What do you get if you ask a bunch of school kids how they envision the shop of the future? Lots of things related to pets, sweets and games inevitably, but better than that, a series of inspiring answers that tie together everything from the most out-there technologies to a practical view on what would make the whole experience a heck of a lot better.
That was the result for British department store John Lewis last summer when it tasked 9-11 year olds across the UK with answering an innovation challenge through its ongoing Bringing Skills to Life education programmme.
Over 164 entries were collected, with a shortlist of 10 placed in front of a judging panel comprised of various John Lewis representatives as well as external specialists, including myself. Better than any adult brainstorm meeting I’ve been in (horrendously referred to as “blue-sky thinking” in the corporate world), this was a whistle-stop tour through ideas like 3D-printed dresses, robodogs, holograms and conveyor belts designed to escort you around.
One team envisioned a future consisting of personalised wardrobes with customised interfaces acting as a door that would then open to a series of options matching the user’s style, age and size information. It sounds like a retail version of Cher’s digital closet in Clueless, though these pupils are far too young to remember that.
There were also a number of virtual fitting rooms that combined biometric body scanners with holographic technology to allow shoppers to completely visualise what they would look like in an outfit. In another entry, the selection chosen from a magic mirror was then produced on a 3D printer while you sat and enjoyed a coffee in the café next to it.
The ideas were fresh, fun, thoughtful and not completely unfeasible, frankly.
John Vary, IT innovation manager at the retailer and one of the judges on the panel, said: “It’s good to look at how kids look at things. We try to do that in the innovation process; it’s all too easy to miss the obvious by focusing on what is too complicated.”
If there was one thing tying the majority of the entries together in that sense, it was convenience. You could see these kids thinking about those laborious shopping trips with their parents where they’re dragged around unwillingly. The only thing a pre-teen wants is some fun in their day (disco lifts in one of the entries was by far a judging highlight), but even more than that it seems, any chance to not have to stand in yet another queue.
Beating long lines at the checkouts with quick and seamless payments was a no-brainer to them. But that focus on the customer experience also extended to sat nav systems embedded in trolleys, setups to ensure more efficient discounting and a translation assistant to help global visitors. There was real empathy to the end user, with the pupils identifying problems and figuring out how to solve them in ways many retailers don’t do anywhere near as efficiently today.
We could all learn from what school children want it would seem. If anything, maybe we should stop focusing quite so heavily on phrases like omnichannel in such turgid ways, and think more openly about how we can make shopping, in the words of one of the entries, “a little easier, quicker and more enjoyable”.
This post first appeared in Forbes in 2015.