HONG KONG and BEIJING, May 7, 2018 /PRNewswire/ -- The Lane Crawford Joyce Group, Asia's pre-eminent luxury lifestyle group specialising in fashion retail, brand management and distribution, kicks off the third round of its three-month retail technology ignition programme today with two start-ups, ChatQuery and Olasso.
Left: Andrew Massey, Director of Innovation, Lane Crawford, Lead mentor and judge for The Cage; Centre: Jennifer Woo, CEO and Chairman, The Lane Crawford Joyce Group; Right: Cristina Ventura, Chief Catalyst Officer, The Lane Crawford Joyce Group
The Cage, as the ignition programme is known, calls for early-stage startups working on technology that can innovate the retail customer experience. With high-level involvement of the Group's five companies -- iconic luxury retailer Lane Crawford, cutting-edge fashion boutique Joyce, designer shoes and accessories specialist Pedder Group, retail brand management and distribution company ImagineX and full-service retail platform Walton Brown - start-ups have access to the retail platforms for developing and trialing their product to a significant customer base in Greater China, while learning from and working closely with executive teams and more than 100 retail specialists across all functions.
Through the Group's extensive ecosystem, the startups will also have access to more than 80 world-class entrepreneurs and advisors from accelerators, VCs, corporates, strategic consultancies and educational institutions including Google, Sequoia, KPMG, CEIBS, MIT, Harvard and Stanford.
"The Cage is our opportunity to co-create new ways of approaching our business," said Jennifer Woo, Chairman and CEO of The Lane Crawford Joyce Group. "It's where the old world and new world meet in a mixing bowl of experience, ambition, collaboration, wisdom, learning and opportunity, to create positive change together."
This year's startups were selected by the Group's five judges and an internal audience, at a Pitch Day featuring six finalists through a rigorous screening process.
ChatQuery, an on-demand chatbot that answers questions on business data, was founded by two Australians who met at Princeton - Alex Man, a former data analyst at Groupon, and David Yang a former software engineer at Google. Now based in Hong Kong's tech hub, Cyberport, they launched in 2017 and are in beta with a client base of large scale retailers and small ecommerce players. They are looking to identify a pilot within the Group to showcase the future of data analytics and determine whether developing the Cantonese market makes sense.
"Our passion is to make data accessible to everyone so we replaced Excel with an on-demand chatbot," said Mr. Man. "Our chatbot handles approximately 90% of questions asked, leaving the last 10% of tricky questions to the real people. It's like having a giant team of data scientists for everyone in your business to help them make better decisions."
Olasso is a SaaS return management platform aiming to deliver a premium post-purchase experience for customers and using AI to reduce the operational, financial and environmental impact of returns for online retailers. The three co-founders previously worked at the Hong Kong-based omni-channel fashion brand Grana - Pieter Paul Wittgen, Grana co-founder and former COO; Jim Cornford, former head of fulfillment for Grana; and Seb Poole, former head of IT for Grana. They have a prototype they hope to further pilot in The Cage working with the Group's retailers to understand customer pain points.
"Returns are still a major pain point holding back the growth of e-commerce with customers often experiencing a painful returns journey, which reduces brand trust and loyalty. We are committed to building a better returns experience for customers, while reducing the financial, operational and environmental impact for retailers," said Mr. Wittgen.
The two start-ups will take up residency in The Cage, a prominent studio space at the Group's Hong Kong headquarters, where they will each be partnered with retail and technology mentors from the business. The programme consists of three phases -- Learn: a focus on retail for context of their application; Validate: testing their assumptions through design thinking sprints facilitated by external experts, utilising the Groups' teams and customers; and Pitch: pitching their product to the Group's companies for a commercial agreement, and external investors for potential funding. While on site, both teams will benefit from the facilities and services provided by the Group to its staff, including a bespoke Wellness programme delivered by a team of in-house trainers and yoga teachers, and external practitioners providing meditation, kinesiology and nutrition advice among others, working out of the three wellness studios.
"The Cage is a bespoke programme that focuses on the individual development of the entrepreneurs and the growth of their ventures," Cristina Ventura, Chief Catalyst Officer of The Lane Crawford Joyce Group, and project lead of The Cage, said. "We provide dedicated support and inspiration beyond their journey in The Cage. We work on a tailored one to one mentorship schedule, enable go-to-market strategies with commercial opportunities, offer exposure to the Asian start-up ecosystem and industry experts, and access to a post-programme network. Our intention is to unleash their full potential at every level," she said.
"With the pace of change brought about by digital technology, it's challenging for most incumbent companies to keep up and properly focus on the many new areas. Open Innovation initiatives enable the Group's companies to work with smaller, specialist start-ups who are exploring these areas," said Andrew Massey, Director of Innovation for Lane Crawford who served as a judge and is a lead mentor for this third round. "The Cage allows us to pick a few start-ups that we see great potential and synergy with, where both sides can learn from each other and move faster - it really is a symbiotic relationship."
The Cage started as an experiment in 2016, with its first two startups, the multi-lingual AI chatbot for fashion and lifestyle customer experience, Whatsquare; and Shenzhen-based Whoolala, a marketplace for emerging fashion brands from around Asia. Both have gone on to secure internal and industry clients, while Whoolala secured a round of funding through their exposure from The Cage.
The second round, which took place in 2017, featured New York-based Caper (previously known-as QueueHop), a shopping cart that leverages sensor fusion and computer vision to prevent theft and enable self-checkout, and Indian-based SeenIt, South East Asia's first fashion question and answer platform connecting inspiration sources with consumers. SeenIt pivoted its B2C model while in The Cage, tailoring its technology for a new B2B application for Lane Crawford on which the two companies continue to collaborate for a launch in June.
"We never know what will be co-created each year and the outcome is never prescribed. This is the key to the programme and it opens up infinite possibilities," Ms. Woo said. "My interactions with the start-ups throughout the programme is as one business leader to another are a personal highlight for me because it's an opportunity to sit one to one and really understand each other's purpose and passion. Getting to know these young entrepreneurs and seeing their courage to make a difference is enriching -- it's a privilege to be part of their journey and have them be part of ours."
What Past Participants Say About The Cage
Whatsquare - "This programme is like a mini-MBA for fashion tech start-ups. I'm so impressed by the people I met, sessions I attended, and the network I tapped into," said Katherine Pei, co-founder and CEO of Whatsquare.
Whoolala - "Great programme, we met incredible people and it was a life-changing experience. Big thanks to everyone involved in the project," said Steve Murray, co-founder and CEO of Whoolala.
Caper (formerly QueueHop) – "Wonderful programme! Well-structured with clarity of objectives, and awesome culture with direct retail feedback. We have learned so much and made so many meaningful connections throughout the journey," said Ahmed Beshry, co-founder and Chief Product Officer of QueueHop, a Y-Combinator funded company.
SeenIt - "The overall experience was absolutely incredible and exceeded all our expectations. We learned so much, and the mentors, Lane Crawford team, and environment was perfect," said Vedanta Kumar, co-founder and CEO of SeenIt.
About The Lane Crawford Joyce Group
The Lane Crawford Joyce Group is Asia's premier fashion retail, brand management and distribution Group, consisting of five companies – iconic, luxury department store Lane Crawford; cutting edge fashion boutique Joyce, designer shoes and accessories specialist Pedder Group; and retail, brand management and distribution company ImagineX Group and full-service retail platform, Walton Brown.
The Lane Crawford Joyce Group operates luxury department stores and boutiques, free-standing branded stores and e-commerce and omni-channel operations. It has leadership positioning in designer womenswear, menswear, shoes and accessories, cosmetics, home and lifestyle, and fine jewellery. It works with more than 1,500 international fashion brands.
With more than 168 years of trading experience in the region, each of The Group's companies is acknowledged as a pioneer in its space, being first to market with designer and luxury brands, and building brands' businesses through dynamic partnerships and collaborations. As of April 2018, the Group operates more than 450 points of sale across 50 cities in Greater China and South East Asia, with a total retail space of over 2,000,000 square feet.