Five years in, Neiman Marcus’s innovation lab — or iLab, as it’s referred to internally — still employs a team of one: Scott Emmons, the head of innovation at Neiman Marcus.
In his role, Emmons has coordinated the company’s launches of new in-store and digital technologies through the iLab since he was assigned to run the experimental arm of the Dallas-based department store chain in 2012. During Future Stores Seattle this week, a conference focused on how retailers are updating their in-store experiences, Emmons said he’s watched many other retail innovation labs come and go. At Neiman Marcus, however — through a series of both successful and unsuccessful launches — customer-facing technology has become a corporate priority.
Emmons discussed the biggest takeaways following five years of heading Neiman Marcus’s iLab, including the project’s impact on the business company-wide, the important role of brand participation and the process of cutting your losses.
Opening up internal communication
Since Emmons is the only person on the iLab team full time, he’s constantly coordinating conversations between between Neiman Marcus departments, from C-suite executives to store associates. Emmons relies on these teams to execute in-store activations, like smart mirrors and iPads that demonstrate how tech products work.
As a result, the silos between the company’s technology teams and the rest of the company have begun to break down. In fact, internal teams have created tech and innovation “committees” to efficiently communicate ideas with the iLab. Most recently, Emmons met with the so-called “Shadow Committee,” a group of team members focused on how millennials want to shop in store.
“The biggest contribution of the iLab is opening the door of communication between the technology team and the rest of the company,” said Emmons. “Through collaboration, we can plan properly for what the business actually needs, and we can say yes more often to projects when there’s a clear use case.”
Getting brands on board with in-store tech
Through the iLab, Neiman Marcus has rolled out Memory Mirrors in some of its stores, in the fashion, eyewear and beauty departments. Using augmented reality, the magic mirrors let customers try on clothing, sunglasses or makeup looks, and compare them with others’ looks. They can also save videos from their style sessions to their phones. So far, the makeover mirrors have taken off the most; they can currently be found at every beauty counter in Neiman Marcus’s newest store in Dallas.
The key to scaling this technology, Emmons said, is support from brands — particularly financial support.
“Beauty brands are helping Neiman Marcus foot the bill of this technology,” he said, adding that Neiman Marcus pays for the cost of hardware while the brands take on the content creation. “When our partners are helping us pay for something, it’s a lot easier to get a yes on deployment.”
The makeover mirrors, launched six months ago, are now in 60 Neiman Marcus stores, and Emmons expects to see that number grow by the end of the year. For the brands involved, Emmons said Neiman Marcus is gathering customer data — what’s purchased, replenished, returned — which is especially valuable in a wholesale retail setting.
Deciding where to cut losses — and getting creative with determining ROI
Emmons doesn’t think about his job as servicing Neiman Marcus’s idea of the “store of the future.” Instead, he believes the innovation lab is catering to the customer of the future.
Sometimes, technology comes out ahead of customer behavior trends. Neiman Marcus’s “Snap. Find. Shop.” tool in its mobile app, a Shazam-for-fashion tool by Slyce Intelligence that matches user photos to items in stock, hasn’t been as widely adopted as Emmons expected.
“It’s not that the technology doesn’t work, but it’s not in the day-to-day way of how customers think about searching,” said Emmons. “We’re working on improving adoption.”
Other launches got cut much quicker. For instance, the Neiman Marcus in-app mobile wallet was discontinued after QR codes became largely irrelevant. But the iLab is operating Snap. Find. Shop., despite low adoption, thanks to a loophole offered by the U.S. Postal Service. In order to incentivize retailers to keep putting resources into mailed materials, it’s helping to fund some augmented reality apps, including Snap. Find. Shop.
“The lesson is that ROI for innovation projects can be found in a lot of places other than just lifting sales,” Emmons said.