Technology inspires Vancouver companies to sell directly to customers

Online shopping is challenging brick-and-mortar retailers because of the amount of data companies can collect

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      Ever since retail locations started shuttering across the province, big box store owners have been prophesying the decline of the industry. But while new shops continue to close their doors within months of opening, people’s desire to purchase shows no signs of slowing down. Buoyed by the rise of Internet shopping, consumers are spending just as much—and in many sectors, even more—online.

      That shift is largely due to the increasing intelligence of technology. While retail has long been the domain of merchants picking products by gut instinct, that’s changing fast with the development of tools able to understand people’s preferences, test the popularity of items before they’re created, and send them straight to their door. Analytics platforms have become so sophisticated that individuals aren’t just buying cheap entertainment products like books or games, but are now comfortable dropping thousands of dollars on items like jewellery, musical instruments, and mountain bikes—all sight unseen.

      One person who understands the development of the online retail sector better than most is Aamir Baig. A computer engineer by training, he began his career by founding a company named Etilize, which specialized in making e-commerce technology and counted Amazon, Apple, Walmart, and Best Buy among its customers. After selling his business in 2011, he settled in Vancouver and cofounded one of the region’s most exciting new companies: the furniture retailer Article, where he's now CEO. Baig’s mission of “engineering remarkably better furniture experiences” is underpinned entirely by the team’s self-built technology.

      “We have some building blocks to achieve our goals,” he tells the Georgia Straight. “Everything from the products, to the marketing, to the shopping experience, to how we run the supply chain, to how we manage manufacturing, to product design, to logistics, to the final mile [delivery]—each one of those building blocks can be made to run a whole lot better through technology, and technology automation. Data underscores everything. We collect all kinds of data, and we make all kinds of decisions with data. It’s shaped us to be a very different furniture company than the incumbents.”

      Article uses topflight designers to create modern, midcentury, and Scandinavian-style pieces that have proven to be very popular with consumers. Part of the furniture’s appeal is due to the company’s ability to offer huge discounts. Instead of creating a sofa and seeing how well it sells, for instance, Article is working on showing potential customers computer-generated images of the item online, and won’t manufacture it unless it reaches a threshold of popularity. Similarly, its ability to track returns from buyers and ask for feedback allows the company to tweak its creations to sell better in the future. Plus, as an entirely direct-to-consumer business, Article doesn’t need to waste money showcasing its pieces in expensive high-street furniture stores. All of those savings are passed on to shoppers.

      “It starts with collecting data directly from the customer,” Baig says of the business. “If you’re not direct-to-consumer, you have lost the opportunity—or at least you’re going to be reliant on some other intermediary to provide the data, and I’m not sure how well that would work.…It [technology] is certainly such an incredibly important driver for businesses, because it enables you to collect data, it enables you to act on data, it enables you to automate, and lets you be a whole lot more productive with your systems, because you’re getting code to do what would have otherwise required people and processes. Anytime you’re doing that, you’re just making systems a whole lot more reliable.”

      Article is far from the only Vancouver retail company using data to drive its business. Entrepreneurs across Vancouver are using a tech-first, direct-to-consumer model to start their business from scratch, and have a competitive advantage over legacy companies that are being forced to adapt to the new trend. One of those is local upstart Blume.

      Founded by sisters Bunny and Taran Ghatrora, Blume offers female wellness products with a special focus on young women going through puberty. A self-described “mission-oriented company”, Blume is dedicated to helping prevent girls’ self-esteem from plummeting as they navigate their teen years, and offering a community to better their mental health. The business sells organic pads and tampons, a scentless natural deodorant, and products targeted at reducing symptoms of PMS and acne. Each was selected and developed after analyzing data.

      “We started by operating a subscription service of third-party products,” Bunny Ghatrora, COO of the company, tells the Straight by phone. “Each month when we were sending them out, we were getting feedback about what products were really lacking in their routine, what the options were on the market right now, and what was missing in those options that would help to elevate that routine each day of the month. We used all that feedback to create our products, and we want to keep using that technique as we continue down the road.”

      As well as illuminating what items women need to make their lives easier, tech is vital to building the community around Blume’s product. As much an educational resource as a product manufacturer, the company relies on its website and social media presence to support women and girls with facts about menstrual health, self-care, and life stages like puberty. Some of those individuals have become loyal to the Blume brand.

      “Education is a really important part of our business,” says Taran Ghatrora, the company’s CEO. “There are a lot of benefits to it—that girls can find us easier, because we’re a resource and authority on information. A lot of people find us on Instagram, which is a really engaged channel. We do stories every single day, we do all kinds of educational takeovers, and we have different experts on our Instagram Live to talk about different topics. It really helps us build a relationship with the customer, as well as helping her to find us.”

      Baig and the Ghatrora sisters agree that, in the future, few companies will be able to survive without rooting their products and processes in technology.

      “I think that as more and more things move digitally, technology will be the driving force,” says Bunny Ghatrora. “It helps them [the company] to make better decisions to improve consumer experience, and stay competitive with the current market.”

      Baig agrees: “I can certainly say with confidence that the vast majority [of businesses], if they’re not driven by technology, will not be able to compete well.”

      Kate Wilson is the Technology Editor at the Georgia Straight. Follow her on Twitter @KateWilsonSays