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Silicon Valley start-up b8ta opens most technologically advanced store in Mideast

(Image credit: Future)

San Francisco-based tech start-up b8ta is redefining the in-store retail experience with technology and connect brands with retailers closer.

Its business model, called retail-as-a-service (RaaS), let brands market, manage and measure offline experience using the data collected at the store using computer vision and machine learning.

None of the products at the store is encased in packaging and allows customers to try out everything with the help of trained staff.

After opening its first outlet, outside of the US, at The Dubai Mall in a joint venture with Chalhoub Group, Vibhu Norby, CEO and co-founder of b8ta, told TechRadar Middle East, B8ta's focus is on customer experience and education and not the hard sell.

“Brands pay for space at our stores and we give 100% of the purchase orders to the brands and if you buy a product from us, we make a loss as we pay the credit card fees. Consumers don’t buy a product from the same place they looked at. They go online and there are multiple channels to buy. B8ta is a new interface to connect with customers,” he said.

Founded in 2015, b8ta operates almost 30 branded flagship stores in the US and the company has plans to open two more stores in the UAE this year.

Heston Saldanha, regional sales manager at Sennheiser Middle East, said that one of the biggest advantages of having collaboration with b8ta is that they have trained staff that can deliver the message to the consumers and try out the innovative products.

The other aspect, he said is that the data a brand can get such as how much time the customer has spent with the product and the consumer’s experience journey which in turn gives the brand a holistic view of understanding its customers.

Norby said that the Dubai store is the most “technologically advanced” in the entire Middle East and the software is unique to us.

He said that modern entrepreneurs want to understand their customers and have a relationship with the customers from the get-go.  

“They [entrepreneurs] want to have control over their brand, prices, marketing and messaging. The traditional retailers, especially in our categories, usually take the decisions and the relationship is with the customer and the retailer and not between the brand and the customer,” he said.

Touch is a 'crucial factor' in retail

“Customers who want to buy a luxury product want to see and touch the product, want to talk to someone about the product. I don’t think e-commerce has changed that,” Norby said.

Moreover, he said that touch is an important factor in retail and will never go away.

“We are born in that way. Physical stores will remain even after 1,000 years amid the growth in e-commerce. I am seeing a rebirth of retail as a place of community, engagement and experience. We hit the bottom three or four years ago but the current physical stores may take hit if they don’t update their business model and engage more with customers and offer the right experience,” he said.

Mehr Shafiei, a research analyst at Euromonitor International, said that RaaS is particularly relevant when it comes to electronics or home appliances and touch and feel is an important component of making high-value purchases. 

“The vast majority of consumers in the UAE would prefer to make big-ticket purchases like electronics and appliances in person; hence, the in-store experience still supersedes the virtual one. Stores try to capitalise on the excitement associated with trendy, playful futurism by having in-store digital signage and marketing tools,” she said.

“How fast this trend will grow remains to be seen because some retailers have found that consumers may go into the store to browse items and then go home and try to find the same item for cheaper on Amazon,” she said.

But certainly, she said that stores will continue to reinvent themselves making sure to give consumers the best experience and most memorable experience they can to compete with online retailers. “They can do this by leveraging technology and retailers especially in Dubai are one of the global leaders in this regard. It will gain traction, but its growth will depend on how much RoI retailers get since they will be investing a great deal in revamping the store.

“My guess is that this strategy will work to help build brand loyalty and increase the sentimental value of some brands but I think it will work best for high-ticket item electronics more than other categories,” she said.