Diana Morato is on a mission to equip retailers with tech that transforms shopping experiences for customers.
She shares her journey and hopes for Sensei with Business Matters …
What products or services do you provide?
Sensei is a scalable, seamless store-wide solution that empowers autonomous stores. Through an integrated system of cameras, sensors and AI algorithms, we provide a secure and reliable AI-powered end-to-end solution to capture a wealth of store insights and a smooth, frictionless checkout and cash-free shopping experience.
We do that in three ways: creating fully autonomous stores, developing store in a box solutions (modular or pop up stores) and autonomous cabinets for indoor spaces. This means our products are viable for merchants ranging from gas stations, stadiums, university campuses, office buildings and even train stations.
What type of businesses do you work with?
We offer autonomous solutions of different formats for a variety of retailers and SMBs in Europe. We specifically look for innovative retailers who recognise the need to adopt new tools and use data in their daily operations, seizing the opportunities offered by digitalisation.
We work with grocery retailers to retrofit or create new autonomous supermarkets and convenience stores. This is exemplified by our largest partnership with multinational shopping centre company, Sonae. Our autonomous technology was implemented in their biggest supermarket chain, Continente, to create the first autonomous store in mainland Europe last may.
Although large retailers are our main customers, the aforementioned products we offer are attractive for virtually any business who wants to develop a seamless physical shopping experience for their customers.
What problem does your company solve?
Sensei solves two key pain points.
Firstly, Sensei uses the technology to remove all friction from stores. With statistics showing that on average consumers spend two years of their life waiting in lines, we decided to remove the hassle and digitise retailers’ physical stores. With our technology, consumers can shop in physical stores without having to stand in line to pay or self-scan items.
Secondly, we address the retailer’s need to enhance store performance. We use computer vision and AI algorithms to understand consumers in store behaviour to inform best practices for inventory management and product merchandising. Not only does this create operational efficiency but also reduces the level of waste that many retailers in the UK struggle with.
What is your USP?
Our scalability and accessibility are what separates us from our competitors. We have been working with retailers in Europe since our inception so we’ve always had three advantages at heart: Shopper experience & privacy compliance to GDPR, Cost efficiency & agility, and Quality of technology
Being the first company to launch an autonomous store with a retailer in Europe, our technology is amongst the most mature in the industry. As a result of our pioneering we understand the market and cooperate with retailers by using their existing equipment and retrofitting our technology within their store layout. Sensei’s technology is flexible in offering and proven in solutions.
For example, we are able to create or retrofit a 3 thousand square foot store together with a retailer in a couple of months, with no store downtime and half the price of competitor prices.
What are your company values? Have you ever had them challenged and if so how have you dealt with it?
At Sensei, we strongly believe in the value of re-humanising retail. People sometimes question the effect technology might have on retail work. Will technology replace workers? However, Sensei looks to debunk this myth as digitising a store upskills current retailers staff. It removes the monotony from the day to day responsibilities and allows for pure dedication to consumers, fostering the community side of things. We challenge these discrepancies by using our technology to make the work of retail staff more efficient.
How do you ensure that you recruit a team that reflects your company values?
We have a solid recruiting process and have introduced best practices from a variety of industries and geographies. That being said, we ensure our founding and executive team members take an active role in the hiring process because it’s important to be exposed to those across the business. We want newcomers to feel comfortable and that conversations are genuine and honest. By consistently following this method and encouraging personal flair from candidates we are able to gather the appropriate information. We also share as much as possible about our business to inform candidates who we are so they can evaluate whether they share our values and culture. After all, we are very aware that the hiring process is a two way street!
Are you happy to offer a hybrid working model of home/office post-covid?
Definitely. We believe in attracting and nurturing top tier talent, stretching ourselves every day to be the best of the best for our retail customers and shoppers. We are connected by a mindset that strives for excellence so despite working with diverse teams located in different geographies we provide a supported work environment. This means defining responsibilities and objectives clearly whilst supporting our teams with technology and the appropriate training to succeed. Though we are remote first, we are strong believers in cohesive team building as we look to create and maintain personal relationships. Our experience so far shows that the amount of “face” time needed for this varies depending on the type of work, team dynamics, and personal preferences. This is why we don’t enforce a global policy on working models but rather share a set of recommendations and give managers the freedom to decide- together with their teams – what works best for them.
Do you have any tips for managing suppliers and customers effectively?
We put the end customer at the heart of everything we do and work backwards from there. We believe that by doing the right thing for the shopper and taking a long term, win-win approach to relationships with suppliers and our customers, we will be able to maintain a strong value proposition across the entire chain. This is not always easy to put into practice, therefore it is key to be selective and exclusively work with those that share our approach.
Any finance or cash-flow tips for new businesses starting out?
In the early stages of any start-up, understanding the performance of your key business drivers and being able to plan ahead to adapt is challenging but important. Therefore, tracking business metrics and accessing real time (or up to date) reliable, financial data from the start is crucial. Investing early on in an experienced CFO who is business savvy and has proven ability to grow the business is another important piece of the puzzle. Contrary to what some people may think, a CFO can be a great catalyst for growth.
If you could ask one thing of the government to change for businesses what would it be?
There are a number of issues to be addressed that would help companies survive and thrive in these uncertain times. The two pressing issues are: burden rates and tax relief. In the short term, there is a real need to reduce the business burden rate in certain sectors that are struggling post pandemic, such as high street retail. In the mid-long term, the focus should be on implementing a tax relief plan, incentivising the support of investment in new technology across the board. In my view, by modernising our businesses, we are also making them future-proof.
What is your attitude towards your competitors?
Sensei admires all competition that operates in the retail technology space as the ultimate goal is to build a seamless, convenient, and safe shopping experience for consumers. We are still in the early stages of the adoption of frictionless shopping experience and real-time data-driven decision-making in physical retail.
Some other companies have been working on applying computer vision and AI to physical retail for a while now, sparking limited interest from grocery retailers. However, it was not until Amazon began to double down investment and open dozens of autonomous Amazon Go stores that large international players such as Sonae in Portugal or Tesco in the UK have taken the brave step to enter this space supported by partners like Sensei.
Our approach is that cooperation trumps competition because we truly believe in finding the sweet spot in bridging the gap between computer intelligence and human touch.
Any thoughts on the future of your company and your dreams?
The next few years are going to be very exciting at Sensei.
Until the beginning of this year we have been working behind the scenes, honing our technology. We needed to make sure that our core technology was scalable and best in class in recognising products, shop floor interactions and accurately building real time shopping baskets as customers moved freely around the stores.
With the opening of the first autonomous store in Europe last May, we began a new challenge, productising our technology and selling it to multiple retailers. With our unprecedented growth we are preparing to scale the team to match our development.
We will soon be going into new countries and deepening our relationships with retailers across Europe.
Our goal is that autonomous store technology will one day be widespread across the world so that scanning products and standing in a queue is a thing of the past. We want shoppers to have seamless and convenient access to the products and services they truly want. And that retailers, of all sizes, are able to give consumers the personalised shopping experience they deserve.
Cherry is Associate Editor of Business Matters with responsibility for planning and writing future features, interviews and more in-depth pieces for what is now the UK’s largest print and online source of current business news.