing rigid wires with flexible and soft fabric for textile based wearables… this means comfy heated jackets, biometric hospital gowns, and responsive car interiors." Loomia is due to work alongside Topshop's design team to develop a heated garment prototype. Its founder, 22-year old Madison Maxey, has collaborated with major companies, including a co-branded project led by Google and fashion designer Zac Posen, for which she designed a programmable LED dress. Her creations, like an electrically-heated jacket and a collection of UV-responsive apparel, push technical boundaries while remaining aesthetic objects.

Smart fabrics such as the Loomia products should be on the radar of any fashion- forward clothing brand, as well as makers of functional clothing (outdoor wear etc.).

Theme 3: Mobile meets smart home

This is really two key themes in one: the world is now on mobile… and the smart home is becoming mainstream. Tech companies such as Apple are looking at future generations of the smartphone – but there may be potential to have the smartphone blend even more seamlessly into domestic life.

Perseus Mirrors does just that – it takes the phone's home screen and projects it onto a wall. Apps and widgets can be added to receive texts, check the weather, see a commute, view a calendar, and even display the news. The mirror can also stream video. A great example of how this could work in practice would be to stream a makeup tutorial to help a customer practice putting on eyeliner; the customer could then snap a hands-free selfie with the HD camera and post it on social media.

This has massive potential. There is likely to be huge interest from cosmetics companies wanting to use this type of smart technology to drive consumer engagement. It could certainly interface nicely with the plethora of apps for controlling a home environment and managing home security, an area consumer electronics and mobile phone retailers – and even Ocado – is exploring now.

Connecting with start-ups is a must for retailers wishing to continue to adapt their proposition and approach to continue to win in a digital world.

The Kurt Salmon team writes a regular column on technology in retail for Essential Retail.

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