Retail has always been adept at purloining words that have little to do with the business of buying and selling, the retail ‘lab’ is a prime example.
What do London, Bournemouth and San Francisco have in common?
Most would probably struggle with this one and in truth the answer is somewhat obscure.
They are all in fact home to “Labs”. In San Fran there’s shopping-centre developer and operator Westfield’s Westfield Labs, where a team works together to try and create stuff that shoppers may find useful when heading into a mall.
In London, Tesco has, yes, Tesco Labs, another group “helping you experience the future”, apparently.
And down on the south coast, convenience store Budgens has opened its “Lab store” – in essence, a branch that is different from others bearing the same logo inasmuch as its aim is to test a new way of selling, which means a refit and a different product range.
All this and let’s not forget “JLab”, the John Lewis retail technology ‘incubator’ that earlier this year selected five startups to develop the “shopping experience of the future”.
All well and good and each of these projects in their own way is certainly testimony to the desire to do things differently. But what does it all mean in practice?
For the majority of us, a lab is somewhere white coat-clad types run around breaching the bold frontiers of science and the term’s appropriation by those involved in retail is therefore somewhat implausible.
Taken in its broadest sense, a lab is somewhere where new things are developed so perhaps this is what is meant.
Yet when the word may mean anything from rearranging the fixtures in a shop to Tesco’s “T-jam speed dating”, the word’s definition becomes a little fuzzy.
At this point it’s worth remarking that retail is pretty adept at purloining words that might seem to have little to do with the business of buying and selling and running with this – ‘curation’ and ‘heritage’ are both prime examples of the tendency.
Rather than carping about why ‘Lab’ has become a buzzword among those who wish to create the impression of forward movement, perhaps we should instead be glad that things are happening.
Here’s an idea therefore. Why not create a ‘Retro Lab’ – a place where retailer re-examine what they are doing and takes us back to a simpler (and maybe better) age?
There’s got to be something in it and it will dovetail with the heritage thing as well. How about a ‘Curated heritage lab?’ You know it makes sense.