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As the likes of Amazon Go and Alibaba Taocafe are taking the retail world by storm; on the home front, a group of techies from Kerala have opened India’s first AI-based self-checkout grocery store in Kochi. The Tech Panda spoke to Richu Jose the Chief Operating Officer of Watasale, which is helping shoppers and retailers transact in peace.

Watasale started when a group of tech professionals in Kerala were trying to come up with a disruptive solution in the retail space. “Looking at the market, we saw that retailers had not seen things that had exploded too much from a technical perspective. That’s where we tried to come up with something new in retail, which can be scalable in the future. This thought process led to automated AI based retail stores,” Jose explains.

“Long lines and crowds are a problem for both retailers and customers, because people want to purchase for the whole month. We are trying to come up with hassle-free shopping solutions for customers,” he says.

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Apart from Jose, who is an entrepreneur with a couple of companies in tech background under his wing, the startup’s founding members include CEO Subash S, who has the experience of coming up with many scalable solutions in the real world; Chairman Dileep Jacob, who has forty plus years of experience in the retail sector and is based out of the US itself; CFO Vincy Mathews, who has fourteen plus years of experience in retail and the mechanical field with a couple of patents under his name in designs; and CIO Shanoop Sivadas, who is a technocrat working in this system for quite some time. The company also boasts of a strong engineering and finance team, as well as people with retail experience.

How it’s done

To avail of Watasale’s cool technology, a customer entering the store needs to have a mobile application, which is a downloadable Android app. The customer needs to sign up using basic details like name, phone number, and address. After signing in, the app shows a unique QR code, which serves as an identifier of the customer as well as the secret key to the store that can be swiped in the automatic entry gate to let the customer enter the store. Once inside the, store the customer can take whatever product they want.

For items that you don’t want, just place it back on the shelf. Once finished with the shopping, simply walk out through the exit gate. The bill will arrive on the shopper’s phone, for which payment can be done through mobile wallets, debit, and credit cards.

This store can work without human beings, but is not completely unmanned yet. Store managers and sales people are employed to make the customer experience better. Yet, Jose says, shoplifting is not possible in the store, because even if a customer takes a product and hides it inside their bag or clothes, it will still be billed to their account. So, there is no tricking this AI-based system.

“There is no risk of shoplifting, because the system works on computer vision technology, which ensures that whatever you take from the racks is billed to your account,” he explains.

Competition in the market

On asked about the similarities and differences of Watasale with Amazon Go, Jose says that though both employ the same process and tech of an automated store, which is almost standardized now, their styles are distinct. “Though basically similar, Amazon is doing it in their own fashion, and we have done it in our own fashion,” he says.

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Apart from that, he says, the startup is not worried about competition in the market right now. “We are early to this market, in which every idea is leading up to this kind of shopping technology, and we see a bright future for us. Any competition is actually very good for us right now, because we can see what they’re doing differently from us and learn further. This is a very high-end technology area and people are sure to be coming into it. So we don’t see it as competition, we take it positively,” he adds.

Challenges faced

One of the challenges the startup faced initially was finding the right human resources to work in cutting-edge technology. The company created a core team of technology professionals and trained them in computation and deep learning. “They did a beautiful job and finished it up for us, exceeding all expectations,” Jose says proudly.

Another challenge they faced was financial management, since the team didn’t take any external investment. Now the company is open to funding and is looking for interested investors.

Future plans

So far, Watasale has opened only one store but are planning to come up with a number of stores in different cities in India, after which they plan to expand in the US and Canada. The team is aiming that the solution becomes extremely scalable and cost effective, so that it can be delivered in any shop in India or the US. They have plans to open up a couple of commission stores in tier l cities in India, such as Bengaluru and Delhi. After that, they want to extend to the foreign market, mainly USA and Canada, and then other parts of the world as well.



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