John Lewis to seek ‘romance’ in beacon technology before committing

John Lewis wants to see evidence that beacon technology can be used to prompt emotive, "romantic” responses for customers before it will committ to rolling it out to stores, as its high-street rival House of Fraser has done.

John Vary, innovation manager at the retailer, said that innovation isn’t just about “playing with a shiny bit of technology” and spending a certain sum of money to be able to say you’re an innovative company.

House of Fraser, Hawes & Curtis, and Bentalls announced yesterday that they had installed beacon-enabled mannequins in their store windows - a first for the retail industry.

Customers must first download an app, then when they are within 50 metres of a mannequin, they will receive an automatic alert about the items on display - such as price and links to purchase directly from the retailer’s website, or where they can be found within the store.

However, Vary said that for John Lewis it has to be more about building an “emotive” experience,

“There is a lot of noise [around beacon technology] and we haven’t yet seen anything that is a benefit to the customer and provides a narrative around that. What we’re seeing are loads of little pockets of technology. But I don’t want to just see technology - I want to see how we can humanise it to the point where it is actually providing something of real benefit to the customer. How we can make it emotive, how we can make it really romantic for us and the customer.”

By “romantic”, Vary explained he means the way in which the technology triggers other experiences in-store so that customers feel a connection to the brand.

“And that’s when it’s romantic – when you’re creating a multisensory experience to actually play with people’s feelings,” he said.

Among the start-ups participating in John Lewis’ incubator programme JLabs, are two which specialise in beacon and proximity technology.

Localz is an in-store digital engagement system which harnesses iBeacons to alert retailers when their best online shoppers physically arrive at their stores while Viewsy uses in-store sensors to track customers’ behaviour as they move through the store, which retailers can then use to tailor more personalised and efficient services.

Vary said both are in the process of building a narrative around their products to demonstrate how they will actually benefit the customer before the final pitch day on 1 October 2014.

Vary joined John Lewis at the beginning of the year having spent five years in various digital and innovation led roles at Burberry, although he was reluctant to speak on the “learning curve” at the luxury company - one of the most frequently cited examples of a heritage brand embracing digital in-store.

At Burberry he was asked “to dream” and help it stay ahead of the game and similarly at John Lewis his remit is to generate ideas and bring them to life.

He revealed that he doesn’t look more than a year into the future when it comes to technology that could be used in-store.

“Technology is emerging and moving at a phenomenal speed, we say we’re going to put this technology out in five years but in a year that technology will change. All we can do is focus on the incremental. JLab is a very short period of 12 weeks, and that’s the perfect time to take an idea, package it and either get it out or not. That’s the speed. If we start working to a vision in two, three years that’s when you start venturing into the unknown,” he said.

Vary added that the retailer needs to stay “agile” and working with start-ups as they play about with technology is a key way of doing that.

“We want to constantly be part of this community. We’ve been privy to some early stage start-ups where we can partner with them at the right time.”

But he admitted that “there is always a risk” in that you simply don’t know what you’re going to get at the end of it.

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