We are now living in an age when the digitisation of the entire retail experience is an attainable and beneficial possibility.

Large retailers are beginning to explore and implement new technologies that enhance existing procedures and systems, from supply chain logistics to targeted in-store marketing. These innovations lead to an enhanced consumer experience in store and cost and time savings behind the scenes.

A new trend is emerging due to this appetite for innovation. The smartest retailers are turning to accelerator programmes to help them analyse which technologies will work best for their stores. John Lewis is an example of this – at the beginning of June they took one step ahead of their competitors by launching their ‘JLab’ accelerator programme at Level39, Canary Wharf.

Accelerator programmes such as JLab are based on a competition format. Creative young tech companies are selected to compete over a period of weeks or months to win a chance to work with a big brand, usually alongside cash and other prizes.

Interaction with young start-ups enables larger retailers to monitor and test technologies that have been developed by versatile young companies. From our experience, when retailers engage with these companies, they are frequently surprised by the variety of available solutions and by the speed-of-delivery that start-ups can offer. The brands that we have worked with have come to see accelerator programmes as a cost-effective and imaginative centre of excellence to test new technologies.

Despite the synergies between established retailers and young innovators, some larger retailers do not want to make their interaction with the start-up ecosystem public. This is often because they do not want to send signals of any sort to their competition. Additionally, due to the time-commitment required, many young companies cannot afford to commit to accelerator programmes, and some would prefer not to directly collaborate with larger companies.

Technology accelerator and incubator spaces can offer a safer entry point for collaboration if the commitment of a full accelerator programme proves too much. At Level39, Canary Wharf, we are one of a small handful of UK retail-focused technology accelerator spaces whose aim is to foster the growing and integral ‘retail-tech’ sector - Truestart is another great accelerator working in this space.

Now in our second year at Level39 we are shifting our focus to retail technology, and we have worked with a handful of household name brands who preferred to collaborate in the environment that we were able to provide. This collaboration often takes the shape of ‘hackathons’, which are one or two day events at which technologists work with larger companies to create working solutions, usually from scratch, using data released in confidence by the senior partner. 

Tech will make up 12% of GDP by 2016, and as part of this growth there is a massive opportunity for the UK to become a world centre for retail technology. Accelerators are uniquely placed to provide a plethora of collaborative experiences for major retailers and start-ups alike to catalyse this growth.

  • Eric Van der Kleij is head of Level39