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John Lewis searches for the great British tech innovation

British retailers have had a tough few years. It seems that every few months another big name disappears from our high street, with Comet being the latest high profile casualty. It’s therefore very reassuring to see a retailer like John Lewis investing in British industry, rather than cutting back and laying off.

I recently attended the judging for John Lewis’ Great British Technology Innovation for Retail competition, which put a challenge out to British tech companies to solve three key issues.

  • How to improve the John Lewis customer collection experience and make it more efficient.

  • Making the process of buying children’s shoes easier and less stressful for all concerned.

  • Implementing the John Lewis partner knowledge and service in an online environment.

At the judging event the finalists were able to present their solution to the given problem and then face questions from a panel of John Lewis experts. The presentations also included a demonstration of the solution, so far as each could be demonstrated outside of the intended environment.

I spent some time chatting to the finalists, but one stood out above the others. A company called Black Marble, which was addressing the children’s shoe shopping challenge. I was first drawn to the Black Marble stand because the representatives were making liberal use of Microsoft Surface tablets to demonstrate the solution, which made quite a departure from the very Apple-centric solutions seen elsewhere.

A chat with the folks at Black Marble revealed that they were only using Surface tablets because they’d recently arrived at the office, and that iOS or Android devices could just as easily be used. In fact, the tablets were simply acting as partner displays, which would tell customers where they sat in the queue, and when they were likely to be seen for a shoe measurement.

Of course you don’t necessarily want to be sitting around waiting for your number to come up, so parents will be able to register their phone and be sent a message when their appointment is due.

Another part of Black Marble’s solution was stock control and tracking, which included equipping all the shoeboxes with RFID tags so that the stock levels are immediately updated as soon as the shoes leave or enter the storeroom.

It seems that my interest in Black Marble wasn’t misplaced, because the Yorkshire-based solution provider was the eventual winner of the competition. As a parent who’s had to suffer the process of buying shoes for my children, I’m certainly looking forward to seeing Black Marble’s system implemented in my local John Lewis branch.

While non-domestic retailers continue to find ways to avoid UK corporation tax it’s great to see a successfully British retailer like John Lewis trying to inspire innovation within the UK’s tech sector. The company didn’t confirm whether its technology innovation competition would be an annual event, but I sincerely hope that it will be.

Riyad has been entrenched in technology publishing for more years than he cares to remember, having staffed and edited some of the largest and most successful IT magazines in the UK. In 2003 he joined forces with Hugh Chappell to create They built TR into the UK’s market leading technology publication before selling the title to IPC Media / Time Warner in 2007. As Editorial Director at Net Communities, Riyad will be helping to develop the publishing portfolio, making IT Pro Portal the best publication it can be.