J Atkinson and Co.

The Organisations

J Atkinson and Co., based in Lancaster, supply a large number of cafes across north Lancashire and beyond, as well as shop customers with roasted coffee. They have a long working relationship with Lancaster University, whom they also supply with coffee, and have benefited from student expertise through industry-focused PhDs.


HighWire is a doctoral training centre centred on innovation through computer science, management and design. In the first three years of operation, HighWire has run over 60 partnership projects with businesses, the health sector, schools, public organisations, and other societal groups, to drive radical change in business and society through developing digital innovations.


The Challenge

The owners of J Atkinson & Co. wanted to balance their heritage with innovation and approached HighWire to see if they could bring digital innovation to their business.

Skills Sought

  • Digital marketing skills
  • Knowledge of QR code software

The Solution

PhD student Liz Edwards from HighWire and the School of Computing and Communications was matched with the company to provide them with the extra skills and resources they needed. She fitted tens of thousands of coffee bags with digital tags so that customers could scan the packaging and learn the story behind the product. The collaboration is linked to the company’s Tea and Coffee Heritage and Innovation Centre where RFID tags attached to objects can be scanned to tell stories about a Victorian tea caddy.

The School of Computing and Communications at Lancaster University has research expertise in communications and networking, computer systems, intelligent systems, software engineering, and human-computer interaction. 


J. Atkinson and Co. were able to offer their customers a unique, interactive experience. They had more traffic to their website and a unique selling point to help them stand out from their competitors. QR codes in tea cards will enable the card to be swiped to order coffee beans, sign up for events, download coffee information and give feedback. The QR codes on the packaging can also be used to order more products from the business, raising awareness of the e-commerce site and relieving pressure on busy staff.

Benefits to the company

  • Gave the company new selling point to help them stand out from their competitors
  • Offered their customers a unique, interactive experience
  • Increased traffic to their website
  • Raised awareness of the e-commerce site and relieved pressure on busy staff

Company Feedback  

"Each type of coffee bean has an amazing story behind it, the story of the grower and what distinguishes the taste. Now customers can access this by scanning the packaging with their mobile phone. If you scrape the surface, there is a whole digital world underneath. I want people to choose the variety of bean in the same way they choose wine and this means we can give them a lot more information about what's available.

"Thanks to Liz we were able to offer customers a more novel, interactive experience which raised awareness of our web services and made our business stand out even more." Ian Steel, Owner, J Atkinson & Co.

Student Feedback

"What makes Atkinson special is their connection to their growers in different countries, and I wanted to bring that out and allow them to tell their story of how the coffee and tea is produced. An aim of this innovation is to encourage customers to learn about and explore a greater range of what is on offer. This innovation should stimulate customers to think about coffees in relation to each other and in relation to geographic regions. It should prompt customers to questions tastes and to develop their palette. I really valued the opportunity to extend my research interests with a creative and experimental team in a local business setting." Liz Edwards, Lancaster University PhD student.

Future Plans

The company have also worked with the university’s Engineering Department to restore an old coffee machine.