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William Bernal is the CEO and founder of VIPO Group, a new company that is changing the way people shop in-store and online. He was born in Colombia and moved to France almost two years ago, where he finished his master studies in image and signal processing. William is an electronic engineer with a great passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. Also, he has been working on computer vision and AI solutions for more than 3 years. He has two children, that represent his motor and what imposes him to give his best everything every day. William´s hobbies are discovering new food and wines, traveling and meeting new people in each place. He believes that when you listen you can learn a lot from other experiences.
The Fashion Retailer (TFR): What is VIPO?
William Bernal (WB): VIPO is a company that provides automatic customer profiling based on cutting edge technology. Our solution allows middle and large retail stores to understand their customers and deliver a better brand experience
TFR: What has been EIT Digital contribution?
WB: EIT Digital gives the perfect environment to scale your ideas. They put together top private companies and research institutions to support your Start-up. In our case, we had the opportunity to work with University of Rennes1 from France (that carried out the whole incubation of the new venture), Bright Cape from Netherlands, and University of Barcelona from Spain. It has been an amazing experience for our company to work closely with all of them and launched successfully VIPO Group. In other words, EIT Digital gives the right push to disruptive ideas like VIPO.
TFR: What is the entrepreneur story that inspired the launch of the company?
WB: VIPO came to me after doing a research at the University of Barcelona about egocentric images and a public transportation solution to count people and detect those with unusual behaviors like using the metro without paying. There, I met a professor from the University of Rennes1 who offered me the opportunity to do a master in France. During this master, I discovered a program called Incube where I met Alvaro Pina Stranger who is the manager of the EIT Digital CLC at the University of Rennes, and who also told me about the opportunities for master students to become entrepreneurs. I always dreamed about creating my own company, so I decided to follow my intuition and it was here when VIPO became a reality. Six months later, I received the great news that VIPO was selected by EIT Digital Industries and the project received the highest score and funding through our partners for almost 1M euros.
TFR: What are the main challenges fashion companies are facing in regards of customer experience?
WB: I believe that the major challenge for fashion companies is to make the customer love the brand,
Which means giving the right information during the customer journey. It is nice when you feel that the store knows your preference, it sends you special promotions, or it just helps you get your product in the best possible way. I love when a brand treats you like a VIP customer because they just want to stand out from the rest, and it is true for every company that today customers are more demanding because they are willing to pay for experience rather than the product itself. In other words, customer experience is how you make your customer happy to buy something from you and refer your brand to someone else.
TFR: How do you think companies will face the post covid-19 period in the short and mid-term in regards stores? Many companies are freezing strategic projects but digitalization, in my opinion, is not a project but an obligation. Digital transformation is a matter of survival.
WB: The fashion stores have lost millions of euros due to Covid-19 and they had to direct their strategy to online sales to keep the business alive. However, the main challenge is how the economic reception changes the customer behavior. Today, a person thinks twice before buying pants or a pair of shoes because the shopping priorities are different. Therefore, digitization plays an important role to understand the new needs and sales opportunities.
On the other hand, fashion stores are working hard to guarantee the safety of their products because many studies have shown that the virus can stay for a long period on the fabric. When you buy a t-shirt, you want to make sure it is free of covid-19, and even more so if you are buying online. So, solutions like VIPO or other technologies will support business logistics by helping a customer to find the right size and mitigate the cost of return items and cleaning fees. I agree with you when you said that the Digital transformation is a matter of survival and that the fashion sector needs to strengthen itself to meet customers’ needs and concerns.
TFR: What is VIPO´s solution about?
WB: VIPO is a smart system that guides you through the products of the store by giving you a customized fashion advice based on your appearance or style. When you come to the store, you will find our totems where you take your picture and let us to do the rest. We check the store’s inventory and tell you which products will fit you best and you can take them with you or place your order online. Moreover, our system improves your brand sales by learning from your customers’ experience during their store visit, and we turn this data into brand value to improve customer experience.
TFR: What are the requirements and benefits from a back-end perspective (From a company´s point of view: technology requirements and benefits like improving inventory management, optimizing in-store assortment…)
WB: Being a smart store is optimizing all the resources, from knowing which product is the most popular to understanding your customer needs and interest. This information is known; however, companies cannot make decisions since it comes from different sources so, what VIPO does, is to connect these data to make decisions that increase profit and customer engagement.
For example, we deployed a pilot in Spain with one of our customers and we found that the target age for one of their products was wrong, because they know who pays for the product, but they didn’t know who the buyer actually was. We provided this information and they were able to increase the ticket average by changing their marketing advertisement.
Companies like to work with us because we integrate different business areas into our dashboard, so you can share information between marketing and commercial departments to sharp your business strategies and have a tool to observe the results. This information is presented in a simple way that allows you to understand easily the in-store behavior and make the right adjustment to improve the business.
TFR: What does VIPO do for apparel customers/ shoppers?
WB: VIPO allows you to explore the store easily in less time, you can find a piece of clothes that you really like or take the chance to explore new styles that fit you better. For us, the most exciting thing is to turn each store into a personal shopper that will help you find what makes you look better.
I noticed in our pilots that people like to receive fashion tips from our totems more than deal with the staff of the store because they feel more self-sufficient.
TFR: Do you have plans to allow customers to use your service thru an app or widget connected to the brand´s e-Commerce?
WB: At the moment we are working to carry out an integration with the virtual store, so that customers can have the same experience in the store as they have from home. We understand that new challenges are emerging during the pandemic and we are developing new features to bring fashion tips to the comfort of your home.
Also, when you have kids it is extremely hard sometimes to find the right size because they grow fast, so you probably wait a product for a week and then you have to return it because it does not fit your child. The same happens when you try to buy clothes for yourself, it is a quite challenging, especially today since you won’t be able to try them at the store. Having this in mind, we are developing a tool that allows you to measure your body and find the right size for you. Saving time and cost for fashion companies.
TFR: Retail companies have a big challenge to face retail transformation. Omnichannel is not only about selling online but developing and integrating new processes and technology solutions like AI, Blockchain or IoT. VIPO´s analysis is anonymous, but the information could be useful from an inventory management or assortment optimization point of view. How easy it is to connect the outputs from VIPO to a Merchandise, Demand or Supply Chain management systems?
WB: Our sale process includes a customized consultation to understand which information and system are used by stores, then we develop our integration with each business area to deliver the most accurate information.
VIPO has three types of integrations by default: marketing, inventory, and commercial. This allows our customers to have a more general overview of their operations and find improvement opportunities. In other words, VIPO communicates with the store systems and tells each business which issues can be improved. For example, when a product is being sold faster than another or if one area of the store does not receive as much attention as others, we generate alerts and plans to make things better, and so far we have been able to increase sales by 40% and improve inventory turnover by 80%.
TFR: Customer Loyalty systems are an important lever of retention and growth. Does VIPO plans to offer a non “anonymous” option? In my opinion, this could integrate to ERP or CRM systems and have a clearer understanding of the “customer journey”.
WB: Every one of our clients already has loyalty programs, and what we do is to integrate our solution into their app. Basically, a customer has the option to share information and receive special promotions and discounts. In this case, the user’s information becomes part of the CMR and ERP of the brand. VIPO brings the store closer to buyers to develop a better customer experience and brand love.
TFR: Data scientists are very demanding in our Digital era. How do you manage to find these profiles? How do you keep them motivated as Millennials aren´t afraid of changing jobs?
WB: I believe that not just data scientists are in great demand today, but full-stack or front developers as well. However, our work philosophy is based on goals and remote working. I have experiences that you can obtain better results when you motivate people to be self-sufficient because people like to manage their time.
In our team, we have people who work from Cameron, Spain, Colombia, USA, and Germany, and we meet once per week with excellent results. They have been with us for long time and when I ask them if they are happy to work for the company, they just say that they feel free to work with their own time because that also allows them to explore new goals in their personal and professional life, so it seems that we are doing something good because so far we are adding new members to our VIPO Team
TFR: As a start-up, what do you think are the key success factors that brings you to compete to big players?
WB: Being a start-up is a great advantage, we can compete on price because we are more flexible than larger companies. However, over time I have discovered that large companies become our great allies because we can do the tasks that are expensive for them better.
We’ve been successful because, by working closely with large companies, we always find a way to improve something where they can increase their profits. Also, we always learn from the greatest companies and we do our homework to find new ideas. These two habits open the doors for us everywhere.
TFR: Do you feel Fashion is becoming more science than art? Obviously, it depends on the positioning in the pyramid of brands (luxury vs mass-market) but we see some brands betting on tech profiles to lead their companies (e.g. John Donahoe replaced Mark Parker as Nike CEO).
WB: For me, fashion will always be an art because systems can learn and generate new alternatives to dazzles our clients, but we are still exploring how to duplicate the creative nature of the human being. I think that today’s fashion companies are finding in technology an ally that allows them to create; smart clothes, moving shapes, and even help customers design their own clothes. This year I had the fortune to visit the EuroShop 2020 fair in DÜSSELDORF Germany, and it was surprising to see how art and technology mix with the sole objective of creating new shopping experiences. That is why we will see how technology dresses in fashion to conquer the new and demanding business landscape, as we saw it at Vivatech in Paris last year.