Is the tech lab model still fit for purpose?

Let’s be honest about why retailers set up their own lab capability in the first place; they needed an easier way to manage the tidal wave of startups coming at them from all sides, says Chris Field.

A lab was a brilliant way to force them all down the same funnel, but without squeezing the innovation out of the process.

Three years on, and some of the labs have been shut down, some have been outsourced to digital agencies, and some are owned by the large tech vendors who want to make sure they don’t miss out. It’s not really a vote of confidence for a model that has largely failed to find and nurture the next generation of retail apps, and which has turned out to be surprisingly time consuming to manage.

Providing they do not simply insert another silo into an industry already famous for operating departmentally, labs have their place, but so do other models.

The first and most obvious one is the fact that the retailers have caught up; they are starting to see that the limitations of much traditional software (high cost, low functionality, and slow to implement) can be solved by favouring the new generation of software (in the cloud, possibly with AI in the algorithm, and quick to implement) now available from a host of companies generally classified as start-ups (although many are now into their fourth or fifth year, post-Series C funding and with a credible customer base).

Another is events, where start-ups and potential users get face time – albeit in the often-pressurised atmosphere of tech hacks, Dragons’ Dens and matchmaker events. These have proved successful because the users generally come with a big problem in their pockets and are actively looking for a solution. We are big fans of this model, as it has led to a number of big contracts for the start-ups and a powerful ROI for the retailers.

Our next event, Turning the dial: Tech innovation that makes the difference in retail, to which retailers are invited, is on June 14th at the Hoxton Hotel in Holborn London, starting at 6pm. This time, we are introducing a new element to the network, introducing start-ups from the US not yet known here in the UK, all of which are making a name for themselves in US retail.

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