When Rohan Sanil strolls through a big-box retailer, he’s seeing things quite differently than the other shoppers.
Sure, he’s pushing a cart, but he’s not looking at the products. He’s watching the human interactions: How are customers navigating the aisles? What are they touching, viewing or hearing as they traverse the retail real estate? Where do they pause? And when do they make their buying decisions?
In those moments, Sanil personifies the artificial intelligence (AI), edge solution that he and his company, Deep North, have developed over the past 14 years—a product that helps stores, shopping malls and other commercial spaces better understand how people behave in these physical worlds.
“I have a great curiosity about human behavior in the retail environment. What satisfies their needs and how can they have the best shopping experience? As a result, I think about how we can improve the customer journey. How do we ensure checkout lines are efficient, customers have the help they need at all times and shoppers are having a positive experience overall and want to keep coming back?” says Sanil, CEO and co-founder of Deep North, based in Redwood City, California. “That’s the most important thing for a retailer—to build customer loyalty.”
Behind the scenes
Sanil’s knack for seeing and understanding a store’s unique rhythms ultimately inspired Deep North’s platform, which has been deployed by several big-box retailers, fashion brands and quick service restaurants globally. The product works behind the scenes to mark out zones within a store and track the number of visitors by applying AI and computer vision to a store’s existing security cameras.
The solution analyzes data generated by those cameras to dramatically improve how managers operate their stores—and how consumers experience them.
All of it, Sanil says, creates a new way of shopping that blends the most enjoyable elements of online retail, like customized offerings and quick payments, with the cherished pleasures of traditional stores, like the ability to touch the goods and converse with the sales staff.
“As you walk into a store that is using Deep North’s platform, here’s your experience: Instead of dwelling in one area for a certain period and growing frustrated while looking for one item, you look up and see digital signage guiding you,” Sanil says.
“And when you check out, instead of waiting 20 minutes in one queue, you see that five lanes are open, and your wait is brief because the platform has almost instantly alerted the manager to position more associates up front. That’s how we are mimicking the online shopping experience in the physical world.”
We work with our customers to deliver outcomes, and not simply just give video analytics data. We give them insights; they make decisions. Ultimately, our goal is to empower every executive and store manager to take data-driven decisions to elevate the in-store shopping experience.
—Rohan Sanil, CEO and co-founder, Deep North
The solution’s bounty of data-rich insights provides stores with two fundamental benefits: higher revenues and lower expenses, Sanil says.
“By understanding how shoppers are coming into their properties and interacting with their products, aisles, shelves and checkouts, our clients increase their sales,” Sanil explains. “On the operational side, for their labor force, they can optimize planning, safety, security and compliance, reducing their costs.”
“We work with our customers to deliver outcomes, and not simply just give video analytics data. We give them insights; they make decisions. Ultimately, our goal is to empower every executive and store manager to take data-driven decisions to elevate the in-store shopping experience.”
A retail renaissance
While traditional retail has struggled amid the e-commerce age, Sanil believes edge-based technologies like Deep North’s AI platform can help revive the economic luster of brick-and-mortar stores.
“That’s been core to our business since the day we started—build products our customers want and help them thrive and compete with the online businesses,” Sanil says.
His sunny outlook for physical retail has helped build Sanil’s business reputation as an eternal optimist.
But he’s also a pragmatist. He understands the vital role traditional stores play in the U.S. economy. According to the National Retail Federation, online and traditional stores were expected to generate combined sales of more than $4.44 trillion in 2021—with brick-and-mortar stores accounting for 75% of that total. (Final retail sales numbers for 2021 are pending.)
What customers want
“Physical stores are a pillar of our economy. It’s going to get even better,” Sanil says. “Commercial shopping centers have realized that their customers are demanding better service, and that they are wanting to come in and feel and interact with the physical world.”
Once the Deep North solution has been deployed in a store or a shopping mall, on-site video feeds are analyzed in near real time by the AI-based, computer-vision solution running on Dell Technologies PowerEdge servers on premises.
“Dell helps us power the real-time insights our customers rely on at the edge,” Sanil says. “Capturing streaming data and analyzing metadata at speed demands a high level of security and performance that Dell is providing now and in the future.”
Commercial shopping centers have realized that their customers are demanding better service, and that they are wanting to come in and feel and interact with the physical world.
—Rohan Sanil, CEO and co-founder, Deep North
Digitizing the physical store
To develop Deep North’s solution, the company teamed with engineers from the Dell OEM Solutions group to build a suite of customized appliances that can scale based on performance and cost, says Nate Angara, senior vice president of infrastructure deployments and Cloud Devices at Deep North.
“By doing all this, we are actually digitizing the physical store,” Sanil says.
Store managers can access Deep North’s dashboard, which turns the steady stream of data into graphs and charts that recognizes trends like occupancy, traffic peaks, sales and staffing.
The dashboard also is available in a mobile app that alerts managers to conditions, such as when the store nears its occupancy limit and associates should immediately be switched from shelf-stocking duties to the checkout lines.
“At other times, the mobile app may send an alert that more customers are dwelling in the housewares department so associates with knowledge of housewares should head there to engage with them and help create an uptick in sales,” Sanil says.
For stores that have adopted capacity limits during the pandemic, managers depend on Deep North’s software to help maintain safe customer flows and adhere to local health protocols.
In short, the platform helps retailers make better decisions in the moment—or better prepare for an upcoming week or holiday, Sanil says.
Once 12 months of data are collected, users can access the solution’s prescriptive analytics to perform new tasks, such as adjusting staffing hours ahead of predicted buying pushes or lulls.
As someone who enjoys spending time in the aisles—as a shopper or an innovator with a sharp eye on enhancing traditional stores—Sanil is brimming with hope.
“People often say physical retail is dead. It’s not,” he says. “Proving that wrong is what drives me every day.”
Lead photo by Artem Beliaikin for Pexels