Why London startups are disrupting mobile retail

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When people think of London, they usually think of Big Ben looming over the city and letting Londoners know the time of day.

But things have changed in this digital era starring connected watches that are telling time and creating new opportunities for mobile retail, a topic recently explored in great detail on the Lengow Blog at bit.ly/LengowBlogMobileTips and bit.ly/AlgoliaEcommerce (a feature story on Lengow Ecommerce Day speaker Algolia).

London has now taken on a new identity: global leader in the startup world.

In regards to innovations in online technology, London is perhaps best known for its creative startups in the online payments sector, which can be explored by taking a look at the Twitter hashtag #FinTech (an abbreviation for Financial Technology).

As previously discussed in a Lengow Blog feature story on bitcoins and ecommerce (bit.ly/BitcoinEcommerce), there’s no shortage of startups that are creating new ways for online shoppers to make payments. 

Being that London (along with New York City) has long been considered the financial capital of the world, it makes perfects sense that FinTech startups are thriving.

But thanks to the support of London venture firm Forward Partners, the city is also paving the way with a new wave of early-stage ecommerce startups (the focus of investments made by Forward Partners) that are making shopping on mobile devices even easier.

When you consider recent data from “The IOT Book” author Geoffray Sylvain which shows that London is the second-most connected city in the world when it comes to the Internet of Things, the retail possibilities for mobile and connected objects are endless.

Ecommerce Entrepreneurs

Forward Partners’ David Norris—a former serial entrepreneur who in his pre-VC days built and grew several successful ecommerce companies and now shares his insights frequently on Twitter (@norrisnode) and his blog NorrisNode.com— took his time to share several interesting perspectives on the growing ecommerce startup community in London with Lengow Blog readers.

“I’ve been working in ecommerce since 2000 and the main change I’ve seen is the massive increase in market size thanks to mobile technology.  Not only does (effectively) everyone carry a personal computer in their pocket these days, the connectivity with Wi-Fi and 4G is becoming so much more reliable and ever-present,” said Norris.

“The audience that ecommerce startups can now reach is huge and the UK is leading the way in global ecommerce salesThis also leads to new ways of selling.”

Rethinking Retail

For those on the outside looking in, wondering how their city’s ecommerce startup community can start to innovate the way London has, “how exactly did they do it?” may be the first question in mind.

Norris explained that the strong historical role of retail in London’s DNA combined with shifts in society all led to shaping his city in the 21st century.

“In the UK, we sometimes refer to ourselves as a ‘nation of shopkeepers.’  It’s true: for centuries we’ve been traders and merchants.  

There are a number of reasons why UK consumers have embraced ecommerce, including reliable delivery networks, high density of population in metropolitan areas and letter boxes that accept medium-sized parcels,” said Norris.

“High broadband adoption, high mobile phone adoption, high usage of credit cards and congested road transport make a difference too; people won’t go buy an item when it can be delivered easily instead.”

The New Breed

When it comes to the young ecommerce startups that are part of the Forward Partners family, standouts include Hubbub, Wool And The Gang, Appear Here and Stylect.

Norris discussed why his team invested in the latter and how the shoe shopping-focused startup has taken full advantage of the aforementioned growth of mobile in London and other cities with its app.

“We invested last year in Stylect, a mobile app (which was recently touted as an “innovation to watch” in a Financial Times story) that helps women easily find the perfect shoe on their phones: just swipe to like or dislike,” said Norris.

“They have massive global reach with over 60 million swipes on the app so far in over 130 countries.  Mobile also now means that many suppliers are now always connected and this presents new opportunities to run a business from a smartphone.  

London Learnings

The success of startups in London, combined with the support for the UK’s entrepreneurs provided by initiatives such as Tech City UK, indicate that this is just the beginning.

Norris certainly believes that London’s future is bright and its past is a big reason why.

“In London, retail is a core competency, as is media and finance, and it’s no coincidence that these three sectors are seeing a lot of startup attention. Companies choose to startup in London because of the density of experience as well as the very favourable tax breaks (such as the EIS scheme and the Entrepreneurs’ tax relief) that the UK offers,” explained Norris.

“The UK is innovating in retail (great examples include Ocado and Farfetch) and I personally believe that London is fast becoming the ecommerce capital of the Western world.  There’s plenty more to come.”

Going forward, some thought leaders other than Norris that are worth following on networks like Twitter and LinkedIn to learn about London’s mobile and retail innovations include FinTech expert Christophe Langlois (who tweets daily at @Visible_Banking), Merchanfeeling.com CEO Fouad Kazim (who analyzes retail trends in his articles), Tech City UK (which sends out a resourceful monthly email newsletter called Tech Telegram) and the acclaimed Paris digital think thank HUB Institute.

More information is available below, including details on the Hub Institute’s London Retail Safari Tour on June 4, 2015 (bit.ly/LondonRetailSafari) which will provide a close look at the city’s top connected retail stores.

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Elias Jabbe