Staples Velocity Lab: Ideation to Innovation at Warp Speed

By D.J. Murphy, Editor-in-Chief,

You may not know it, but Staples, the big-box office-supplies chain that introduced us to the “easy button,” is an e-commerce juggernaut. In fact, the company ranked second on the most recent Internet Retailer list of the top 500 U.S. e-commerce retailers, trailing only in online sales. But, as focused as Staples is on reaching customers through the online channel, e-commerce sales still only account for 40 percent of its total sales revenue. That relative balance means the company believes it is uniquely positioned to understand and leverage all of its assets—technological and traditional—in omnichannel efforts that are beginning to define retailing. To that end, Staples, in December of 2012, officially announced the opening of a facility in Cambridge, Mass. in which it could gather the heads of all the various departments responsible for its e-commerce and mobile initiatives. They all would reside at a hub, located within several thousand yards of much of the finest young IT talent outside of Silicon Valley, where close collaboration would accelerate the pace of innovation the company could bring to the most advanced shopping experience.

Staples scouted various locations for what it dubbed its Velocity Lab including San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto and Amsterdam. But, the tech talent pouring out of MIT and Harvard, the proximity to many of their tech partners—like Akamai and Endeca—and the proximity to the company’s suburban Boston headquarters made Cambridge the best spot for the Lab to set up shop.

“Staples recognized the pace the industry is changing and the pace we need to keep up with it. Mobile is changing fundamentally how we live our lives,” says Prat Vemana, director of the Velocity Lab and general mobile strategy at Staples. “That gave us the recognition that we need that kind of skill set more. We need people who can think rapidly and move fast.”

Vemana says Staples envisions the facility as an incubator where the company can leverage its incredible strength in e-commerce and traditional retailing and marry it with the tremendous potential mobile has to change the shopping experience for its customers—and to do it quickly.

He notes that Staples already has implemented a mobile infrastructure that includes Websites optimized for smartphones and tablets (the company was among the first retailers to launch a tablet-only app) as well as a mobile-optimized site for Staples had launched all these online properties before the Velocity Lab opened. What the existence of the Lab has done, however, is enable the office-supply giant to brainstorm new ways to leverage its mobile assets to serve its customers. The company also is putting mobile devices in the hands of its in-store associates to increase their productivity and enhance their ability to contribute to a truly omnichannel environment.

“When you look at all our mobile assets, the #1 thing we think about here is how they can help the customer in the shopping journey, no matter where they are and in what channel they’re shopping,” he says. “What are the mobile moments? What are the right moments I need to bring the technology to you so you can actually apply it.”

So, while the technology they’re leveraging is not new, the speed with which they have to move to deliver innovation in the forms that make their customers’ lives easier is. And that’s where the lab comes in, Vemana says.

“The amount of test and learn we need to do in order to innovate is exploding,” he explains. “That requires a true collaboration. If you look at the office here, all the cross-function leads are in the same place. Visual designers, information architects, product managers, project managers, QA, all the leads are in one place. When you’re thinking about an idea or problem and how to make it actually happen, that conversation is happening right here. That is incredible for us. This facility exists to fuse the collaborative element and see if we can push out innovations faster.”

Even the physical design elements of the facility contribute to the speed of innovation. Offices and half-wall cubicles ring a few central bays with comfortable furniture and round tables where informal meetings can take place easily. Also, every wall is literally a blank canvas, on which spur-of-the-moment inspiration can be recorded in dry-erase marker.

The Velocity Lab had been up and running for months before the official launch in December 2012, and an example of how the team worked to bring innovations encompassing all its sales channels to Staples customers could be found in the weeks leading up to Black Friday—the day after Thanksgiving that has become one of the most important shopping days of the year for consumers and retailers.

The team wanted to take advantage of the fact that retailers had seen a more than 15 percent increase in mobile traffic on the previous Black Friday with projections for 2012 even higher. Vemana, seeking out his “mobile moments,” wanted to leverage that to make the holiday shopping experience, as a whole, more convenient and valuable to their customers. The conversation that ensued ranged from flash sales to store-only vs. online coupons to geofencing.

“This was a lively conversation, just sitting kicking around ideas and we said, ‘why don’t we do it?’, he remembers. “From ideation to realization it was three weeks. We thought through it, went live and it was an incredible success for us. It was possible because they were all in one place. They just went for it. That’s the kind of culture we’re trying to cultivate.”

The launch of the lab has coincided with a reinvention of Staples’ strategy that more closely aligns the e-commerce and in store businesses, with an emphasis online and mobile, Vemana says. Staples will continue to leverage the Velocity Lab not only to pump out digital innovation, but to use that innovation to bolster an in-store experience in ways that pure e-commerce plays like Amazon and Google can’t.

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