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What can we learn from John Lewis's take on innovation?

John Lewis and start-up incubator True Start shared a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the techniques and technologies core to their business innovation during the Drapers Digital Festival last month. 

Innovation lab

Innovation lab

From beer and beauty products to business practices, over recent years there has been an avalanche of products, services and ideas badged as “innovative” in an attempt to seduce the public imagination and consumer purse. But beyond marketing exaggerations, the need for true innovation in retail and business has never been greater.

“We are in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution,” says Paul Coby, chief information officer at the John Lewis Partnership. “Things are moving fast and time is changing how we interact with each other and how people interact with retailers.”

The reality of enacting innovation in retail is complex, and was a hot topic of conversation at the Drapers Digital Festival last month. From advanced chatbots to AI and bespoke personalisation, retailers are racing to keep ahead of the curve.

Speaking at the True Start and John Lewis Innovation Tour, John Lewis’s innovation team stressed the importance of collaboration and experimentation in reimagining retail from the inside out.

Here are the learnings from their approach to innovation: 


Fail to succeed

“Fear is the biggest killer of innovation,” says John Vary, innovation manager at John Lewis. “We have to challenge that fear and cast the net further afield.”

Be it the retailer’s JLP Ventures project which looks at opportunities for new growth across the partnership, and was behind the recent trial of Waitrose’s Dinner for Tonight “meal kit” subscription service – or the innovation team’s “Room Y” laboratory, John Lewis encourages experimentation in creative thinking, without the specific pressure to immediately produce results.

“The culture of JLP Ventures is that it has to have failures in order to succeed,” explains Matt Hully, head of business development at John Lewis. “It may never have a runaway success.”

Similarly, Vary’s approach to innovation encourages thinking beyond the problem that needs solving: “We want to change thinking. Ask more questions than [you give] answers. Focus on the human and the digital. Embrace the speed of change. Do what you can’t.”


Put innovation in your DNA

As well as encouraging innovative thinking, retailers should incorporate collaborative innovation into their DNA to foster stronger relationships with their customers in the digital world.

“Brands need to start to drive innovation,” says James Lovell, European retail business executive at AI system developer IBM Watson, speaking at the Drapers Digital Festival. “There’s so much data that could be used – it could create a much more engaging relationship between brands and consumers.”

Paul Coby sees this approach as integral to the future success of John Lewis as the retail sector evolves: “People shop with us for what we stand for. But the world is changing how we shop, and what matters now is articulating our values across multiple channels.”

“We are encouraging change in a 153-year-old business,” concludes Vary. “The business needs to be pushed forwards.”


Collaborate widely

Fostering innovation relies on listening to many voices, from both inside and outside the business. As well as being a strategic partner to True Start, John Lewis runs the JLabs incubator programme, which provides funding, mentoring and office space to selected start-up businesses with the potential to solve business and retail challenges.

“We do not have a monopoly on good ideas in retail, and we asked ourselves – how could we open ourselves up to new ideas?” asks Coby. “It gives us the ability to deal with new ideas and people who do not necessarily fit in the corporate structure. What we need in the digital world is to innovate collaboratively.”

Baz Saidieh, CEO of True Start similarly encourages a symbiotic relationship between its start-ups and retailers, and its strategic partners offer advice to fledgling businesses in True Start’s London office.

“The format then allows retailers to come see the latest tech innovations in the retail sector,” says Saidieh. “They get pre-emptive access to innovations.”

As well as collaborating outside of the business, John Lewis also aims to connect within the company, making employees – which it calls “partners” – core to the development of innovation. “Partner devices”, portable tablets that allow employees to perform a series of actions from the shop, including checking stock levels and product specifications, from the shopfloor, are set to be rolled out across stores. They came about after John Lewis spoke to store staff to find out what would help them do their jobs.

“This meant the partners were really invested in the outcomes,” explains Sienne Veit, director of online product.


Be fast

When John Lewis developed partner devices, it took the idea from the drawing board to store in 90 days. The John Lewis app was redesigned in three weeks, leading to a five-star rating on the App Store and an increase in average order value.

“We focus on getting people what they want in the easiest possible way,” says Veit. “We are a 153-year-old company, and we have to keep up with super-fast, young online players. In order to keep things fast, we have to make things fast.” For the digital team, this involves a scientific approach, through extensive testing and measured results. Inside John Lewis HQ is a customer hub where five customers a day, five days a week test out John Lewis’s products, so the team can tweak and refine them there and then.

This scientific approach blends speed and execution, to ensure customer experience is always at the centre of innovation. A consumer-focused approach is similarly advocated by Roger Graell, online sales director at Mango, who insists the need for speed cannot lead to a compromise on service quality.

At the Drapers Digital Festival, he said: “When we plan the customer experience, we must execute it properly – that’s the key to success. We have to make sure every single step the customer takes in ecommerce is done properly. It’s better to take small but well-executed steps, rather than go fast and not deliver the expected response.”


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