Velvet Labs: Trialling the John Lewis online experiences

Zoom fatigue has become synonymous with repeated lockdowns, so joining virtual workshops to perk your spirits might seem slightly ironic. But if truth be told, they’re actually what we need right now. 

Retail is leading the way when it comes to online consumer workshops, and since we’re big on retail at Velvet – we work with many digital, ecommerce and retail tech businesses – I tried out two Zooms, in the name of work (mostly).

John Lewis and Waitrose expanded their online workshops programme shortly after the third lockdown was announced. They’ve now got something for every age and interest. If you’re unsure of what to do with the shirt you bought when parties were legal, you can schedule a wardrobe overhaul session with a stylist. Looking to keep kids preoccupied during half term? Pencil them into an arts and crafts workshop.

Eager to test experiences that were poles apart, I signed up to how to get a good night’s sleep and, committing to a new year’s resolution, healthy WFH cooking.

I joined both as a naïve consumer. After nearly a year of life under coronavirus, I’d never tested a virtual workshop and didn’t count on one to hold my attention. But I prejudged.

I joined the Zoom session for how to get a good night’s sleep as three hosts greeted their invisible audience. My first inkling was that I was about to absorb a heap of information on mattress springs. And yes, that was part of the event – but I underestimated just how engaging the hosts could make it. All were enormously passionate even about bedsprings, and their delivery of the workshop’s agenda was seamless.

The first takeaway was that it doesn’t matter what the subject is. Knowledge and enthusiasm can turbocharge a virtual workshop into something that rivals in-person experiences. And without these two characteristics, viewership will quickly wane.

After diving into what’s at stake (a good sleep really is important to our mental health!), interactive activities became a staple of the session. I eventually found myself answering live polls while lying on a set of house keys to test the durability of my mattress. Not quite how I imagined spending a Tuesday evening.

You can’t see or hear other participants, but the ad-hoc questionnaires which coerced us into confessing our pre-bedtime sins – a large majority are guilty of too much screen time – made it feel like a collective hands-up. Watching it solo didn’t once feel lonely.

As a John Lewis event, it won bragging rights on lounge and bedding products. Perhaps its one flaw was how long the hosts dwelled on them. But their expertise and delivery quickly assured me that John Lewis is a retailer to trust – and I’d always get bang for my buck. Experiences like these really could become the crux of long-term customer loyalty.

 Keen to demonstrate my cooking prowess, I joined healthy WFH cooking with the Waitrose Cookery School a few days later. Two chefs hosted: one on the messy, practical side, and the other answering a flurry of questions in a chatbot window. Not short of anecdotes and some questionable banter, the session was a fun, light-hearted cook-along that concocted enough meals to see me into 2022.

My initial reservation was whether I’d keep the pace with an experienced chef. But this was a course for everyone, novice to veteran. Questions put to the chefs, ranging from ingredient substitutes to storage suggestions, never stunted the process and their answers were always full of insight. Viewers were also encouraged to have a pen and paper ready to note any hacks; to my surprise I picked up skills that I’ll use in my cooking every day.

Waitrose Cookery School’s elaborate set-up was light years away from the dining room backdrops of how to get a good night’s sleep. Long-shots of the chef’s station soon panned to close-ups of the ingredients – and Waitrose own-brand ingredients unsurprisingly made several appearances. It wouldn’t have mattered to the sleep session, but a studio structure for a cookery course proved vital in giving viewers visual hints of how their meals should – and shouldn’t – look.

Both sessions were instant mood lifters. I started how to get a good night’s sleep in a slightly tiresome state, but finished it with a spring in my step. I also took valuable learnings away from healthy WFH cooking

Online experiences go a lot further than light relief or sales pushes. They’re a much-needed escape at a time when there’s little else to do other than doomscroll. The chance to learn something new, watch eager faces talking about subjects that aren’t a perilous virus, feel solace-giving as we jump in and out of lockdowns. I’m actually hoping they stay.