Retail giant Target’s newly announced “Target Retail Accelerator” isn’t really an accelerator – it’s more a sponsored contest taking place at SXSW in Austin. Developers who participate in the event will have a chance to create retail-focused mobile apps or mobile websites, with seven finalists receiving $10,000 for their ideas, and one grand-prize winner scoring a larger prize of $75,000. But most importantly comes the promise that the winner will “get to work with Target” to bring their project to life, the retailer says.
The contest is co-branded with Fast Company via its technology vertical Co.LABS, which will document the event on its website. Target is also sponsoring the “Fast Company Grill,” the restaurant and lounge area at SXSW near the Austin Convention Center.
The run-of-the-mill startup contest isn’t really ground-breaking news, but what’s interesting here, from what we’re hearing, is that this is the beginning of a more concentrated, long-term initiative at Target to work with more startups and developers.
“Target is currently focused on this opportunity to engage the developer community,” says Target’s Corporate Communications lead Eddie Baeb, with regards to Target’s future plans. “We are always looking for innovative ideas to meet the needs of our guests, but have nothing more to share at this time,” he added.
The company also clarifies that despite using the name “accelerator” to describe the upcoming effort, it’s not directly investing in any companies. Instead, the developers are participating in a contest where the winning prototype is being awarded prize money. There’s no initial batch of entrants as you would have in a more traditional incubator programs, either. This is more hackathon than accelerator, but it’s the first time the retailer has ever engaged in such a contest.
Developers participating in the event are being asked to build a native mobile application, a mobile-enabled web experience, or a mobile design of some sort. Basically, Target is looking for ideas which can be integrated into its existing apps or mobile services, the company explains. In particular, it’s looking for new ideas around social, in-store, personalization, and education.
Not coincidentally, these are some of the areas which competitor Walmart currently tackles, too, through its Silicon Valley-based think tank “Walmart Labs.” There, the retailer has experimented with ideas which have included things like a crowdsourced “get on the shelf” contest, a Facebook wish-listing app, Facebook integration on Walmart.com, a new search engine for its e-commerce site, subscription-based commerce, and more.
As the Internet continues to disrupt the operations and bottom lines of brick-and-mortar businesses like Walmart and Target – Target now price-matches Amazon year-round, for example – the companies know that they need to move more quickly than ever before to test, iterate upon and launch apps, services and new ways of doing business that can keep them in the game as consumer buying behaviors shift rapidly under their feet.
Target has already been making some moves to try new things with regards to its online and mobile operations. In January, the company has announced that six new brands would be sold exclusively through its website, including bedding (Room365 and Boho Boutique), women’s apparel (Labworks), baby clothing (Zutano Blue), and home décor (TOO by Blu Dot and MudHut). It’s reportedly working with other major retailers on a mobile payment service called Merchant Customer Exchange. And internally, it has adopted a number of social media tools.
So while Target’s new accelerator isn’t really an accelerator, it’s not surprising that the company is starting to take more of a serious interest in the innovation produced by the startup community to improve its consumer-facing applications.