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Kishan Vasani & Sai Sreenivas Kodur: “Biometric payment”

Staying relevant has been one of the biggest challenges for retailers during the pandemic. Consumer shopping habits pretty much changed overnight and now, six months in, we’re seeing slight readjustments in their behavior once again. The most successful retailers during this period have been retailers operating within markets considered essential — food, home needs, personal care, and so […]

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Staying relevant has been one of the biggest challenges for retailers during the pandemic. Consumer shopping habits pretty much changed overnight and now, six months in, we’re seeing slight readjustments in their behavior once again.

The most successful retailers during this period have been retailers operating within markets considered essential — food, home needs, personal care, and so on. But those that have been quick to adapt, reinvent the way they interact with customers, and leverage technology have also seen significant gains.


As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kishan Vasani and Sai Sreenivas Kodur of Spoonshot.

Kishan is the Co-Founder & CEO. He’s been working in startups for 14 years including 3.5 years at Just Eat, one of the world’s largest online food ordering platform. First, as the Head of International Marketing, he worked on digital acquisition and brand across 8 markets. Then he moved to India to take charge of Just Eat’s Indian business as COO where he was responsible for 100 people across all functions. He oversaw 300% growth, making the company the Indian market leader in 12 months. Prior to his time at Just Eat, Kishan was the Founder of a digital marketing business in London for 5 years. During that time he also co-founded a UK based education charity, One Cause (http://www.onecauseuk.org), that supports grassroots educational organizations in India and Uganda.

Sai Sreenivas Kodur is the Co-Founder & CTO. A computer science graduate from IIT (Madras). He has more than 7 years of experience in product and platform development. He worked at Zomato, India’s largest food ordering and restaurant discovery platform, as a Software Engineer in search, and re-built its search relevance and ranking models to improve restaurant results. Later he worked at Myntra, India’s biggest online fashion store, as Senior Software Engineer, leading search and style services, working on various aspects, including scaling up its search infrastructure for high revenue days, developing personalized filters based on users fashion preferences, and also conceptualizing a generic search platform.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

The first business I had was back in 2006, when I taught myself digital marketing. These were the days of digital marketing when all the ads on Google were not from corporates or brands but from individuals. There was a lot of room to experiment and learn.

It was interesting how the whole digital marketing world developed to become what it is today. There were things that I loved about it e.g. you could scale and automate revenue streams quite easily, but I struggled to see how I could build a game changing business. I wasn’t interested in being a solopreneur. The digital marketing business allowed me to travel the world and have a lot of fun and it was relatively successful for an individual business. But it just wasn’t something that you could scale in an interesting or meaningful way. This was at the time when Facebook was just a couple of years old as well as the rise of many Internet giants. As a person who was interested in technology, I realized the need for me to get into that world and try to find a way to re-conceive my business. At this point in my career, I had one year of experience as an employee in the corporate office of a consumer bank and 4–5 years of experience in digital marketing. But I had no coding skills.

Around that time a friend of mine who was a recruitment consultant told me about a company called Just Eat which is a food delivery marketplace. It seems normal now, but at that time I found the concept so simple and brilliant. I wondered why I had never even heard of the company.

They had a leadership role which seemed like a good fit for me, but I asked myself if I really wanted to go back to a job after 5 years of being my own boss. I was really hesitant. I was encouraged to go meet with the team to learn more. So, I went to see them reluctantly for this job interview and felt extremely awkward. I met the hiring manager, Matt who was the CMO and within a few minutes I realized that he was a marketing genius who was oozing with ideas and creativity. I recognized that I could learn a lot from him. The role made a lot of sense to me as well. It was playing the role of a digital marketing consultant for all of Just Eat’s international businesses. They were present in 12 markets but were focusing mostly on the UK. Matt wanted me to travel to the other 11 markets and help these businesses grow by applying all my digital marketing skills, advising them, sharing best practices and ensure that the branding was implemented effectively.

After this first interview, they gave me an assignment to showcase my skills. At the assignment presentation, I remember going to the washroom just before kick-off. In there, was someone dressed in a gorilla costume who was jumping around making monkey sounds. Whoever it was didn’t talk to me but just making sounds, it was bizarre. When I got back to the meeting room, I was told that the person in the Gorilla was the Just Eat CEO! I couldn’t believe that a CEO could behave that way and I began to realize that there was something about the company that I really liked; the culture was something I wanted to be a part of.

Luckily, I did get the job and it turned out to be an incredible journey including huge growth both for me professionally, and for the company which had a very successful public stock listing in 2014. It was and likely will be the highlight of my career.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

During the senior year of college, I started looking for jobs, specifically fast track management programs for graduates. There were many programs to choose from but after researching them all, none really stood out to me. So, I just applied to the one that offered the highest salary. It was with a 100 year old consumer bank, and the program was specifically in the technology division, so mildly interesting to me. I applied and got accepted. It felt great initially to have good money and work for a reputable business but that feeling didn’t last long.

I soon realized that the bank was super slow, the work had little purpose and the leaders weren’t inspiring at all. The program was 2 years long, but I only lasted one. I just couldn’t handle the monotony. After nearly 20 years of education, I was shocked to learn that work life could be so boring. It was so easy to hide and do nothing in the company. I remember staring at the clock day after day. So, one day, I just quit, and I had no idea what I was going to do next, but I did know that I would start a business. It felt truly liberating.

What’s the lesson? Find something that you love and make it your “work”. Life is just so much better this way.

Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

At Spoonshot, we’re currently developing a game-changing technology that will bring about a step change in the agility of food and beverage brands who are looking to create new products. We call it Concept Generator. Imagine that you want to launch a great tasting cookie for keto diet followers. Currently, you have to do months of consumer and market research to validate the opportunity and ensure that what you have in mind has the potential to be a hit. With our Concept Generator, you can literally push a button and instantly get a set of valid product concepts from a flavor and consumer science perspective. It will be available early next year.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

As the Co-Founder & CEO of an emerging technology company, I would simply recommend that you do what you love, work with people whose company you enjoy. Life’s too short, to do it any other way. When you do both of these things, your job isn’t work, your colleagues are family, and burn out isn’t an issue.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are so many people who have helped Spoonshot over the last 5 years, e.g. early investors or our first customers, that it’s difficult to just talk about one person but if I have to then I would name Brett Brohl. He’s the Managing Director of startup accelerator, Techstars Farm To Fork.

During the Spring of 2018, we were in the midst of pivoting our business. At the time, we had built food personalization technology and while we had a few customers, we were struggling to scale our sales. It seemed that we had built a solution that was more of a vitamin than a painkiller. We had just begun looking into adjacent food tech opportunities and were thinking about building a restaurant menu analytics platform. At the same time, we were looking for funding and only had a few months of runway in the bank.

We were already 2.5 years into our entrepreneurial journey and had already participated in one accelerator. Therefore, we were hesitant to apply to the Techstars program but perseverance is the name of the game and so we applied. Brett showed a lot of interest in us, perhaps because we had industry experience, and saw the potential of our idea to help restaurants create menu dishes using AI and food science. He told us that we had a great shot of getting accepted into the program if we made one tweak to our idea. Instead of helping restaurants with innovation, he strongly recommended that we build the technology for CPG brands, who typically struggled to developed new products quickly and successfully.

We were nervous at first to consider switching from restaurant to CPG as we didn’t have industry knowledge, but Brett was undoubtedly right that food and beverage brands needed more help than restaurants. In the end, we took Brett’s advice and in the 2.5 years since, we haven’t looked back. We are truly grateful to Brett for seeing our potential and helping shape our thinking. Brett has continued to be a fantastic mentor and we still talk virtually weekly even though it’s over 2 year since we completed the acceleration program.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

At Techstars, the startup accelerator Spoonshot participated in, one of their most important values is “give first”, and I couldn’t agree more. In fact, Spoonshot had adopted this as one of our 5 core values too. Perhaps the most direct effort I have made to create a better world is by co-founding a non-profit, One Cause, that focuses on supporting grassroots educational institutions in rural communities in India and Uganda. Five friends and I set the organization up in 2008 and to date we’ve raised over 1M dollars for the schools we support. It’s an experience that keeps me grounded, helps me to think about completely different problems from the day-to-day of running a tech company, and reminds me how fortunate I am.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share five examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

As a result of the pandemic and social distancing measures, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that consumers are trying to reduce their trips to the store or the top-up shopping habit that used to be the norm. While online shopping has come to the rescue for consumers, large retail outlets are introducing new features to shopping to help consumers feel safe within brick and mortar stores. Going forward, retailers will not be able to avoid such safety measures if they want to bring consumers back into stores.

Some of these new features are tech-based so as to ensure an experience that is either contactless or ensures minimal contact.

  • Checkout-free shopping: Efficiency will be the name of the game when it comes to in-store shopping in the pandemic era. Pre-pandemic, a major consideration for retailers was getting people to spend more time within stores. But now, getting people in and out of stores safely and quickly is key.

Giant Eagle has introduced a checkout-free payment option at one of its GetGo convenience stores using Grabango’s cashier less payment technology. Shoppers download the app, key in their payment details, and shop as usual. The app uses computer vision and machine learning technology to track the items they select and to keep a running tally of their purchases. When they are done shopping, consumers just need to scan a code in the app as they leave, thus avoiding crowds at checkout counters. No membership, check-in, or other equipment is needed.

  • Smart carts: When shopping in stores, consumers are looking to minimize contact with surfaces that are likely to have been touched by numerous others — shopping carts for example. A number of retailers across the US are trialing smart shopping carts that are fitted with dashboards, cameras, and sensors that can track items being added. Shoppers are charged at checkout. Cart companies either rent out the carts to retailers or retrofit existing carts with the technology.

The dashboard can direct shoppers to products they want, show discounts and deals, and even show product ads while consumers shop. As cashier less shopping becomes more common, one smart cart company, Veeve, has even made the shopping cart to help retailers retain cashiers. Online orders can be sent to the dashboard of the cart, which the cashier can use to fulfil the order, and then prep for curbside pickup or delivery.

  • Wayfinding apps: These apps navigate shoppers through the store accurately to within inches of products they want to buy. This enhances consumer convenience while shopping by helping them find items faster as well as by avoiding direct interaction with others. This technology uses an indoor GPS system that makes the store more searchable. A few major retailers in the US had already incorporated wayfinding technology in their stores, but the pandemic has ticked up adoption.
  • Contactless delivery: On-demand grocery delivery is also becoming contactless with the help of robot delivery services such as Starship Technologies. Grocery orders can be filled into the robot, which uses computer vision and sensors to navigate the delivery route. Retail chain Save Mart has launched this delivery option at their flagship store for orders within a two-mile radius.
  • Biometric payment: At some of its Amazon Go stores, Amazon has launched a new system to authenticate payments and get digital signatures that uses palm recognition. Consumers just have to hover their palm over the sensor to enable payments and other activities. Palm recognition offers greater privacy for consumers compared to face recognition.

Not all changes are entirely consumer-focused tech. Some are just to deliver a safer shopping experience by combining online and in-store features.

  • Store design: Walmart, for example, is redesigning its stores with greater “navigational efficiencies”, taking layout inspiration from airports to help people finish their shopping faster. They have incorporated wayfinding tech, self-checkout kiosks, and cashless payment alongside clearly labelled aisles, merging aspects of physical and online shopping to guide shoppers through the store. This omnichannel approach is to help shoppers cut time they spend browsing.
  • Curbside pickup: The pandemic has also resulted in the emergence of the “Buy Online, Pickup Curbside” model of shopping, a variation of the “Buy Online, Pickup in Store” model. This helps customers reduce their interactions with other shoppers as well as store staff.

In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?

Yes, absolutely, retail stores and malls will continue to exist, but their role in our lives will change drastically.

Shopping online is fast and convenient, but nothing really compares to the tactile experience of browsing through a store and feeling products. Physical stores play a vital role in new product discovery for consumers and impulse purchasing — two key areas that have taken a hit as the need to get out of the store quickly supersedes everything else. Spoonshot’s proprietary data shows that interest in impulse buys has dropped 15.5% in the last 12 months in the US; impulse buys have been taking a hit in general due to the growth of online shopping.

Source: Spoonshot

Malls have always been a place for socializing and after several months of being shut in and isolated, people want to get out and visit places that can offer them the opportunity to meet friends and just hang out. The biggest advantage that malls have is wide open spaces, which means people can practice social distancing.

As smaller outlet stores shutter or move out of malls, there is a lot of scope to look at time-bound retail formats like pop-up stores that can be better geared towards experiential marketing and communication. Seeing (but perhaps not touching) new products up close and personal can help revive impulse buying and also give consumers a chance to browse through new product innovation rather than just their usual shopping list.

The way to keep retail stores and malls relevant and bring people back in will be by giving them unique experiences to interact with brands and with each other, but with all the provisions of safety and hygiene in place. It will also mean that malls and large stores will need to rethink their design for better ventilation and for distancing.

With regular new experiences to try out, consumers will want a reason to get out and look for activities that will give them some sense of normalcy.

Another angle to explore for large retailers and malls will be how to optimize lean periods during the day or week to engage with consumers. This could potentially help with better managing crowd size. For example, there may be opportunities to attract a particular demographic at a particular time during the day, while catering to others at other times.

The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

Staying relevant has been one of the biggest challenges for retailers during the pandemic. Consumer shopping habits pretty much changed overnight and now, six months in, we’re seeing slight readjustments in their behavior once again.

The most successful retailers during this period have been retailers operating within markets considered essential — food, home needs, personal care, and so on. But those that have been quick to adapt, reinvent the way they interact with customers, and leverage technology have also seen significant gains.

Adapting to change: Most retailers have adapted to social distancing measures with new ways of fulfilling customer orders. Grocery retailers in particular introduced curbside pickup and put in safety measures to help reassure shoppers. The ones that have been able to integrate this seamlessly and add greater convenience and safety to consumers’ lives have thrived.

Reinventing interactions: As people were stuck at home and had very little chance to go about their pre-pandemic daily routines, brands that were able to bring these routines to within the confines of home were able to stay relevant to consumers. Expanding from a core product to better address other consumer needs and occasions is also important.

Lululemon, for example, started to offer free online workouts and one-on-one online conversations with sales associates. They also offer comfortable casualwear that now suits the homebound employee.

Leveraging technology: Many retailers were already implementing or exploring technology upgrades to their stores to enhance the omnichannel shopping experience. The pandemic just accelerated their plans. Technology includes everything from improving online shopping options to incorporating solutions for a contactless experience and even cloud migration to make background operations more efficient and cost-effective.

Kroger, for example, has seen significant jumps in online sales after they accelerated their digital revamp plans.

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

A few of the major advantages that Amazon has over other retailers in the US is its strong supply chain, distribution network, and last-mile delivery. Many traditional retailers whose focus thus far has been brick-and-mortar have concentrated more on getting footfall within stores and less on an omnichannel approach. While the pandemic has forced many to accelerate their online distribution, they’re still playing catch-up.

The pandemic also saw a significant uptick in direct to consumer channels, interest in which has grown by 195% over the last 12 months, according to Spoonshot’s data.

Source: Spoonshot

However, that doesn’t mean big box retailers can’t compete. They can really amp up the value they offer the communities they serve with innovative service models and last-mile options.

  • Local delivery agents: Many large retailers have a presence in remote or rural parts of the country where Amazon may not always be able to offer speedy delivery. And this is where local and chain retailers can really ramp up the value they offer local communities by using people in the community themselves for last-mile delivery, and not just their own employees. This has the added advantage of benefiting the overall community as well in this time of unprecedented unemployment and recession. Such offerings would even benefit those who are still reluctant to use online shopping or would prefer to buy local.
  • Live stream shopping: This may be the next step to TV shopping. There is scope to build innovative online shopping experiences through live or interactive steaming platforms to encourage buying, as companies did in China. Consumers could learn about product features, get flash discounts, and get their questions answered — all in real time. Adding in influencers or celebrities into the mix drove online traffic and increased sales. Consumers can also give their reviews of the product in real time, which is a powerful means to either increase purchases or improve the product. It’s also a great way to use employees during off peak hours within stores to avoid layoffs.
  • Social commerce: This isn’t entirely a new concept, but it is still underused in the US, while it has grown by leaps and bounds in China. It includes shopping apps that marry social media and e-commerce and is largely driven by offering a platform for shopper communities to share their views on products and recommend them to others. In an era where online shopping is hurting impulse shopping (as we saw earlier), this is a great medium to encourage impulse buys.
  • Contactless deliveries: There are examples of contactless deliveries being trialed in many parts of the world as self-driving vehicles and drones become more common. This is still an emerging trend, but one with immense potential especially when dealing at-risk or vulnerable populations.

Some of these features can be incorporated into retailer shopping apps or sales strategies to take on the competition. There is also scope for retailers to collaborate and take advantage of shared synergies through a common app or platform so as to share costs.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It’s become absolutely clear this year more than any other, and increasingly during the 21st century that the world is much more fragile than we would like and it’s getting to the point of no return in terms of climate change and environmental sustainability. I was never passionate about such topics nor was I in denial, just apathetic I guess, probably like most of us. But today the evidence is everywhere and as a parent with young children I’m constantly thinking about the world I’m creating for them.

We must find innovative solutions that balance economic development and promote sustainable societal values and systems. For example, why are healthy foods the most expensive? We need to turn the economics of this situation on its head. Imagine if junk food was the most costly, what impact would that have on society? Another example is waste, particularly food waste. I find it really difficult to walk around giant grocery stores knowing that every day they throw away tons of perfectly good food. It’s desperately sad.

Bill Gates foretold the story of a global pandemic in 2015 at a now famous Ted Talk. Let’s take action now to protect the only place we call home so that history doesn’t repeat itself.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Your readers can sign up for Spoonshot’s innovation intelligence newsletter at spoonshot.com or follow our thought leadership on spoonshot.com/blog

https://in.linkedin.com/in/kishanvasani
https://in.linkedin.com/in/sai-sreenivas-kodur-7b748b13

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!


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