Retail Theatre


Retail Theatre
Design Sprint

For this 3-day sprint, John Lewis, a British chain of high-end department stores challenged us to imagine the future of omnichannel retail.


Understanding Retail

Modern retail arose in 17th century London, as street vendors and merchants moved into theatrically elegant shops with gilded furnishings, lavish decorations, and glass window displays, for the first time elevating the experience of shopping itself into a form of entertainment.

In the 19th century those "perfectly gilded theatres" gave way to the department store. Inspired by the World's Fair, the emporiums of London, New York, and Paris, were first imagined as extravagant spaces where all sorts of goods would be sold—wonderlands where disoriented customers would walk around for hours, submerged in an ocean of humanity and immersed in sensory overload. In the calculated chaos, customers would visit departments they had no interest in, and purchase goods they didn't know they wanted. These "temples of commerce" transformed the experience of going to the store into an adventure, where people went for the spectacle and bought things in the process, rather than went to purchase specific items.

John Lewis' flagship store opened on Oxford Street in the 19th century, since its inception as a temple of commerce over 150 years ago, the British institution has survived by always focusing on customer experience and never standing still. We learned from John Lewis' Chief Information Officer and their innovation team that the forward-looking partnership—having been an early adopter of digital retail—now makes over 40% of its revenue from the 10% of customers using their digital channels. They saw the future as an intricately woven, seamless experience blending all channels, and wondered what might come next?


To answer that question, we started by going to Oxford Street and talking to John Lewis customers. Since, in this sprint, we would focus on disruptive innovation, we weren't interested in journey mapping their pain points (great for iteration and refinement) or asking them to do our work for us (imagine the future of retail). We just wanted to learn what they enjoyed most about shopping there. From them, we discovered that physical retail's unique social forms of entertainment—the spectacles shared between friends, family, and strangers—were its main draws.

Talking to Customers

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Changing Room
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A rapid idea generation session, concept clustering, and selection led us to a future of retail experience that fuses the best of the physical and the virtual worlds. Retail Theatre draws inspiration from retail's past and radically reimagines its future, transforming clothing departments into public squares where people can meet up, grab a coffee, and shop. 

In the 21st-century John Lewis store—lounge areas and large, private wardrobes equipped with smart mirrors, depth-sensing cameras, and infrared sensors replace the inventory of the 19th-century emporium, now hidden in the automated inventory rooms below. Retail partners greet customers and guide them to the wardrobes. In these immersive augmented reality spaces, customers lose track of time, spending hours browsing through the entire product catalog, trying AR apparel on instantly, and share selfies with friends and followers. The retail partners keep customers happy, serve refreshments and help deliver products selected for purchase to the wardrobe. When the customer is ready to pay, they just leave the store and can continue browsing the catalog in-app or online, picking up right where they left off.



We brought the Retail Theatre experience to life as a concept video. The scene starts, we see Catherine shopping on her tablet—at home, the cafe, and on the way to her local John Lewis. As Catherine approaches the store, her favorite John Lewis retail partner, Kaneeka, greets her. Kaneeka shows Catherine to a wardrobe, where Catherine pulls up her recently-populated shopping cart from her John Lewis account. Catherine then also tries on some of the recommended items, until she finds a dress that she likes. Kaneeka tells her it looks great on her, and the selfie Catherine posted on Instagram gets over a thousand likes. Excited, she purchases the dress and runs off to work, she'll be back after work with some friends. The video focuses on the experience, rather than the technology, and Catherine interacts through a gesture-based interface to browse, select, and try on different apparel.


We presented the Retail Theatre video and the results of our 3-day sprint to the innovation team at John Lewis. We faced some anticipated concerns about the feasibility of the concept, which we addressed with a handout detailing the enabling technologies and design of the wardrobe space. At the 2014 annual partner meeting, Retail Theatre was selected for further exploration. 



Sprint Team

Catherine Suen, Kaneeka Agarwal, Koraldo Kajanaku, Yue Wei, and Zara Ashby.

This sprint was a collaboration between the John Lewis Partnership PLC and AcrossRCA.