Moment of Truth: Omaha Startup Fills Data Gap at the ShelfJan 17, 2021 01:16PM ● By Brody Hilgenkamp
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
A large liquor brand has an elaborate display in a store, but someone forgot to put product on the bottom levels. A frozen food vendor sits in the grocery store, which moved a freezer with that vendor’s product in it and forgot to plug the freezer back in.
The brands are losing sales, but how do they know in time to recoup the revenue?
Omaha startup Retail Aware encountered those two scenarios in its short life, and its service, called BIaaS—business intelligence as a sensor—saved the day and portended good things to come.
Retail Aware’s BIaaS uses a combination of analog sensors, data analysis software, and artificial intelligence to measure consumer engagement at the shelves in retail spaces such as malls, grocery stores, and convenience stores. That engagement is what Retail Aware founder Keith Fix calls “the moment of truth.”
Fix has always been an entrepreneur at heart, and the idea for Retail Aware’s system sprouted from the challenges he encountered at his previous company, which made digital signage. A lot of ingenuity and creativity went into the signage, but there was no way to measure how many people actually interacted with it.
He sold the company in 2017 and used his awareness of the engagement data gap to create a solution in BIaaS. The sensors measure factors such as heat, light, motion, and distance to gauge time at a shelf, which brands are picked up and from which shelves, etc., while the data software and artificial intelligence create real-time insights for the brands. “We like to say that it’s not the last mile, it’s the last foot of data that we’re collecting,” Fix said.
That relates back to the liquor display and the freezer. In both instances, Retail Aware’s system alerted its staff of the unusual activity, who then notified the vendors, and sales and product
Empty shelves at the beginning of the pandemic created a surge in interest in Retail Aware as brands needed to know demand for their products and what that demand would be in the rapidly changing future. They couldn’t do that effectively if they had to wait for a quarterly sales report or make projections based on pre-pandemic data. “All of a sudden real-time data became the most critical piece of the puzzle for a lot of these companies,” Fix said.
Retail Aware grew 60% between the second and third quarter of 2020, Fix said, and the company raised its first $1 million in venture capital this summer, an impressive feat since Fix only started working on the business full-time in 2018. Erica Wassinger, senior director of entrepreneurship and innovation at The Startup Collaborative, said Nebraska companies average closer to five years to raise that amount of capital.
Wassinger and her team worked with Fix when he founded the digital signage business, so they had a strong relationship in addition to what Wassinger said was an objectively good idea in Retail Aware and BIaaS. She said the effort Fix puts into cultivating relationships provided an early boost and Fix fits the mold of a pragmatic Nebraska entrepreneur. “You build things to last, you build things that are worth your personal reputation, you take that responsibility very seriously,” she said.
The company has already gone international and has millions of dollars of sales each year; each sale depends on the data needs of the client, but each sale is five or six figures, Fix said. Sales for 2021 are lined up in Brazil, Europe, and even a zoo that wants to use the sensor system to measure feeding patterns of animals.
In less than two years the company has grown from two employees to 12. Wassinger points to growth like this as reason to have faith in entrepreneurs as the source of Nebraska’s future job growth. “They’re less committed to what the corporate grid is for what hiring needs to be and what skills are supposed to be in place for this job,” she said. “Because if you think about the nature of a startup, there’s never been that job description because there’s never been that company before.”
Visit retailaware.com for more information.
This letter was in the February/March 2021 issue of B2B.