Smart labels that could help fix a washing machine, an app that can build virtual versions of customers' homes and a system to track shoppers in stores are on a short-list high-tech innovations competing for £100,000 in investment from John Lewis and tech entrepreneur Stuart Marks.
Five start-up companies have secured £12,500 each to work on developing their inventions for 15 weeks alongside mentors, including Pizza Express co-founder Luke Johnson, Confused.com founder Sara Murray and John Lewis's IT director Paul Coby under the JLAB scheme. The best project will then get the chance to become a supplier to the department store, which will invest £50,000 to take a stake in the winning company alongside a matching investment from Marks, an entrepreneur and investor who has built up and sold several technology firms and runs a fund investing in new companies. The winner, and potentially some of the other more successful ideas, are also likely to become suppliers to John Lewis.
The project follows similar moves to tap into the creativity of tech entrepreneurs by other retailers including Tesco, Argos and Marks & Spencer.
Andy Street, the managing director of John Lewis, said JLAB was intended to help develop UK technology companies but also bring new ideas into the department store. "We want this to be collaborative. We want them to retain their independence so they don't go native," he said.
But John Lewis has also asked the entrepreneurs to outline a "social purpose" for their ideas that would resonate with the store's staff, who collectively own the business. Meanwhile, Street said he was keen to ensure that John Lewis did not use technology in a way that took away the "human touch", which was a really important part of the store's attraction for shoppers. "Our customers don't want technology willy-nilly, we've got to work out where it is really going to help the customer," he said.
The competition comes as strong online growth has helped John Lewis outperform its peers to produce some healthy sales increases. Despite a collapse in the share price of online retailers including Asos and AO.com, Street said there had been no change in the fundamental growth of sales via the internet, which now makes up nearly a third of John Lewis's sales. "There's no new news, the market has just woken up to a few [share price] extremisms," he said.
But Street said John Lewis was also being helped by people buying TVs to watch the World Cup, which starts this week and by a resurgence in the home improvement market. Sales of furniture and big-ticket furnishings such as carpets and curtains are on the rise after a long lull. "It's pretty much nationwide, it's not a London bubble," Street added.
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