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Finding Inspiration in a Tech Lab


Want to stay ahead of the competition — or at least keep pace with it? Invest in a tech lab — or an accelerator.

With the pressure to innovate greater than ever, savvy retailers understand they can no longer wait for new solutions and technologies to be proven in the field. That’s why so many of them have invested in tech labs (aka “retail innovation labs”).

Such hubs make sense on a number of levels. For starters, they offer live environments where in-house IT teams can investigate and experiment with emerging digital technologies and determine which will resonate among its shoppers. Equally important, they allow retailers to minimize the risk related to large-scale pilots, discarding ones that don’t make sense without big investments and quickly scaling successful project deployments. Here are just a few examples:

Lowe’s: The home improvement giant’s Innovation Lab is a springboard to what the chain describes as thinking “broadly about potential applications for disruptive technologies, build an innovation road map and rapidly prototype new technology.” Solutions that evolved from the lab include self-service robots and augmented virtual reality solutions to, most recently, virtual reality-based DIY skills-training clinics. The program, which launched in a Lowe’s store in Framingham, Mass., in March, is also now being featured in two Canadian locations as well.

Neiman Marcus: The department store chain launched its iLab five years ago — and never looked back. Focusing on ideas that range from improving operations to driving customer engagement, the lab’s endeavors run the gamut. One concept that came out of iLab was the retailer’s well-received Magic Mirrors. Using different versions across its cosmetics, sunglasses and various apparel departments, the technology enables shoppers to virtually try merchandise prior to making a purchase. Another project includes the chain’s mobile device management system, which secures, manages and monitors the chain’s fleet of smartphones and iPads.

Sephora: The Sephora Innovation Lab focuses on the development of new strategies and technologies used in-store, online and via mobile devices. The enhancements developed in the two-year-old incubator include its “Fragrance IQ” service, a store-level station that allows customers to browse 18 scent families through an innovative, dry-air delivery system; and a beacon system that recognizes mobile users at store-level and delivers in-store maps, promotions, and shopper preferences and wish lists.

The lab also jump-started the chain’s commitment to augmented reality. Sephora’s Visual Artist tool, which initially used AR to help shoppers try on its catalog of lipstick shades, has since expanded to the false eyelashes and eye shadow categories. The goal: to link the virtual and physical experience, engaging shoppers — and driving sales.

Target: Developed in partnership with Techstars, the Target Accelerator Program is designed to help early-stage startups develop concepts that could improve Target’s business along with the broader retail industry. The retailer said the results from the 10 companies chosen to participate in the program’s initial year, 2016, were significant.

Indeed, Target has made an initial investment in one of the companies, Inspectorio, which is dedicated to quality inspections for textiles and consumer goods in Asia and South America. Another one, Branch, has rolled out a 130-store pilot of its shift-scheduling and communications app for hourly workers at Target stores nationwide.

Deena Amato-McCoy

[email protected]

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