Sixteen:Nine interviews Giles Corbett
A UK start-up called Cloudshelf has come up with an accessible, heavily-automated and simple platform that helps small, mainly local retailers offer the same kinds of interactive display tools in their stores as deeper-pocketed and more heavily resourced major retailers.
The company has written code that crawls and analyzes local retail sites on Shopify's vast e-commerce platform and produces interactive experiences that are a lot more than just the online site on a screen in the store - something we've all seen and rolled our eyes at. In this case, it is curated and stylized to look and work like an in-store interactive site produced by a digital agency - probably for a lot of money.
I spoke with founder Giles Corbett about the origins of his company, how the platform works and is sold, and why the nightmare scenario of retail lockdowns and restrictions through the pandemic actually created something of a perfect storm for Cloudshelf.
Giles, thank you for joining me. Can you give me a rundown of what Cloudshelf is all about?
Giles Corbett: Yeah, sure, Dave, with pleasure. First of all, I gotta say it's fantastic to be on the podcast. So Cloudshelf is a really simple idea. We call it in-store eCommerce. Now I bet you and the people listening to this podcast, you've all been into a store at some point, and you've gone in looking for a bike or a pair of jeans or some jewelry and you haven't found what you were looking for and you left the store disappointed. It turns out this issue of walkouts costs physical stores a trillion dollars a year. So it's a big issue, and that's just the immediate loss of sales, without even talking about all of the dissatisfaction, et cetera that it causes later on.
Now, being such a big issue, it turns out that some of the most successful retailers worldwide have built solutions to go and bring digital experiences in-store that can alleviate this issue. But what Cloudshelf does is it takes this idea and just using an AI-driven platform immediately makes it available to even smaller or independent retailers that don't have the unlimited means or the technical knowledge of some of these super retailers and these retailers can very simply set up Cloudshelf in a matter of minutes and get fantastic digital in-store experiences, either interactive experiences or display experiences that help them sell more and close more sales in the store. That's what it's about.
So how this would manifest itself in a store, a physical store, would it be some sort of a touch screen kiosk screen, whether it's on a counter or free-standing, or perhaps mounted on a wall?
Giles Corbett: Dave, all of those. It's always using some form of digital display, and Cloudshelf can operate either on interactive touch screens that you're describing, or it can even be on display-only screens. I'll talk about those maybe a bit later on. But indeed, typically retailers will have a kiosk that could, maybe imagine a fashion store with a small jewelry range and on the jewelry counter, you go and see a beautiful screen that's showing off in a stunning way all of the available jewelry, and you go and see the small range on display and you maybe you can't find exactly what you're looking for and the screen next to it will say, discover the rest of our jewelry range. You touch it, you can find what you're looking for, and even buy it directly off the screen.
Now this is different though and I wrote about this recently, how I walked around the National Retail Federation Show and saw some eCommerce companies at that time. This is going back 3- 5 years, basically pushing their websites and their online presence to an in-store screen, but not changing anything. It was just The eCom site on a computer terminal, basically in the store, and from my perspective, that wasn't enough.
I'm very old and I go back to the starting days of the internet and online news sites were filled with what was called shovelware, basically shoveling content from another medium onto a smaller screen and saying, we're done, and it looked like that. You're saying this is different, right?
Giles Corbett: Yeah, putting your website on a screen in the store is a really bad idea. You wouldn't expect to go and find your website just running as it is on a desktop, or on a mobile phone.
Similarly, as a customer, you do not want to go and see the website running on a screen when you go into a store. If I go into a store and the retailer says, oh, I'm sorry, I can't help you. It's on the website. Please take a look at it. I'm thinking, hang on, why did I even bother walking into the store in the first place? Now the whole point is to go and create digital experiences that complement the magic, the delight of being in a store. You go into a store because you think that the person who's there is actually going to advise you on the best shirt that looks the best on you, or the bike that's the best for the kind of road that you want to go on, or whatever it may be. You want that level of advice, of contact, of engagement, and therefore you want a digital experience that complements that, and that's what Cloudshelf does.
If you just put the website there, it fails miserably. Look, I will give you a really obvious example. Go into a clothes store and you have jeans, you have shirts, you have ties, you have suits, etc. If you've gone in wanting to buy jeans, you've gone up to the jeans area and you've had a look, you expect the screen next to that area to go and show you about jeans, not to go and show you that if you happen to be on the third floor of the store, you could also go and get swimwear or whatever it may be. So it's the idea of having this effectively interactive visual merchandising next to the product, and you want something that enhances that in-store experience, and that's what this is doing, and then there are a whole bunch of other reasons why it's different to the website. For instance, it knows a device it's on so that when you go and buy something, it knows which store it came from. It makes sure that you don't have to enter any personal information onto the device itself. If I was to go on the website and I wanted to buy something in the store, I need to go and type my credit card number into that tablet or that website, that would be crazy. So it does away with all of that, and it does a whole bunch of other things too.
So the premise here is that you can take an already built and managed and populated eCommerce website from a cloud platform and largely automate and push a version of it, a curated version of it, to smaller screens without having to hire an interactive agency and have a 6-12 month project on a possibly a six figure budget to put it all together, right? You can do this pretty inexpensively and easily?
Giles Corbett: That is a perfect summary. So indeed, we start with the existing eCommerce website. Why? Because for most retailers, that has now become the biggest repository they have of visual assets, product descriptions, et cetera. So that's what we use as a starting point, and just imagine if you're a retailer, you've invested a lot in your online website. It's fantastic if you can just reuse that automatically to go and create all of these in-store displays, so you're spot on.
If you happen to be, for instance, a Shopify retailer, you simply add the Cloudshelf app. It analyzes all of the products that you have, and it says, what kind of a display do you want to create? “I wanna create one for trousers or jeans, menswear, whatever…” You want to say what it is, it will then go and propose all of the products to go and put into it, and it will go and create that. You then say which screen you want it to go on, and it displays that on the screen. It updates whenever you update the website. It chooses all of the best-looking images so that you don't need to go and go through and select them all independently. It does the whole thing in under five minutes from beginning to end.
So you would have templates, I would assume that would be the wireframes to do this in different ways?
Giles Corbett: Yeah, absolutely. You could choose a number of parameters around how you want to go and lay it out, but you don't have to. You can just click ‘Create a Cloudshelf’ and it's there within seconds and then you wanna go and tune it, sure, you can tune it.
Do you find if people are doing the kind of click-and-forget thing where it's just gonna create something that they're fine with that? Or do they want to tweak it?
Giles Corbett: They definitely want to go and tweak elements that are key to their visual branding, so brand colors, logos, fonts, and things like that, and most of them will do that.
But then what is amazing is they can just about forget about it because after that, whenever they do an update to their website, it is carried through and it's there and it's intelligently displayed. They go and put on promotional sales and it is carried through to their Cloudshelf automatically. So once they've spent maybe 5-10 minutes doing those initial branding choices, then the whole thing just runs.
And that's because you're working at an API level with the eCommerce platform?
Giles Corbett: Absolutely. So a big part of what Cloudshelf does is an incredibly powerful backend sync engine that just manages the analysis, and synchronization, checking all of the retailers that are live on the platform.
And you've integrated first by the sounds of it, with Shopify, and Shopify gives you a vast audience, correct?
Giles Corbett: Shopify gives us pretty fantastic API access. It gives us a vast audience and it gives us a growing audience. So what we see in all of the countries in which we started operating is that more and more of the retailers who maybe were using another solution are moving over to Shopify, and one of the things they love about Shopify is the ecosystem of apps that enable them to go and find exactly the solution they were looking for to address their issues. So for us, Shopify has been a great place to start and learn.
It seems to me Shopify was noodling this, going back four or five years ago at NRF and some other eCommerce companies as well, why wouldn't they do their own as opposed to partnering with you?
Giles Corbett: You know what? I think you are right that Shopify is going to be looking more and more at this. In their recent declarations, they were really promoting in-store being the next growth vector for them suggesting that this is an area that they will be looking at. And you know what, when they do, I think they'll come up with something that'll no doubt be absolutely fine.
But if you want to have the very best solution, it's gonna be Cloudshelf because we are the team that's just dedicated to this area of work and development.
Yeah I've been involved in digital signage for more than 20 years now, and I've seen all kinds of very large, well-funded, deeply experienced companies get into digital signage, but, only kind of sorta, and it's a skunkworks operation. I'm thinking about past iterations of Cisco and Google and companies like that, and they're just not fully engaged and therefore the products are never all that robust. It's just like, “There, we did it!”
Giles Corbett: Yeah, I think there's a bit of that, and let's go back to what Shopify is doing. They're clearly promoting and investing in their POS and making it better and better. They are going to spend time on this but we are at a slightly different segment where this intersection of digital signage, which is about beautiful displays, and eCommerce, which is all about driving transactions and this space that we've created for in-store eCommerce is all about the union of those two worlds.
Yeah, I would imagine you had to spend a lot of time thinking about the user experience, how it looks to people walking up to it, how they're gonna navigate it, and so on because it's not the same as sitting at a desktop or monkeying around on your tablet to shop.
Giles Corbett: Absolutely. To begin with, it's a public screen, so the kind of information that you'd expect your phone to know or that you'd be willing to type into your phone, you do not want to be entering onto a public screen, so you need to have all of the handoff, the seamless handoff between what happens on the public screen and then what you complete to finalize the transaction on your private phone, and that is a completely novel experience.
When you're working with a big eCommerce platform like Shopify, were you just working basically tapping into their API and developing something, or were there sit-down meetings with Shopify folks saying, “Here's what we wanna do, here's what we need from you” and they were, in turn, asking you how we manage security and all those things?
Giles Corbett: It's a very interesting question, Dave. When we first spent some months actually prototyping all of this solution as a private app, something that was still allowed on Shopify in the early days, we were trying all of this stuff out and iterating like crazy with retailers. And then at one point we went to Shopify and said, listen, this is our idea, this is what we wanna do, this is what we want to launch, and they were scratching their head saying, “Hang on, we don't really understand. Is this POS or is it eCommerce? Where does it sit?”
We said no. This is new. This is different. This is taking somebody's website and making it so that it renders and uses beautifully in their store, and so at first, there was some confusion on their side about where does this fit? And then the more we engaged, the more enthusiastic they became, and they've been fantastically helpful at giving us feedback and advice on a bunch of things.
Do you have the back end sorted out as well? One of the things that I said to some of the companies when I was walking around NRF and they were showing this core idea was, what about device management? How do you know if the screen's active and working properly and so on, and they looked at me like I had three heads, it just had not occurred to them.
Giles Corbett: Dave, in a past life, I was running from West London, a network of 15,000 connected devices in, I think it was 350 cities in China and so yeah, we learned everything we needed to learn about monitoring devices.
You have been through the wars.
Giles Corbett: Big time. Anyway, what I'd say is that if you go and look at the Cloudshelf code base, the bit that we call the engine, the bit that displays on the screens is probably well under 20% of the code base. The backend and all of the management tools are where all of the cleverness is.
Yeah, that's an interesting comment because I've said so many times to people that getting media to play out on a screen is a technical challenge, but it's minor compared to all the work needed to keep the stuff playing on the screen reliably and manage it.
Giles Corbett: Yeah, indeed. Retailers are using Cloudshelf because they want to enhance the in-store experience. You do not enhance the in-store experience by having a blue screen.
Yeah, definitely. So where did this idea come from? I was looking at your LinkedIn background and your previous company was Ksubaka and it seemed to be about interactive in retail as well.
Giles Corbett: Yeah, so my background has always been around stuff that drives or is driven by end-user engagement. So it started off with mobile games, and then from mobile games, we thought about how we can use games to go and drive engagements in stores next to products, and would that be the beginning of a fantastic media platform.
And that's what Ksubaka was all about, and we developed that extensively in China, and then that sort of stayed in China, and we'd started developing extensions from what we are doing Ksubaka in the UK and in France, and we were supporting big retailers such as Tesco, Marks & Spencers, Next, and some others. And then the pandemic hit and Every single one of our retail clients closed down in literally a two or three week period, and that gave us an opportunity to think, reflect, go work on some of the back projects that we hadn't had time to work on, and while that was happening, there were two things that happened that I found absolutely fascinating.
First, we just became more and more aware of all of the small independent retailers around us who had closed their stores putting big signs in the window saying, “Come onto our website…” and they were all, every single one of them moving onto Shopify. So we started looking into Shopify a lot more and discovered that maybe there was something there. But you know what, the second thing that was really interesting is that all the way leading up to the pandemic, there'd been this kind of belief that all retail inexorably moving online. That basically, once a consumer had bought something online, that was it. They weren't going back into a store.
Now in the UK, we are blessed with a lot of very impressive real-time statistics by organizations such as The ONS and they track all of the online and offline sales for the last five years, they've been showing quarter after quarter increase in the share of online, and by the time we hit the pandemic, online in the UK was way above what it was in the US. It was like 24% to 25% of all consumer spending was taking place online. We hit the pandemic and that number goes through the roof, 38%. McKinsey publishes its sort of big report about how basically online has just stepped forward 10 years in two months, and that's it. It's a point of no return, and then the first lockdown ended and it was really puzzling. We saw all of the stores around us fill up, and we started looking at the statistics and the share of online fell back to what it was just before that first lockdown. Now we had lockdown two and lockdown three, and each time the same thing happened: online shot up, but by the end of lockdown, online collapsed back to the level it was at before.
All of these consumers had found out how to go and buy their jeans or their milk or whatever it was online, but yet when the stores reopened, not for all of those purchases, but for many of them, they decided to go back into the store. Now, that told us for the first time that there was absolute proof that something we'd always believed was true, and that in the future, retail was going to be something that would be completely hybrid. It was gonna be, yes, a lot of it online, but also a lot of it in-store, and the stores that would survive were gonna be those that would've invested cleverly, smartly in the digital experience to make sure that the in-store experience was outstanding and that became our customer base, and they were the people that we started targeting. So all of those things happened, and then a third thing happened. The third of my two things.
And that was the emergence of hybrid working. So initially full remote, then hybrid, and the bet that we took there was never gonna go away, that we would all spend more time working from home or elsewhere, but basically not from the city center than we had done before the pandemic, and that meant that there would need to be a shift in the fabric of retail and the structure of high streets around where people lived and that as there were many more places where people lived than their worst city centers, stores, brands, retail units would have to be smaller, and if they were gonna be smaller, then they'd need more digital to be able to offer the same range of services. And therefore our bet is that we are absolutely in line with all of those trends happening simultaneously. People are moving to Shopify, independent retailers, or retailers in general, learning how to go and digitize, and consumers wanting to go and shop more locally, and that's why we think this opportunity of in-store eCommerce is so exciting.
Yeah, there's certainly been a lot of chatter about the idea that larger stores, like big boxes and so on, would increasingly become showrooms where you could go in and have a look at something, but then you can order online or whatever, and I would imagine that it extends itself down to even small businesses who can expand their product range without expanding their footprint.
Giles Corbett: Dave, it is fascinating. I was with the owner of a small independent store yesterday called Cherry Moon, and she's got a beautiful selection of designer clothes, and she has these two tables in the middle of the store that has beautiful jewelry by two designers and she was saying that the issue is that many of these pieces are unique or in very small quantities, and the designers can't afford to put all of their stock there in that one stop, so that means that they then can't exhibit it elsewhere, and all of a sudden, what Cloudshelf was helping her do was give these designers the ability to go and sell their entire range in her store without needing to commit all of the stock. And that idea is one that we've seen time and time again.
I was in a meeting this morning with a retailer we're rolling out with this week, and they have five of their own stores. They have 12,000 SKUs and they have 200 stockers, and their issue has always been being their website is ahead of their stockers, who go and see the website as taking business away from them. And yet with Cloudshelf, it completely turns the whole story around because now they can go and have Cloudshelf presenting all 12,000 SKUs in these small stockers with the stocker knowing that if somebody goes and buys a product via the Cloudshelf, it will be allocated back to their store and they will go and get the same benefit from it as though they'd actually sold the product physically from within the store without having had to hold the stock. Now, that's a pretty amazing proposition, both for the brand and for the retailer.
So you're rolling out with a customer right now. Where are you at? In reading some of the PR, it indicated you went through a series of trials, the company is not that old, and you went through a series of trials in London and Paris and are now deploying. So you're obviously past the testing stage and getting into operational mode.
Giles Corbett: Yeah, so we are 18 months old. We started off with a small group of retailers that we called basically friends for life, pilot retailers, and the deal for them was that they'd get Cloudshelf for free forever, they just needed to go and give us feedback on a weekly basis on how they were using it, how their customers were reacting, what else they wanted to go and see in the product, and we worked with them for a year, basically iterating and improving the product, and then indeed, as you said a few weeks ago, we actually made our app live on Shopify and announced that we were now ready for business and I'm delighted to say that in the short time since then, we've actually had some fantastic successes. So we're going to live in Ireland at the end of this week with two retailers. We're going to live in Scotland also this week. So there's definite movement there.
There's been a lot of interest from many partners in France and we've just kicked off some discussions in Germany, and Dave, I really hope that in the next few months we'll be signing up our first retail networks in the US because this solution really scales and works everywhere.
And Canada where Shopify comes from.
Giles Corbett: And Canada, of course, spot on. Now you know what? To go and help us work out where we needed to target, we built a really nifty tool that we call Store Finder. Basically, I go and put in any address anywhere in the world, and it produces a glorious map of every physical store in that area, and it tells me all of the ones that use Shopify, all the ones that use Salesforce, all the ones that use Magenta, et cetera, to go and power their backend.
So a super useful tool for prospecting. But I can tell you this one thing. Shopify has done incredibly well at promoting itself in its home market because the number of stores in Canada that use Shopify to power their back head is quite phenomenal. So yes, we should definitely be there.
So if I am a digital signage company, and I'm listening to this, and a software provider, and I target retail for, I don't wanna say meat and potatoes, digital signage, but for the other stuff around a store, are you a competitor? Or is there a way to work together? Are their parallel things?
Giles Corbett: Interesting question, Dave. If you happen to be a provider of screens, we are a savior. We are working with a bunch of screen manufacturers and resellers now who basically tell us that when they are selling into retail, oftentimes retailers will come along and say, listen, we want these digital screens, some in store for our merchandising, some in the window, et cetera, and how do we create the content and the digital science company goes, ah, yeah, that's a bit of an issue.
Clearly, with Cloudshelf, we talked a lot about the interactive mode version on the kiosks a few minutes ago. We also have a second version that we called Display Mode. We haven't yet launched Display Mode. We're testing it still with retailers, but it will be launched in the next two, three weeks most likely, and what it does is it does the same kind of clever analysis of your product ranges and imagery, et cetera, as we use on the in interactive mode to go and create fantastic product-oriented visual displays. So you want to go and have something that goes and shows your various product ranges and et cetera in the store window to attract people to come in, Cloudshelf Display Mode will go and do that on the fly.
Now what we find, In the retailers we've been interviewing, is that for a number of them, that's fantastic and that's exactly what they want. But we also find a bunch of them that say you know what, actually we want to go into great videos. We want videos from the brands, et cetera. Now you wanna go and put in some, some simple banners, et cetera, Cloudshelf helps you do that automatically, but you wanna go have a very sophisticated loop with all kinds, other stuff other than relating to the products in the store. Then, you know what? You go and find a digital signage company that can go and helps create the CMS to go manage that loop and Cloudshelf can just come in and be part of that loop. So we're currently working with two CMS providers of digital signage and that's exactly what they plan to be using Cloudshelf for. So they will go and see the retailers. They'll say, listen, you can have the Cloudshelf version or you can have a Cloudshelf version and you can go and slot in, the local news, the Instagram feed, whatever else it is that you want to go and have next to it.
So if the website has something saying, “Baby clothing, 30% off, this week only” as a banner on the website, that could conceivably be curated automatically into a call to action poster for a screen doing that, but your platform's not gonna run a video wall on a big set of LEDs modules or something?
Giles Corbett: So what our platform will do is it will work out and it'll enable you to go and promote the sale. It will also select some of the best products and the products with the best images. It will go and show those. It will allow passing by, maybe you're walking past the store in the evening, and you go and see a bag that looks super nice. It will of course have a QR code on it. You can scan it and it will take you directly to that bag on your phone. If you buy it, it will be recorded as having come from that screen in that store. So all of our backend magic to help people sell more. But now working also on, on display-only signage. That's what Cloudshelf display mode is about. It's about helping retailers sell more. It's not their whole branding experience. That's something that they'll work with other people to create.
So what am I buying? Am I subscribing to this? Am I buying a software license?
Giles Corbett: You're subscribing to it. It's a SaaS model. So it's just like your subscription to Shopify. You go into Shopify, you add the Cloudshelf app, and you get one display for free for life. So you can try it out, there's no limit. You can use it as much as you want, and then as the number of stores expands, or the number of screens per store expands, you then just go and upgrade the license.
This was great and quite interesting. Can you just tell listeners where they can find out more online about your company?
Giles Corbett: Absolutely. Just head over to Cloudshelf.ai and hopefully, you'll be able to find out everything you want about the company. If you don't, call me, I love speaking with people, at any time of day or any time of day or night. I love it.
All right, Giles, thank you very much.
Giles Corbett: Dave, thank you so much for the opportunity!