Interview with Nicolas Standaert, founder and CEO of Nearbuy Group
Nearbuy Group is a leading retail tech company focusing in the fast growing area of retail digital disruption. Launched in Dubai in 2014 as a geolocation-based shopping mobile application, the company quickly expanded its offerings into digital and robotic solutions and has since grown into a leading player in cutting-edge retail tech in the region and beyond. Using tech as a core value proposition against traditional media players, Nearbuy is also building an exclusive digital advertising network across most sought-after venues in the MENA region and beyond. Today Nearbuy is the largest operator of digital out-of-home screens in the UAE.
In this conversation with Tharawat Magazine, Nearbuy founder and CEO Nicolas Standaert shares how his company is challenging the traditional retail experience through innovative, interactive technologies.
Tell us the story of how you got the idea to start Nearbuy.
Back in 2009, Amelie, my wife, was at the supermarket in a well-known mall in Dubai. While in the supermarket, she received an SMS alerting her to a nearby luxury goods sale with attractive discounts. While she wasn’t a regular purchaser of luxury items, Amelie felt the opportunity was too good to miss and rushed to the sale.
That night at home, she showed me her new, bargain price designer wallet and told me the story. This got me thinking. Amelie only went to the sale because she was in the same mall as the shop when she received the message: she would not have made a special effort to go if she had not been close by. It was a pure coincidence, but the retailer had generated a lucky sale as a result. Amelie was also happy because she walked away with an item she wanted at a reduced and attractive price.
I realised there was an opportunity to marry digital technology to the retail experience using software designed to profile and pinpoint consumers’ movements and behaviours. And, with that, the concept of Nearbuy was born in my mind.
I am happy to say that, eight years later, Amelie still uses her beloved wallet too!
If you were to give a Silicon Valley style “elevator pitch” of your company in 30 seconds, what would you say?
Nearbuy is a leading tech company focused on helping retail clients with digital transformation. We offer ‘phygital’ technologies (physical meets digital) which enhance the shopping experience for millions of people in multiple countries. Our core products are in guiding and engaging consumers, and in targeted advertising in shopping malls, retail stores, hypermarkets and other large public areas.
Tell us about these ‘phygital’ technologies and Nearbuy’s robotics products.
Nearbuy is the exclusive regional distributor of Werobots, which offer some of the most advanced robotic solutions available in the market. Those robots are programmed to support shoppers in a way that is entertaining and fun for the customers interacting with them.
The RoboShark, which was Werobots’ first robot-based retail business solution in the UAE, was very successful for Dubai Aquarium. Informative and ticket-selling robots are highly popular with visitors.
That said, our robots are not just about fun and engagement. The information they gather as a result of the consumer interaction is highly valuable as a marketing tool to retailers and mall owners.
What is the logic behind developing a robotics product such as the RoboShark?
Nearbuy uses cutting edge technology to solve business issues. The very first thing we consider is not what technology we have at our disposal but what is our client’s core business challenge.
Dubai Aquarium’s challenge was that people visiting the mall were looking at the aquarium from the outside public open access viewpoints. Positioning promotional staff to sale tickets had not the desired effect, and neither was it cost efficient.
‘RoboShark’ was designed to perform two roles: information-giving and automated ticket sales. It roamed the area around the outside of the Aquarium and became an attraction in their own right. More importantly, the initiative met its objective in that ticket sales increased considerably.
How has the customer response been to the interactive products and what would you say to someone who thinks they are just a passing fad?
The feedback received from Dubai Aquarium and Level Kids has been highly positive and we saw a lot of shoppers engaging with the robots, which enhanced their visitor experience. As importantly, both clients gained a lot of knowledge about their target consumers.
The technology behind robots is developing at a dizzying rate. The potential for artificial intelligence to be incorporated into customer service experiences is game-changing. Some of the key benefits include speed and data-processing capability. The usage of robots in customer service environments, particularly where repetitive tasks are needing to be performed, is gathering fast momentum globally now, especially in Asia Pacific but also in North America and Europe. One report I read, by a research company called Tractica, forecast that more than 23,000 robots will be deployed in customer service positions between 2016 and 2022. The majority will enter the retail, travel and hospitality, financial services and healthcare industries. Furthermore, the services they will offer will be increasingly business critical, such as predicting customer behaviour.
Why are interactive, personalised Omni channel experiences such as these necessary for today’s businesses?
Customers increasingly expect to be catered to as individuals. They are aware that the data gathered on them now allows retail brands to tailor their offering somewhat. It’s no longer a ‘nice to have’: it is expected. Companies who don’t do this are already seeing their business impacted.
In return, the data that is provided through interaction and engagement provides businesses with critical insights into what their customers are looking for. It takes away the guesswork in terms of what customers want from them now, and allows companies to look into the future and prepare more easily for what those changing needs on the horizon might be.
What do you consider to be the greatest barriers in getting more businesses to adapt such interactive products, and what is your strategy to convert them?
The barriers to greater technological optimisation in businesses are almost always human, ironically. Digital business transformation impacts entire organisations and presents multiple challenges, most of which are rooted in a lack of understanding and/or fear. A large part of the time we spend with our customers is dedicated to explaining how the technology can bring much greater benefits to them and their customers than they have ever seen before. I think things are changing fast in that we are having very different conversations now with customers than we used to have. There is a greater understanding now that if companies don’t react to changing customer demands they will be get further and further behind the demand curve and unable to compete with those constantly listening and reacting to the market. The benefits of data-based insights speak for themselves and that is how the argument is made successfully.
AI is obviously a hot topic in the tech world; what is the role of AI in your company and what are the challenges and opportunities that it entails?
AI presents a significant business opportunity for Nearbuy. Our focus is on technologically-based solutions to support retail industry challenges. These solutions can support in multiple areas but ultimately what clients are mostly looking for is what is called ‘actionable data’.
Actionable data is about producing insights, in this case via machine learning, that a business would not necessarily have otherwise found out and which are relevant to business planning. In simple terms, AI helps companies to understand their consumers, their preferences and behaviours in more detail than ever before. Furthermore, the AI technology can, by predicting consumer behaviour, influence a set of outcomes. Take for our example our robots: upon identifying a customer preference the robot can, on the spot, issue a voucher for a relevant product, or even guide the consumers to items in the store for purchasing. Both can increase the likelihood of a sale. In this way AI is at the very heart of our business given that our mission is to support our clients maximise their sales potential.
The main challenge has been previously in educating clients to see the potential and invest in the technology. One of the key benefits Nearbuy offers clients of course is the ability to experiment at relatively low cost without having to invest in their own technology and outsource the expertise needed.
What were some of the challenges you faced as an entrepreneur in such a newly developing field?
The concept of retail tech is so new so that whatever we do as Nearbuy we are ultimately pioneering.
Our constant challenge is helping clients to get out of their comfort zone and try new things, sometimes things that have never been done before. We have spoken to many who would prefer to do what they have always done, and put their business through the more traditional players and advertising channels, even when they can see it is not working. The good news is that more and more clients are coming to us asking us to help them, so I think we are getting past those challenges.
One of our key learnings as a company so far is to be 100% client-focused but also to be bold and help to push them out of this comfort zone, even if it is challenging. The information gained in the process is the proof that our solutions deliver against their challenges. We definitely see a momentum picking up because existing clients are seeing the benefits of engaging us.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs and business leaders looking to succeed especially in the world of technology?
Businesses don’t succeed on the strength of one person alone. Surround yourself with people who share your vision and are motivated to succeed. Don’t compromise on this. Strong partners and a strong CTO are essential in tech business but every member of your team will play a vital role both in start-up mode and thereafter. Choose people who come from different environments to ensure creativity and make sure they complement each other. And pick people who really, truly, believe in your vision!