We talked to Bart Muskala of Accurat on how to improve retail decision making using real-world consumer insights and here is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Bart Muskala: Luckily, we have been spared from sickness or worse. I know some people that were less lucky, and judging by their experiences, I feel privileged we all managed to stay healthy. One of our team members’ partner was diagnosed with covid-19 in the first wave, and she still hasn’t fully recovered. But we look with patience and expectation towards the future.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Accurat.
Bart Muskala: I started my advertising career, about 15 years ago, making it to become a partner at the BBDO office in Brussels. After 9 years, I felt the urge to start a business of my own and founded a retail consulting agency that I sold last year. For 3 years now, I have been working together with my partner Steven (our CTO) building Accurat, a platform for location intelligence. The key in whatever we do is always the same: understanding brands’ shoppers real-world behaviour. Using those insights we serve A-brand retailers in Europe to help them make better decisions; both on a more strategic level such as store (re)allocations or competitor benchmarking, but also on a tactical level such as campaign impact evaluations in terms of driving additional traffic to their stores. I have the feeling my advertising background and retail experience are the perfect basis for our current venture.
How does Accurat innovate?
Bart Muskala: Innovation is at the heart of our company. The field of location intelligence is still quite young, and our team of machine learning engineers is constantly cooking up new algorithms and models to better understand consumers’ real-world behaviour. A few weeks ago, we started our collaboration with Clear Channel, the worldwide billboard company. For the Belgian market (in which we are based), we have created a model in which we evaluate the impact of billboard campaigns in terms of store traffic. Using a minimum number of coordinates per anonymous user a day, we are able to build a probable route and understand each of the billboards he passed during the campaign period. Benchmarking visits with a control audience and non-campaign weeks, we have a very good understanding of the actual incremental visits the campaign realized for its competitors. It’s only one example of how our innovations help companies prove impact and improve decision making for advertisers.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Bart Muskala: Belgium went into a lockdown in March 2020. Back then, we were directly impacted. We were unable to close any deals; even getting in touch was hard. It made complete sense as our typical customer base was hit hard: they all had to close their stores. We took the time to reflect, and as we experienced little possibilities of connecting with customers, we thought hard about how we could use our technology and competencies for good. We launched the Shop Safe app three weeks later, which informed users when their local supermarket was busy or when it was a good time to go. It functioned as a Waze for supermarkets requesting feedback from over 50.000 users in no time. Towards the end of the lockdown, we created the post-lockdown barometer to compare store visits before and after the lockdown, a handy tool that we shared – free of charge – with over 70 brands. We ended providing more demos than we hoped for; it turned out to be the best marketing instrument to date. Another positive side effect is that we collect an enormous amount of ground truth data to improve our algorithms. Now stores are closed, we can use that data to train our model for ‘closed’. IKEA, typically housing a restaurant and a shopping warehouse, had to close its restaurant business. Another source of ground truth data to train our model to learn the difference between both visits.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Bart Muskala: Luckily, we have always been very careful in how we do business and did not have to take any measures. We, however, learned a few lessons. Our partners, which we work with since day one, turned out to be partners in good and bad times. We built the Shop Safe app together, and everyone did this voluntarily. We learned to appreciate doing sales remotely – with results! Winning two hours on average per sales visit. We also learned a hard lesson that working remotely 100% is non-sustainable. Having a regular meetup with the team appears to be necessary as no digital interaction can replace what a real encounter brings.
What specific tools, software and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Bart Muskala: We are a small company, so our ‘tools’ are gut feeling, resilience, regular discussions and perseverance. We kept believing the tide would turn and that what we are doing will be worthy of our customers’ spend, also in the future – or even more so. We keep on working hard, and no crisis will stop us.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Bart Muskala: Our biggest competitors are part of one of two camps. On the one hand, you have the incumbents. Often international players with a market research background and thousands of people strong. They can face the crisis, and the question is whether they will be as innovative as smaller companies have to be. On the other hand, international, venture-backed companies also active in the field of location intelligence will weather the storm, maybe right-sizing their business approach. Despite the crisis, we are currently in the midst of a capital round, so we look hopeful to the future.
Your final thoughts?
Bart Muskala: I hope the crisis reshapes how we all do business. This is the perfect time to challenge ourselves, our methods, our believes and prepare for a different future. I believe the survival of the fittest is key here: those who have shown to know how to adapt will thrive.