N Brown to launch JLAB-style innovation incubator

Digital retailer N Brown is looking to tap into the global start-up community by developing a new innovation incubator.

Echoing the move made by John Lewis which established its JLAB tech accelerator in 2014, N Brown views the initiative as a way of fast-tracking new digital expertise into the organisation as well as a way of giving something back to the fledgling business community.

Set for launch this summer, JDWorks – as it has been labelled – is expected to connect N Brown with digital start-up firms from around the world. Whether or not it will involve a financial incentive for participants, similar to JLAB, remains to be seen, but the group will announce more details about the scheme in the coming weeks.

JDWorks' arrival comes amid a major transformation project at N Brown, which entails a systems overhaul and dedicated strategy to shift away from the company's catalogue retailing past towards a digital/online-first strategy.

In its full-year results announcement, published earlier this week, N Brown said that online revenue was up by 15% year-on-year in the 12 months to 27 February 2016 – with online penetration on the rise and sales via mobile devices continuing to grow.

The group's bottom-line figure, which showed statutory profit before tax down by 7.8% to £72.2 million, reflected the investments in new platforms and the closure of its clearance stores, as well as re-organisation costs and VAT related legal and professional fees. Total group revenue, which includes retail and financial services, was up by 3.5% to £866.2 million.

Andrew Higginson, chairman of N Brown, said the board was pleased with the results, particularly because they were generated against a backdrop of the ongoing transformation within the business. He also called the new financial year "a very important" one for the group based on the structural changes that are expected to come to fruition in the coming months.

"Our new IT platform will be implemented, bringing necessary and significant improvements to all areas of our business," he explained.

"However experience suggests that a programme of this scale will bring some unexpected bumps in the road. A huge amount of effort has gone into planning and preparing to mitigate these risks."