How to Ensure Retail Tech Labs are Successful

Tesco, Marks & Spencer and John Lewis have all announced the creation of technology laboratories. From the technology vendor perspective, here’s my ten recommendations to retailers to ensure success.

Be clear on your rationale. Are you looking to for a place to pilot new ideas you’ve already decided to roll-out? Or a demonstration facility to help convince senior management to invest more in technology? Or even skunk works for your own technology teams to showcase new ideas? Whichever, make sure you know what success looks like and wrap this up in a Charter which you can share with suppliers, technology vendors and your own staff.

Build your own use cases. You know your customers better than anyone else so get your teams to set challenges for the lab, such as improving certain processes or finding cheaper or more exciting ways of reaching customers. Resist the temptation to ask your vendors for new ideas or you may just get recycled innovation from their other customers.

Give your existing suppliers first crack. There are plenty of sexy start-ups in retail technology but your own vendors know you best. Give them first chance to show you what they can do.

Don’t be greedy. You’re probably asking vendors into your lab and expecting them to work for free so as to make you (and them) look good. There’s a temptation to charge an additional fee for access to your brand and customers. One retailer even once asked me for a royalty on all future sales. Don’t give in. Make sure you’re working with the right vendors, not jut the ones prepared to pay.

The value of investments can go down as well as up. The vendors you bring into the lab may pitch you an opportunity to buy equity. Just say no. You’re expert in buying technology. Investing in it is quite a different game and best left to the professionals.

Spread the love. Labs are hard work and suck up resource from your vendors as well as other teams in your own business. Be generous with praise and reflected glory. Put videos on YouTube with name checks for the people involved, enter awards and give testimonials. You want the best and brightest to work with you rather than your competitors so show them you care.

Get a high traffic location. The lab needs a wide audience so it’s best located at head office or a major store near a railway station. If PR is what it’s about, then London has overwhelming advantages.

Be clear what you’re testing. However tempting it may be to replicate a fully functional store, think carefully about integrating demonstrations to your live systems. Often, there’ll be a cheaper, quicker and less risky way of proving the same point.

Local tech support. Wherever you put it, the lab will need onsite support from technicians that know what they’re doing. Innovative stuff goes wrong more often and your integrations will be pretty basic and unreliable. You don’t want everything failing when the CEO comes to visit. It’s happened to me and it’s not pretty.

Guard your staff. Technology vendors pay better than retailers. Make sure your best people are happy or in the heady and innovative laboratory mix of business and technology, your suppliers may pinch them.

An edited version of this blog first appeared in Retail Week (££).