The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Mark Cummins, chief executive officer and co-founder of Pointy, a hardware and software platform based in Dublin, Ireland. Cummins discussed how Pointy helps local retailers be discovered via search engines and establish an online presence to drive customers back to their stores.
Eline Chivot: How does your technology address the challenges of local, brick-and-mortar stores in the digital economy? Which ones benefit the most from your platform?
Mark Cummins: Pointy’s mission is simple: we want to get local retailers online and give them the tools they need to thrive. Our customer base is broad: a retailer might have one store in a local town, while another might belong to a chain with significant marketing spend and an e-commerce arm.
Pointy isn’t an either/or tool for retailers. Some retailers use it as their online marketing, while others use it as an auxiliary tool alongside a website, e-commerce, or paid advertising.
The idea for Pointy actually came about when Charles (Pointy’s co-founder) and I were at a party and we were trying to find a type of craft beer locally—but Google couldn’t give us an answer as to where we could buy it. Sure, we could buy the product online but we wanted it now—and not in three days.
It was a problem that propagated across all verticals—while more and more people are making local searches and finding information online, search engines couldn’t reliably show stock information. A retailer a street over could stock what you wanted, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it.
Pointy solves this problem with our app for cloud POS systems like Lightspeed, Square, Vend, and Clover, or the Pointy box which plugs into traditional point-of-sale systems. Connect Pointy and it syncs with the POS, building an online catalog of in-store products that can be found in search.
The experience is very simple for the retailer, but there’s a huge amount of complexity behind the scenes to make it work. We handle all of the data in a wide variety of formats, and we have done a lot of machine learning driven work.
Essentially, we ingest raw data from retailers, and normalize it all so that it’s useful to shoppers. This is much harder than it sounds—every mass-market product has a unique barcode number, but there’s no master database which lets you look up that number and get the product’s name, image, or details. So retailers spend a huge amount of time doing that manually.
Pointy automates this process, so it really is as simple as retailers connecting to Pointy and scanning their products as normal to begin building their product catalog. Essentially, a customer can make a local search, see the retailer’s online catalog (on what we call a Pointy page), see inventory levels and store information, and come to the store to make the sale. It’s a step beyond what retailers can do with business directories or social media.
Chivot: How are you changing the user experience?
Cummins: It all ties into the need-to-have economy. While e-commerce is booming, perception is ahead of reality—90 percent of sales are still being completed in a store.
The problem is that if potential consumers don’t know that you stock what they want, they’re going to go to one of your competitors. It’s crucial for retailers to remember that the idea of who your competitors are has changed. The Internet has had a flattening effect—20 years ago, your competitor might have been a store two blocks over, but now it’s that store and all its online equivalents.
The user experience works on two levels with Pointy: for the retailer, and for the consumer in the local area. For retailers, it’s seamless: once they’ve connected with Pointy, they scan their products as normal and they appear on their Pointy page.
We do have other features too, such as Local Inventory Ads. Because Pointy manages the data centrally, the images and details are already there so setting up ads is as simple as choosing where they want to target and setting the budget.
In the back-end too, we work a lot with making sure retailer Pointy pages are SEO-friendly—and we’ll try to get them to rank for things like “[product] near me” or “[product][location].”
Essentially, without Pointy, manually digitizing products—especially if a store has thousands of products—could take countless hours, and might involve investing in an expensive platform. Because Pointy syncs with the POS, it takes data entry for the retailer out of the equation.
For consumers, it’s a simple experience too. The consumer searches for a product and, if a relevant retailer is nearby and ranking in search, they’ll see the Pointy page. They click on the Pointy page and can see the product, any variables, if it’s in stock, opening hours, and the address.
They can also see the store’s website link and can go there to continue their buying journey or go into the store itself to complete the purchase.
Chivot: What data does Pointy need to “point” users to local stores and ensure in real-time that the products they look for are available?
Cummins: The Pointy system has several data points it considers when reading inventory levels. The machine learning model attempts to automatically work out when a product has gone out of stock or is discontinued. Say a store usually scans a product every 10 minutes and then it doesn’t scan it again for several hours, it’s likely because the product isn’t available.
Of course, the retailer also has the option to manually de-list a product.
In some cases, the retailer has more data available to them about their stock—they may have inventory records. We try to consider as many data points as we have available to us and then the machine learning model will calculate the inventory stock levels of the item. We’re constantly working on this to make sure inventory records are accurate, despite all of the messiness and mistakes that you find in real data.
Chivot: Can you share some interesting insights derived from your data?
Cummins: It is interesting sometimes to see spikes in the data and how Pointy responds to consumers’ needs. Around the time of the California wildfires, our top trending search was “face mask.”
So it’s clearly solving a real need for consumers. Having that visibility really can also make all the difference for retailers in how they respond to search queries and any spikes.
Chivot: How do you see the world of retail in the future? Will other data sources, such as information from suppliers on when products might be back in stock, be integrated in the future? How should brick-and-mortar retailers use technology to stay competitive?
Cummins: Retail is in a super interesting place right now. Just look at “New Retail,” which has been championed by Alibaba’s Jack Ma.
It’s an evolving ecosystem, with retailers building a new customer-centric model of retail marketing that puts the customer firmly at the center of everything by merging online and offline channels.
Ultimately, consumers want a much more personalized experience—and it’s being aided by technology.
Retailers can’t afford to ignore digital. I mentioned earlier how 90 percent of purchases happen in-store—but “near me” mobile searches that contain a variant of “can I buy” or “to buy” have grown over 500 percent over the last two years.
Consumers expect an omnichannel experience—they want retailers to play to them. They have more choice than ever—they can shop locally or online or visit a big-box retailer a mile away.
Retailers need to be prepared to meet them where they are—on the channels they’re on. That’s how retailers can grow—and the right technology is imperative to that. Retailers need to identify their customers and where they are—and to be flexible and modernized in how they deal with them.
Technology is more accessible than ever, so even small retailers need to take note of emerging and existing technology that will be the key to helping them reach their customers.
In terms of Pointy, we have our core features right now, but we’re also working on some exciting product updates around pricing and insights—so keep an eye out!