Q&A: Krishna Motukuri, CEO and Co-founder, Zippin

Q&A: Krishna Motukuri, CEO and Co-founder, Zippin

RTIH: Tell us about Zippin.

KM: Zippin has developed the next generation of checkout-free technology enabling retailers to quickly deploy frictionless shopping in their stores.

Consumers in the US spend almost 37 billion hours a year standing in line and a good chunk of that is waiting in retail checkout lines specifically. Zippin has developed a proprietary AI-driven platform that uses machine learning and real-time analytics to provide a frictionless shopping experience that eliminates cashier lines and helps retailers maximise their profit per square foot and keep customers happy and coming back. Our technology is ideal for retailers who don’t have the capability or resources to build their own cashier-free solutions.

We have just opened a concept store (access via invitation-only for now) in San Francisco’s SOMA neighbourhood to showcase its automated shopping technology in a real-life retail environment.

RTIH: What was the inspiration behind setting the company up?

KM: I first got the idea for Zippin about four years ago when my wife asked me to bring home milk after work. I stopped by the neighbourhood grocery store, and all I saw were daunting lines at every counter. Needless to say, I left empty handed not wanting to suffer the line for one item. There had to be a better way.

Initially, we tried to solve this problem by ensuring consumers never run out of essentials, using an AI-powered camera that can be installed in home refrigerators and pantries. The camera could identify when we were running low on milk and place an online order. But we quickly realised we could have a wider impact if we addressed the problem of long checkout lines.

RTIH: What has been the industry reaction thus far?

KM: We have seen a great deal of interest from retailers, both big and small. Many large format retailers have expressed interest in building a “store within a store”. We are also being approached by property owners, looking for ways to offer retail within office buildings or hotel lobbies. 

The general consensus has been that this is the next wave and the biggest movement to affect retail since the advent of e-commerce. Just as self-driving vehicles are about to disrupt the transportation and mobility industry, checkout-free shopping is about to transform the retail industry. 

Keep in mind that, despite the popularity of shopping online, bricks and mortar retail still accounts for more than 90% of all purchases made in the US. With Zippin, traditional retailers can now compete against e-commerce companies, which until now have had the advantage of leveraging a host of key data about their customers

RTIH: What has been your biggest challenge/setback?

KM: Our biggest challenge was the core AI technology. When we originally designed the solution, we wanted to make sure that it could handle crowds. And we wanted it to be privacy-friendly. This meant that we had to position our cameras directly overhead with a narrow field of view. 

This vantage point allows the cameras to see each shopper clearly as a dot on a map (like GPS) without seeing their faces or using any facial recognition. But it also meant that we had to build all of the core intellectual property ourselves over a period of two years, since there wasn’t a lot of public domain research using images taken at that angle.

RTIH: What are the biggest challenges facing the omnichannel retail sector right now?

KM: The biggest challenge for an omnichannel retailer, without a doubt, is delivering consistent experience to their customers across channels. Online, every visit is tracked, every product page view, every search can be tracked, allowing for a personalised shopping experience. But in physical stores, the retailer does not know who stepped into their store, what their journey was, and which products they considered.

One of the reasons many retailers are excited about Zippin is that, for the first time, physical store managers can get the same kind of detailed analytics that their digital counterparts have been getting for the past 20+ years, since the browser cookie was invented.

RTIH: What's the best question about your company or the market asked of you recently by a.) an investor and b.) a customer?

KM: One of the best questions asked of us recently has been, “Will this technology put store clerks out of a job?” Many people ask us this question, obviously concerned about the potential impact of technologies like Zippin on retail jobs. What most people don’t realise is that shopping has always been more about discovery than payment. 

But unfortunately, most stores today have their employees staffing checkout stations - scanning products and collecting payments - instead of helping customers find products they want, or discover products they might like. With Zippin technology, stores can finally free up their checkout staff and provide superior customer service.

Moreover, when there are no lines at checkout, more customers would be happy to walk into their neighbourhood stores more often, driving up same store sales, providing plenty of work for the staff who will need to restock the products and help more customers.

RTIH: What can we expect to see from Zippin over the next 12 months?

KM: We are incredibly focused on scaling our technology, opening up the beta for the concept store in San Francisco and, of course, bringing frictionless shopping to market. 

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