Some of the biggest names in retail — from Walmart to Nike — are embracing innovation and forming new labs to seek out new opportunities to connect with consumers in a digital-dominated landscape.
The impending “death of retail” has been projected for decades.
But, in an increasingly digital world, brick-and-mortar retail shops are embracing new ways to disrupt the system and get an edge on customer attention.
One popular choice: retail innovation labs.
Retailers are looking to labs and accelerators to provide new ideas, partnerships, and collaborations on some of the most pressing challenges in the industry. From supply chain and inventory improvements to new payment options, these brands are going all in on digital.
We’ve assembled a list of innovation labs from some of the most recognizable names in retail looking to disrupt their industries.
1. Coca-Cola — Development and Innovation Lab
Key People: Robert Long, SVP and Chief Innovation Officer
Coca-Cola innovates its food and beverage lines from its Atlanta headquarters, but uses its satellite Development and Innovation Lab at Georgia Tech University to fast track key technology initiatives and accelerate its “technological responses to business issues.” The key focus areas are big data analytics and multi-channel customer outreach strategies; projects such as on-can printing, wearable technology, and Bluetooth beacons are noted on the Coca-Cola website.
2. Ikea — SPACE10
Key People: Simon Caspersen, Co-Founder and Communications Director
SPACE10 is Ikea’s research hub and exhibition space out of Copenhagen. SPACE10 invites people from the worlds of art, design, and technology to work on research projects that result in a range of Ikea prototypes, exhibitions, events, and workshops.
With a major focus on sustainability and the future, Space10 is looking to innovate in everything from urban planning to food security.
Notable Projects: Spaces on Wheels is a project from Space10 that embraces the trend of fully autonomous vehicles as the future of urban living. The program looks past driverless cars and into other concepts that will impact people, including golf carts, luggage, scooters, and even garbage bins.
3. The Home Depot — The Home Depot Innovation Center
Key People: Anthony Gregorio, Innovation Lab Senior Manager; Prat Vemana, VP Online; Albert Vita, Director of Strategy Insights
The Home Depot’s Innovation Center at Georgia Tech is a collaborative space used to recruit top talent and explore how technology might advance retail, supply chain, and more. The second focus for the center is to track emerging technologies like 3D printing, virtual and augmented reality, or wearable devices.
The Home Depot also operates a secondary lab out of Austin called BlackLocus. The focus here is on using data and analytics to create “intelligent retail software” that will help optimize inventory and revenue management.
Notable Projects: The Home Depot Solution Center was developed as an innovative way for consumers to get their complex questions answered. Pilot testing of these centers is ongoing to collect data on how to improve in-store customer experiences.
4. CVS — Digital Innovation Lab
Key People: Carolina Michaud, Director
The CVS innovation center is focused on creating new digital health solutions. Operating like a startup and adhering to concepts like a fast-paced testing and implementation process, its projects include simple things like mobile phone pharmacy reminders and complex ones like apps that turn those phones into remote diagnostic tools.
Notable Projects: The innovation lab helped to develop the CVS app and an SMS messaging system for ExtraCare members. With over 40 million people enrolled in the SMS program, CVS both improved customer experience via text notifications and dramatically reduced the number of phone calls to pharmacists each year.
5. Lululemon — Lululemon Lab
Founded: 2009 (Vancouver), 2016 (NYC)
Key People: Pascale Gueracague, Director of Concept & Materials
Lululemon’s solution to the constant need for new fashions was to open two in-house labs, one in Vancouver (where its corporate offices are) and one in NYC (a worldwide fashion hub). Designers work collaboratively in a setting that encourages forward thinking and creativity.
The open door policy of the labs themselves makes for a fascinating experience for shoppers as well, who might be helped on the floor by the head designer and can be a source of inspiration too.
Notable Projects: Lululemon Lab operates under the concept of “offline exclusivity.” Items in the labs are often one of a kind or have only a few pieces in stock. To shop, visitors have to go to the labs as the clothing offered is not available in the other retail stores.
6. Neiman Marcus — Neiman Marcus Innovation Lab (iLab)
Key People: Scott Emmons, Director
Neiman Marcus has earned a reputation for retail innovation thanks to the iLab, its hub for evaluating, designing, testing, and piloting cutting-edge technologies and applications for luxury retail.
The primary focus on the iLab is to reimagine the role digital could play in the in-store customer experience.
Notable Projects: The “Memory Mirror” is a dressing room feature that allows customers to see how they look in the clothes they are trying on from all angles. The initial rollout saw almost 40 mirrors installed in 20 stores. Now a similar concept is being tested in the beauty departments as well.
7. Walmart — Walmart Labs
Key People: Marc Lore, President and CEO of Walmart e-commerce
Walmart’s innovation lab is designed to help them stay competitive in the increasingly online and mobile world. Workers are organized into “mini-startups,” each with their own projects, across various product lines.
A focus on technology and supply chain is an increasingly important focus for the labs as they look to continue to improve their in-store and online shopping experiences while still holding Walmart’s philosophy of everyday low cost.
Notable Projects: A Picking Optimization Solution was developed through the lab that uses a combination of “machine learning, genetics, and metaheuristic optimizations” to determine the best routes for store employees to pick goods for online orders, saving time and reducing errors.
8. Sephora — Sephora Innovation Lab
Key People: Johnna Marcus, Sr. Director, Sephora Innovation Lab
Sephora’s innovation lab is in a converted warehouse near San Francisco’s Mission Bay district. The facility’s first use was to build and test in-store displays, but in 2015, its focus expanded to include digital, reflecting the increasingly online nature of any kind of shopping experience. Innovation team members work on solutions for web, mobile, and brick-and-mortar applications. The lab even includes a model Sephora store.
Notable Projects: Sephora Virtual Artist is an augmented reality app that allows Sephora customers to virtually try on various types of makeup, including lipstick and eye shadow, and see what it looks like before they buy. The app has had users visit this feature almost 9 million times since it was launched.
9. Kohl’s — Kohl’s Digital Center and Kohl’s Innovation Center
Founded: 2013 and 2015
Key People: Ratnakar Lavu, Chief Technology Officer
Kohl’s Digital Center opened in 2013. Its 200-person tech team is housed in a 50,000 square foot facility and has developed things like the Kohl’s Pay app and other innovations to help customers pick up in-store deliveries faster, and more.
The Innovation Center is the newest addition to Kohl’s Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin corporate campus. It focuses on collaboration between information technology, store planning, construction, and purchasing teams. The Innovation Center has a number of green features, including solar trees, EV charging stations, LED lighting, and waste-reduction efforts.
Notable Projects: Kohl’s Pay is a mobile payment service that came out of the innovation lab. It lets customers pay for their in-store purchases through the Kohl’s app. Special offers and Kohl’s Cash can also be applied before payment.
10. Lowe’s — Lowe’s Innovation Lab
Key People: Josh Shabtai, Director of Lab Productions
Lowe’s Innovation Lab is all about disruptive technologies, including shipping a 3D printer to the International Space Station to help astronauts print parts and tools on demand. The lab also rolled out an inventory management robot that helps to find products around the store.
Notable Projects: Lowe’s Vision Navigation is an app that came out of the lab. It taps into augmented reality to give customers in-store navigational tools to help to simplify shopping and reduce the time consumers spend looking for the goods they want to buy.
11. Tesco — Tesco Labs
Key People: Tom Simmons, Open Innovation Manager; Lucia Del Prete, Head of Strategy and AI
Tesco’s in-house tech innovation team develops and tests an array of solutions for consumers. Their mission is simple: “to create new products, services or experiences that address customer and business needs through the use of emerging and established technologies.”
These technologies include things like online search and apps to help customers take control of their health and choices — they even hold hackathons.
Notable Projects: Tesco Labs developed an integration with Google Home to allow Tesco customers to shop via voice.
12. DuPont — DuPont Innovation Centers
Key People: Karin Weining, Global Innovation Excellence Leader; Alexa Dembek, Chief Technology and Sustainability Officer, Specialty Products Division
DuPont has nearly a dozen innovation centers around the world. Its Johnston Innovation Center at the DuPont global agriculture headquarters in Iowa (its largest R&D facility), boasts nearly 3,000 professionals in disciplines like food, agriculture, and biotechnology. DuPont customers work with these in-house experts to develop solutions.
Notable Projects: DuPont has developed smart winter clothing that can keep wearers warm without the need for bulky wires or heating systems inside the jacket.
13. Nike — Innovation Kitchen
Key People: Tinker Hatfield, Vice President for Design and Special Projects; Tony Bignell, VP Footwear Innovation
When Nike comes up with a new shoe or piece of technology, it’s figuratively cooked up in their Innovation Kitchen. This inventive team covers everything from barefoot shoes to activity trackers in an open, laid-back space conducive to free thinking, experimentation, and self-expression.
The Kitchen prides itself on experimentation. It’s outfitted with specialized design tools where concept creators work on designs and prototypes by hand.
Notable Projects: The HyperAdapt sneaker made waves in 2016 when it was released with self-tying laces. The shoes were equipped with sensors, batteries, and a small motor so it could adjust at pressure points.
14. Unilever — Unilever Foundry
Unilever Foundry works with over 400 brands across 190 countries to pilot startups and focus on digital marketing, enterprise tech and e-commerce, products and ingredients, new business model innovation, and social impact.
Their “Pitch-Pilot-Partner process” allows the Foundry to quickly identify startups and collaborate with them quickly, getting ideas to market at a rapid pace and improving growth across all of Unilever’s brands.
Notable Projects: Unilever’s Knorr brand partnered with Novalia to create interactive signage in point of sale displays. Shoppers were able to find recipes and meal solutions which featured Knorr products.
15. Kellogg’s — Kellogg’s NYC
Kellogg’s first retail experiment was first developed as a partnership between Kellogg’s and Co.Create which works with “established brands to create experience-based retail spaces.” The space hosts events, competitions, and encourages visitors to play with their food in order to discover new ideas and flavors.
The menu was created by Milkbar’s Christina Tosi to take Kellogg’s breakfast foods and transform them into something different and unexpected.
Notable Projects: Kellogg’s NYC has embraced social media. It is heavily focused on Instagram and has an Instagram Station inside the space for visitors to share their creations.
16. L’Oreal — Open Innovation
Key People: Lubomira Rochet, Chief Digital Officer; Esohe Omoruyi, SVP of Global Open Digital Innovation and Business Development
L’Oreal has partnered with Station F to “create a new generation of innovative beauty products, devices, and digital services.” The Open Innovation project looks to sources from both inside and outside the company to partner with. The startups selected will go through an onboarding process, a meet and greet with international beauty executives, and an annual pitch event.
Notable Projects: Sampler helps retailers target the most valuable customers to deliver samples, gathering data and improving engagement. In 2018, Sampler launched campaigns across 5 countries with 7 different L’Oreal brands.
17. Procter & Gamble — Connect + Develop
Key People: Pete Ellingson, Open Innovation Manager, Connect + Develop
Procter & Gamble’s Connect + Develop program advertises the problems it needs help solving across business lines from supply chain to product lines. While most brands don’t publicize their most pressing needs, P&G uses this call for ideas to attract the “world’s most innovative minds” in order to “deliver on the company’s most challenging opportunities.”
P&G Ventures, which focuses solely on finding solutions in categories where P&G doesn’t currently operate, also falls under the Connect + Develop umbrella.
Notable Projects: When lip gloss was trending, Connect + Develop put out a call for help under the CoverGirl product line. It teamed up with OraLabs to create the CoverGirl Smoochies lip balm product and got it to market in less than a year.
18. PepsiCo — Design & Innovation
Key People: Mauro Porcini, SVP & Chief Design Officer
In PepsiCo’s New York City Design & Innovation Lab looks at “alchemists, mixologists, nutritionists, trend hunters, futurists, technologists, culinary artists and all kinds of cultural influencers” as potential partners and collaborators in innovation. With a heavy focus on design, the brand seeks to reach more people and make its products more accessible around the world.
Notable Projects: Pepsi Spire was created out of the Design & Innovation Lab. It’s a smart beverage dispenser that has up to 1,000 drink combinations. Consumers can be their own mixologists while the machine collects data on their preferences.
19. Nestle — HENRi@Nestle
Key People: Gerardo Mazzeo, Global Innovation Director; Filippo Catalano, Chief Information Officer
With HENRi@Nestle, the world’s largest food company is looking to find opportunities to make an impact on health, wellness, and sustainability for people across the globe.
HENRi@Nestle hopes to achieve their goals by partnering with startups on projects that touch Nestle’s product lines. Projects are posted with assigned funding levels of $50,000. Startups can apply and a shortlist of brands will move to the next stage. After the winning pitch is selected the team will get started with the dedicated Nestle sponsor.
Notable Projects: The KitKat Sustainability Project helped connect consumers and the Nestlé Cocoa Plan. Teaming up with Good-Loop, an ethical ad platform, consumers were able to watch an ad and select where a donation within the Nestlé Cocoa Plan would go. In less than a month it raised £16,500.
20. Anheuser-Busch InBev — Zx Ventures
Key People: Pedro Earp, Chief of ZX Ventures; Alastair Kenvyn, Global Director
ZX Ventures is looking to disrupt the traditional beer business through a combination of “seeding, launching, and scaling new products that deliver exceptional consumer experiences.”
By taking a data-heavy approach, ZX Ventures hopes that it can anticipate the needs of future customers. Through their Zxlerator program, an internal 11-week incubator, participants have access to all of the resources that InBev can offer when it comes to research, testing, and developing ideas with the ultimate goal of building investment-ready companies.
Notable Projects: BeerBox came out of the 2016 Zxlerator cohort. It’s a portable vending machine that distributes single cold cans of beer from selection to payment in 45 seconds. The aim is to post these at concerts, sporting events, and festivals.
21. Colgate Palmolive — Continuous Innovation
Key People: Dr. Marie Johansson, Director, Global Product Sustainability; Dr. Leonard Humel, Director, Global Pharmacovigilance
The products that are created by the Continuous Innovation team at Colgate are all about improving the health of their customers. The team is encouraged to be creative, operating in a learning-focused environment that allows for trial and error while following trends and consumer demands.
Notable Projects: Colgate-Palmolive developed a Fast Dry technology that could be applied to their fabric conditioners and would speed up the time that clothes dry in open air. This came after feedback from customers around the world without access to dryers who were frustrated by long clothes drying times.
22. General Mills — General Mills Worldwide Innovation Network (G-WIN)
Key People: Judi Morris, Product Design Accelerator; Michael Antinone, Global Technical Leader
The purpose behind G-Win is to use both internal and external channels to find startups, partners, and even consumers that can help them expand their product lines and market shares.
G-Win looks primarily for solutions in a few main areas of interest including packaging, processing, sustainability, and health. They also post innovation challenges occasionally to address specific needs within the company.
Notable Projects: Chex Chips were developed out of G-Win. General Mills worked with a partner to develop a new brand of Chex that took ingredients from the current mixes and re-invented them as a chip. The partner was also able to produce the chips quickly and at a larger scale than General Mills.
23. Marks & Spencer — M&S Venture Lab
Key People: Hemal Kuntawala, Head, M&S Venture Lab
The M&S Venture Labs is designed to help understand how customers shop at M&S and opportunities to make their purchases easier or more frequent.
Since then, M&S has embraced its digital strategy. It recently announced partnerships with Microsoft focused on “testing the integration of Microsoft AI technologies into M&S’ customer experience” and Founders Factory as a “joint venture (JV) focused on investing and growing start-ups.”
Notable Projects: Try Tuesday is an online personal stylist tool. Users are matched with a stylist who then picks M&S clothing out for them based on their profile.
24. Sainsbury’s — Sainsbury’s Digital
Key People: Clodagh Moriarty, Chief Digital Officer
Sainsbury’s has put a big investment in digital technology and the London-based Digital Lab is where much of the project ideas and creation take place. Ultimately, Sainsbury’s wants “to drive customer focused-solutions both online and in stores, and be at the forefront of innovation in our sector.” Inside the lab, the teams work collaboratively and use events like hackathons to come up with fresh ideas from new website design concepts to improving delivery options.
Notable Projects: The SmartShop app developed by Sainsbury’s allows customers to use their phones to scan products as they put them in their cart and pay without having to go to a register. It’s currently in operation in a few stores, with an entirely cashierless pilot store undergoing trials.
25. Kraft Heinz — Springboard
Key People: Sergio Eleuterio, Head of Springboard; Timothy Downey, R&D
Springboard is Kraft Heinz’s entry into disruption in the food and beverage market. They are looking to partner with US-based brands who operate within “four pillars that will influence the future of food: Natural & Organic, Specialty & Craft, Health & Performance, and Experiential brands” and want to shape the “future of food.”
Alongside Springboard, a 16-week incubator program has also been launched. The focus here will be on early-stage brands with a “fully commercialized, ready-to-order product.” Participants will get mentorship, media training, a state of the art workspace, and $50,000 in funding upon acceptance.
Notable Projects: Kumana was part of the first class of the incubator program. Working with Springboard, Kumana focused heavily on marketing and was able to land a 1,700 store deal with Safeway.
26. Hallmark — Hallmark Labs
Key People: Albert Lai, Hallmark Labs SVP and General Manager; Jeff Allen, VP of Operations
Hallmark Labs is the “the digital, direct-to-consumer arm” of the Hallmark brand. It primarily looks to explore innovative ways to bring more digital content to consumers. “Labsters,” as they are known within the company, work to collaborate internally to build more digital media opportunities. The lab is also focused on growth and the ways it can smoothly expand consumer offerings on current Hallmark products without impacting the business.
Notable Projects: Hallmark Movies Now came out of the digital arm at Hallmark Labs. It is a subscription-based on-demand streaming service that offers 1,000 hours of content not available on Hallmark’s cable channels. It has over 500,000 subscribers.
27. Stanley Black & Decker — Digital Accelerator
Key People: Michael Keogh, CFO Digital Innovation Accelerator and Emerging Markets; Manish Mehta, Technical Director of Innovation
Stanley Black & Decker has a worldwide team dedicated to innovation that comes up with hundreds of new product ideas each year. Strategic placement in innovation hubs around the world means that team members have “easy access to startups, leading academics, potential partners and external inspiration.”
In addition to the innovation hubs, Stanley Black & Decker operates a Digital Accelerator based out of Atlanta that focuses on bringing “digitally-driven, world’s first solutions” to the marketplace.
Notable Projects: ToolConnect is an inventory management system that helps to “connect, track, and customize tools across multiple job sites” so businesses always have an up to date inventory of exactly where their tools are in real-time.
28. GameStop — GameStop Technology Institute
Key People: Charles Larkin, Senior Director, GameStop Technology Institute
The GameStop Technology Institute (GTI) was formed in a collaboration between GameStop, The Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University Mays Business School, and IBM. GTI is working to develop a way to “drive traffic and enhance consumer interaction within GameStop’s global physical and digital retail locations.”
Notable Projects: The GameStop app allows consumers to shop for games and chose delivery methods, track the estimated credit for game trade-ins, receive special offers and coupons, and act as a digital rewards card.
29. Westfield Group — One Market
Key People: Don Kingsborough, CEO; Dan Dmochowski, Executive Vice President, Retail; Mike Blandina, Executive Vice President, Product & Engineering and Chief Technology Officer
One Market is the brainchild of Westfield Labs. It’s a worldwide integrated network built around retail technology. In uniting retailers, venues, and brands, One Market hopes to utilize technology to “overcome data deficiencies, technology inefficiencies, and cost and speed-to-market challenges” and provide a better retail experience. They do this by collecting data on consumers that can be analyzed to offer next-level insights into their shopping and spending behaviors.
Notable Projects: Shopper Exchange is a “turn-key co-marketing platform” that taps into customer data and helps retailers focus on the brands and vendors that are driving the most sales.
30. Adidas — Brooklyn creator farm
Key People: Paul Gaudio, Global Creative Director; Marc Dolce, VP & Creative Director
Inside Adidas’ Brooklyn Creator Farm the focus is all about “creating culture.” Here, designers are encouraged to come up with inspiration for the future of footwear, fashion, tech, and culture. They do it by fostering collaboration and supporting design efforts at every stage from ideation to creation.
The farm itself is split into two areas, one focused on design while the other, the Brooklyn MakerLab, has all the tools necessary to bring designs from a storyboard to real life.
Notable Projects: Adidas Futurecraft 4D is one of the first sneakers released from the Farm. It features a 3D printed sole made of a proprietary material that Adidas hopes will transform sneaker manufacturing methods.
31. Kroger — Culinary Innovation Center
Key People: Chris Hjelm, EVP and Chief Information Officer; Daniel Hammer, VP of Culinary Development and New Business
In 2017, Kroger decided to redefine their retail experiences for customers and add a heavy focus on both digital and innovation. The Culinary Innovation Center is one of the new pieces under this initiative called Restock Kroger. Billed as an R&D lab, the Center is equipped to test out new recipes, hold focus groups, and host guest experts who can help improve and speed up the development of Kroger branded products.
Notable Projects: Prep+Pared is Kroger’s foray into the meal prep kit business. Customers can access it in the stores or via Kroger’s ClickList online shopping program.
32. Walmart — Sam’s Club Now
Key People: Jamie Iannone, Chief Executive Officer, SamsClub.com and EVP of Membership and Technology
Slated to open in late 2018 in Dallas, Sam’s Club Now will be a first of its kind hybrid innovation lab and retail space for the brand. With a shopping experience that will be primarily mobile first, Sam’s Club Now looks to “incubate, test, and refine technologies to help define the future of retail.”
Notable Projects: The Sam’s Club Now app is going to be the foundation of the ways customers shop inside the store. It works off the Scan & Go system developed by Sam’s Club and adds features including store navigation, smart shopping lists, and augmented reality.