An engaging and informative talk between John Lewis innovation manager John Vary and journalist Rachel Arthur provided a glimpse into the inner workings of one of the UK’s most beloved department stores, and wrapped up a lively two-day event covering the intersection of fashion and technology.

The discussion centred on innovation and how John Lewis has ramped up its focus on tech in the past few years, particularly through its dedicated innovation hub, launched specifically to develop and test out new technology.

Vary explained how him and his team of software developers, engineers and designers are holed up in the basement at John Lewis headquarters, away from the rest of the business, allowing them to “experiment on bringing ideas to life”. He said, the remit of his team is to improve the shopping experience. “We’re trying to change how people shop but also complement how people shop,” he said.

One of the ways the retailer had tried to achieve this was with its ‘try before you buy’ Interactive Sofa Studio, which lets customers play around with 3D-printed furniture and see their designs on a screen. He also referred to a past tie-up with Microsoft, where children were encouraged to bring their toys into its Oxford Street store and have them scanned by photogrammetric technology, resulting in life-like 3D images of the children dancing alongside their toys.

Vary said such tech innovation needed to be “effortless; you don’t want to see tech, it has to be humanised in a way that lets the customer engage with the product”.

On Jlab, the retailer’s tech accelerator programme, Vary said the thinking behind it was two-fold: to support the startup community and also “open doors” for John Lewis. He said the themes for this year’s programme included technology for kids, adding that there was “an appetite for people to develop new ways for children to code”, simplifying our lives and enabling John Lewis partners to provide better customer service.

Like other discussions over the two-day event, the conversation soon turned to virtual reality. “We’re working on a product with Innovate UK to encourage innovation in virtual reality,” said Vary. “We want to unlock what virtual reality really means to retail, how can we use it as a source of inspiration and build on that journey?” He said that virtual reality could have a huge role to play in bringing home design to life.

Vary also provided advice on how other companies can try and replicate the high street chain’s level of innovation.

“Create a space where people can experiment, with no objectives and KPIs. We’re in a room in the basement…momentum is really important.” He also recommended continually experimenting.

Fortunately for John Lewis, management encourages the team to drum up new ideas – and similar to the mindset of a startup, encourages failure. “We’ve probably had thirty to forty concepts that people have kicked out in the past year and nine that have gone live,” said Vary. “The more we do, the more chance of stuff going live.” Vary encouraged small companies to keep on experimenting. “Don’t be scared,” he told the audience.