Having an in-house division that stands slightly apart from its IT or marketing teams will help M&S keep up with tech developments in a more nimble way.
Understandably, in larger retail businesses it can be difficult to behave like an agile startup and respond to technological advancements as quickly as liked when the day to day running of the business is all consuming.
The 10-strong Lab division will be run by Kyle McGinn who previously headed up the tech side of things at independent online review platform Reevoo.com and who has also been involved with startup communities such as Seedcamp and Eden Ventures.
M&S has been ramping up its use of digital technologies for a relatively long time. Using iPads to boost shop floor selling, interactive digital screens in revamped health and beauty departments and in-store kiosks are all already part of the stores business.
Its digital lab will mean the retailer can bring concept trials to life more quickly, experiment more easily and speed up the roll out and implementation of developments.
Asda’s parent company Walmart did a similar thing a few years back, acquiring Kosmix, a Californian startup in the social space to create Walmart Labs, an entrepreneurial division that could solely focus on new tech advancements that could be adopted by the retailer.
Now most digital initiatives introduced by Walmart and Asda now start off as an idea germinated in Walmart Labs.
CEO Marc Bolland is realistic in the way he talks about investing in digital. Speaking at a conference last year he talked about the need to adopt new technologies and integrate them with the business, but not be naive in thinking these new technologies will be part of the business for the long-term.
Having the latest technologies is not the beginning of a digital strategy, it’s just the beginning.
This is an important and smart view to have. Aiming for a constant cycle of evolution in technology adoption rather than a stop start process of throwing all your weight behind one idea, only for it to be defunct within a year, leaving you high and dry.
Forward thinking retailers are integrating tablets and touchscreen technology in their stores and strengthening multichannel operations. But truly forward looking retail marketers are looking beyond the current iteration to what comes next, and then what comes after that.