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Why M&S’s Digital Ambitions Hinge on Retail Startups and Innovators

First came a partnership with Microsoft, to infuse its artificial intelligence (AI) solutions into retail operations.

Then there was an expanded relationship with First Insight’s predictive analytics capabilities that drive smarter decision making across the business, all while incorporating consumer insights into the process.

Now, Marks & Spencer (M&S) said its newly announced partnership with European consumer- and retail-centric investment firm True, will afford access to startups with innovative solutions and disruptive technologies that could accelerate the retail chain’s digital transformation.

Through its Live Network and its operating model of nurturing promising startup firms, True will provide M&S with access, not just to tech innovators, but also to emerging consumer-product businesses. M&S joins a list of True partners that includes Abercrombie&Fitch, John Lewis and TJX.

True’s startup portfolio runs the gamut from startups like cloud-based inventory system Purecomm, which helps retailers provide omnichannel services like click and collect and ship from store; to anti-counterfeiting blockchain technology, Blockverify.

M&S will be able to work with payments innovators like Curl, a solution that skips the credit or debit card in favor of @usernames, “a bit like Twitter,” according to the company’s website. Mishipay’s new way to pay leverages RFID and barcodes to enable consumers to pay by smartphone, bypassing queues altogether.

In the store operations arena, Hoxton Analytics claims to offer a new way to measure foot traffic, applying AI to the process of tracking demographics, while Rotaready takes data-driven aim at labor scheduling.

A pair of startups take different approaches to personalization. Spirable offers video messaging tailored to where the shopper is in her journey, updating through automation and AI to address changes not only with the shopper but also her environment. On the other hand, the Pasabi plugin keeps track of what people like and purchase, using those learnings to “curate personalized collections” for shoppers and offering retailers a way to meaningfully connect with these consumers based on established interests.

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In a similar vein, Hullabalook offers its take on a visual discovery engine. Then there’s Appaparel, whose smart labels create trackable garments so that brands can monitor how often consumers wear and interact with the clothes. On the materials side, France’s Induo seems to compete with Dropel, offering advanced cotton with a familiarly soft hand coupled with stain and perspiration resistance.

True has also invested in apparel retailers like Aday, purveyors of seasonless elevated basics. True founders Matt Truman and Paul Cocker launched the investment firm after exiting high-end children’s wear e-tailer AlexandAlexa.com for 4.5 times the capital they’d invested.

In a statement announcing the partnership, M&S chief executive Steve Rowe said working with True will enable “unparalleled access” to transformative innovators. “As M&S seeks to become a Digital First retailer, we will be on the front foot thanks to True’s deep sector knowledge and the exposure they will give us to new enterprise-ready technologies which will benefit our customers and make us fit for the future,” he noted.

Observing that M&S acknowledges the “need to evolve,” True chief commercial officer Mike Tattersall said the investment firm will do its part to ensure the retailer is “strongly positioned to navigate a continuously changing landscape.”