RBTE 2017: Why John Lewis introduced mobile devices for store staff

John Lewis is "levelling the playing field between customers and sales assistants" by deploying portable iPhone 6 devices across its store estate.

Speaking at the RBTE 2017 conference in London earlier this month, Sean O'Connor, head of online product at John Lewis, described how, nine months ago, the retailer introduced the devices for staff at its Cambridge department store.

"Customers have super computers in their pockets and the world's information at their fingertips," he said. "Customers have changed the way they shop and they're continuing to change the way they shop."

He added: "The growth of mobile has been phenomenal… and the service proposition has had to change as a result of shopper behaviour changing."

He explained how John Lewis store assistants – or partners as they're known internally – would come into work and lock away their phone for the day. "They had till points to access information – but typically they were reliant on training and experience."

Choosing the right device

For the trial, John Lewis decided on iPhone 6 devices over other models or tablets because of its portability. The retailer also decided not to lock down the devices. "We decided to keep the camera, browser and even the torch to see how the partners used them," said O'Connor.

The retailer also deployed "super high tech" lockers – which are also used by the Met Police for storing firearms. The lockers are connected to the John Lewis network and use biometrics to release a device for the day. "A fingerprint installed a real sense of ownership for our partners and they understood the value and the trust."

On top of the device and software investments, John Lewis also had to upgrade its wireless network, creating a dedicated network just to support the iPhone devices and Airwatch software to manage the devices remotely.

O'Connor described how a peer-to-peer support model was introduced to encourage the 400 Cambridge partners to share best practices while getting used to the devices, without the need of the tech department. "In John Lewis it's great that we retain our staff for a long period of time, but some aren't tech savvy or have a fear of technology – it was meant not to be intimidating so they could coach partners across the shop," he explained.

A partner called Paul who's worked in John Lewis tailoring department for 34 years was initially concerned by the technology, but ended up being the first partner to make a sale, saying the software was "so intuitive age wouldn't be a barrier".

Staff response

Store staff responded to the devices well, praising how helpful it was to access product and price information online, as well as scan barcodes, read ratings and reviews, and email customers product codes instead of a scribbling them down on a piece of till roll.

O'Connor also said stock availability was a "killer feature" thanks to no more wasted trips to the stock room, which in large stores could be three floors away.

The devices can also be used to build baskets for customers. "Partners can serve that customer side-by-side with them and complete the transaction by either taking them to the traditional till, hand the device to the customer to complete online, or email that basket to check-out on their own device at a time that suits them."

One partner even managed to sell a £280 Dyson hoover to a Chinese customer who only spoke Mandarin, using Google Translate to share the specifications of the hoover.

Outcome and future use case

The Cambridge trial resulted in a clear and tangible uplift in sales compared to the control group. While O'Connor couldn't share any specific figures, he said it was "enough to warrant further investment of roll out and to get buy-in from the board."

Meanwhile, the email feature collected 5,000 customer email addresses since the deployment nine months ago. These product emails sent to consumers not quite ready to commit to a purchase also resulted in a four times higher conversion rate than traditional email campaigns.

O'Connor said the retailer has now dedicated £4 million to roll out iPhones to 20 more shops, starting with Peter Jones, Swindon, Chelmsford and Liverpool, with Oxford Street launching in July.

"If we get those right we'll have 30 more shops to do next year which will be our entire estate."