Know why your shoppers are shopping with you. You have to know what differentiates you from competitors, so you can continue to give shoppers what they are looking for.
As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shekar Raman.
Shekar Raman is CEO and co-founder of Birdzi, a grocery retail AI solutions company that was inspired by an idea his 11-year-old daughter had about locating products in the supermarket. He is passionate about building data-driven technologies leveraging AI and machine learning to help retailers and brands elevate the customer experience.
Shekar began his career working on the Human Genome Project at the Dept. of Human Genetics, Univ. of Pennsylvania, developing algorithms for protein modeling. He was part of some of the pioneering groups (early 90s) in BioInformatics at UPenn, and at the Dept. of Human Genetics, UNLV, where he applied speech recognition techniques to identify and classify genetic sequences. He then continued onto AT&T Bell Labs, working in the Speech Recognition group as a consultant developing data collection algorithms where he also acquired significant expertise in systems engineering. He then later moved on to Systems Engineering, architecting and implementing infrastructure solutions for a large Fortune 500 company working in both consulting and management roles.
Shekar Raman has a Bachelor of Engineering degree in Electronics and Communications from Osmania University, Hyderabad India. He went to Graduate School at Villanova University where he obtained a MS in Electrical Engineering with a focus on Digital Signal Processing and Pattern Recognition.
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 tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Back in 2010 I was helping my then 11-year old daughter with an elementary school ‘invention day’ project. I was at the supermarket with a list from my wife and struggling to find the items, when my daughter suggested maybe we ‘invent’ something that will make it easier for shoppers to locate products in the store. And thus, Birdzi was conceptualized. By training, I am an engineer and had absolutely no experience in retail, but this was a problem that I felt many people faced, so we set about trying to solve it.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Having started Birdzi with no background in retail, we sought a supermarket expert that we could bring onto the team. Searching LinkedInn for connections in the space, we discovered Gary Hawkins, who had owned a supermarket and was considered a thought leader in the space. Unfortunately, we were unable to get an introduction. After six months of working through other contacts and bringing on our first expert board member, we asked him for connections in the industry, and the first name he pulls out of the hat is ‘Gary Hawkins.’ Gary and I met in Scranton, PA as he was on his way to D.C. from Syracuse. Five minutes into the conversation, we knew that this was going to be a magical relationship. He has been a member of the Birdzi team since.
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?
Early on, we pivoted from just mapping stores to providing in-store traffic analytics based on a hunch. We spent the first couple of years building our own location analytics platform that was a fraction of the cost of some of the bigger players. Not long after, we realized that, while the data was exciting, there was simply no market for the product. Supermarket retailers did not have the bandwidth to consume this information. The key takeaway: ‘Before you build a product, make sure there is a buyer’
Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
Yes, several. Birdzi is focused on building a ‘Customer Intelligence Platform’ that makes it simple for retailers to understand their customers and execute automated personalized campaigns that are centered around growing their business, ‘one shopper at a time.’ The services are focused on providing greater value and savings to shoppers — all while simplifying the process of ‘shopping healthy’ by removing the burden of analyzing product labels from shoppers’ plates and letting a ‘personalized wellness’ system do the curating for them.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Surround yourself with people you enjoy being with. Work can and does get stressful, but having a solid team with good chemistry can greatly ease the stress and actually make it fun.
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?
It was in the early days, and I had not mentioned the idea to anyone except my family. I had created a few documents detailing the idea and a rudimentary business plan. A close friend and mentor, Shivaram Kumar, happened to come over, noticed the document on my coffee table and started going through it. He almost immediately asked, ‘you are not planning to do this without me, are you?’ Kumar was instrumental in getting Birdzi off the ground through his initial involvement in fundraising and being one of the largest individual investors in the project. His guidance and support have been critical to our success.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Where possible, I contribute my time to share my experience and guide other budding entrepreneurs. Of late, we have started exploring actively being involved with organizations that work with high school students in growing the entrepreneurial mindset.
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 a few examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
I think one of the most obvious changes is the options that consumers have to get their products. In this sense, retailers have adapted really. Most large retailers allow for speedy delivery, curbside pickup or in-store shopping. Having these choices makes shopping frictionless. While they’re not new, these options have really come to the forefront with the pandemic and many shoppers who were not aware of these additional channels are now able to leverage them.
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?
Physical retail is not going anywhere. We are social beings and interaction is something we long for. While the online channels will continue to grow, I don’t think they will ever overtake the physical store. Some verticals will probably be impacted more than others, but I think people still like to explore and shop. While online can efficiently transact and deliver, it cannot (as of today) provide the same feel and experience as going out and shopping.
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?
The retailers who have been successful have focused on delivering a clear value proposition to their customers. Someone like a Lululemon focuses on delivering high quality and a crazy level of customer service, and their branding and messaging emphasizes this. I feel when retailers are not clear on the value proposition they are delivering to their customers, they stand to lose. This is easier said than done — it’s not just the ‘messaging.’ They have to follow through on their promise to earn the customers trust. Today, it’s really all about earning that trust.
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?
I think ‘experiential retail’ is the future. Competing on price alone was never a winning strategy. People like to shop with brands and retailers that understand them. So personalization, combined with a great product and service is the key. I think the big challenge with online retail is that it takes very little for a consumer to switch. So if you are not providing an exceptional experience, it is going to be hard to succeed. Going back to my earlier statement, it’s about winning their trust and providing them a seamless and enjoyable experience.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Know why your shoppers are shopping with you. You have to know what differentiates you from competitors, so you can continue to give shoppers what they are looking for.
- Digital engagement is an imperative, not an option. 89% of shoppers use mobile devices while grocery shopping, 60% of shoppers view weekly circulars online, and online grocery sales increased by 40% in 2020.
- Sometimes less is more. When customers are bombarded with irrelevant ads and coupons, they often ignore them. There is so much ad noise out there that retailers have to get smart and find ways to only show shoppers the most relevant and personalized promotions.
- Shoppers are looking for a seamless omnichannel experience. They want the option to buy online what they bought in the store last week. Then they want to clip coupons from your email ad flyer and add them to their app, so they can be automatically scanned at checkout.
- The technology to create a fantastic digital experience for your customers is out there and it shouldn’t be hard to adopt. Choose a solutions company that can work with your legacy systems, that promises to give your team continued support during and after adoption.
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. :-).
They say sitting is the new smoking, especially now when so many people are working or going to school remotely. I’m passionate about personal wellness and physical activity is a huge part of that. I would love to inspire a movement where people collectively get out of their chairs and move, be it walking, yoga, biking, running, etc. It would be great if it became an ingrained part of our workday, like coffee breaks and lunch hours. It has been shown that people who are physically active are more productive at work, so it would benefit companies to encourage “get out of your chair” time for employees.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Visit Birdzi.com and follow us on:
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!