​How John Lewis is disrupting the retail space through creative innovation

The UK retail giant’s innovation manager reveals what it takes to disrupt a highly competitive consumer-led marketplace

John Vary at the Executive Connections event, hosted by CMO and CIO magazines in partnership with ADMA
John Vary at the Executive Connections event, hosted by CMO and CIO magazines in partnership with ADMA

UK department store, John Lewis, has tried and tested multiple innovation tactics in order to disrupt itself and meet the needs of the modern customer-led, omnichannel environment. And it’s gained international kudos as a result.

The retail group’s innovation manager, John Vary, took to the stage at this week’s Executive Connections event, hosted by CMO, CIO and ADMA in Sydney, to reveal a host of key projects and operational step changes that are allowing innovation to flourish inside the organisation.

For Vary, one of the key things when formulating any new idea is to ask how it makes the customer feel.

“I’m a technologist, but I still know it is important to consider how you are making people feel,” he told attendees. “We can try to pre-empt what technology will do in the future, but to me the one constant is human behaviour and human emotion.”

At John Lewis, Vary said his goal is to allow story to drive technology and provide multi-sensory experiences for the customer.

“We want to revolutionise how customers engage with the brand,” he said. “Sometimes we’re faced with a lot of skepticism, but we don’t want to talk about innovation, we just want to do things. We want to get things into the store and get things in front of customers. Most of all, we want to learn and understand if a solution is scalable.”

Technology meets customer experience

One innovative idea Vary’s team recently rolled out is a ‘head of design’ for the company’s new home department on Oxford Street in London. The 2.5 metre-physical head contained an app that used psychometric testing to determine what interior home style customers would like.

“We wanted to compress the whole home shopping experience into a 3-minute design tool,” he explained. “So we asked customers to take this detailed test and afterwards you could see your own design style that you could then email to yourself for future reference. We thought this was a nice way to start discussions by people that would potentially buy our furniture. It was a new way to evoke different kinds of emotion.”

Augmented reality has also played an instrumental part in engaging John Lewis customers and generating positive brand experiences. As an example, the retailer’s innovation team joined forces with a tech developer to create an augmented reality app that used scanning technology to allow customers to visualise how furniture like a table or chair would physically look like in their home.

The team further developed a piece of software using satellite imaging technology that brought customers’ favourite toys ‘to life’ via a digital screen. ‘Monty’s magical toy machine’ was designed to drive customer engagement and connectivity with John Lewis’ toy merchandise.

More recently, John Lewis worked closely with the UK Government’s innovation agency on a virtual reality project to try and encourage innovation in that space.

“Again, there is a lot of talk about virtual reality, but we really want to understand what that means for the customer,” Vary said. “Can I go from a picture in a magazine, and turn it into a virtual living room? That’s the sort of thing we’re currently in the process of developing.”

Another way Vary’s team has been instrumental in customer engagement was in a promotion for premium international makeup brand, Charlotte Tilbury, in-store, using a creative digital booth and window installation.

“We created a gif booth so you could go in, have your makeover and then create a gif celebrating your new makeup look,” he explained. “You could then forward it to yourself and share that on social media. What we also did was give these customers the opportunity to have their name in our window and their faces. We took over two giant screens in Oxford Street and once the customer saved the gif it was also published on the window.

“Two years ago, this would have never happened in John Lewis’ shop windows.”

Inside the innovation hub

Most of John Lewis’ cutting-edge innovation happens in a basement office called ‘Room Y’.

“We have software development, design and engineering together and we look at how we can embed technologies into all these physical things,” Vary said. “Having a culture of disruptive behaviour is so important and the team I work with challenge me every day. I really enjoy that, because together, you can do some really amazing stuff.”

But while he may be in the thick of innovation, Vary warned others against being too caught up in buzzwords and phrases around innovation, like ‘start with the customer’ or ‘think about the status quo’.

“This frustrates me a bit, because you don’t just have understand the customer, you also need to have your own identity,” he said. “What’s great about us is we can provide the whole end-to-end experience, from design to development to deployment. We don’t have to constantly go to other areas of the business to ask permission or get help, which would really slow down the process.”

Innovation isn’t just restricted to the internal team, either. Last year, John Lewis rolled out ‘JLab’, an environment where innovators from around the world can pitch their ideas. First-year JLAB competition winner was Melbourne-based tech business, Localz, which created a beacon that could tell retailers when a customer has walked into a store based on their phone signal and digital identity.

“The teams see the real value in bringing people together from all over the world and seeing ideas trigger,” Vary added. “For us, this is a huge success and we’ll definitely be continuing this moving forward.”

Top takeaways from John Lewis’ innovation strategy:

  • Create a culture that evokes disruptive behaviour
  • Reward curiosity and fearlessness
  • Build multi-disciplined teams that understand human, digital and physical spaces (such as brand, IT, insights, on and offline)
  • Build a framework around exploration and rapid prototyping – thinking by making does work
  • Encourage cross-functional collaboration.

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