“Shopping is broken,” according to U.K-based e-commerce start-up Aisle 3 — and the company’s panacea is a streamlined solution that takes aim at condensing and refining perusal into a dramatically upgraded consumer experience.
E-commerce entrepreneur Thomas J. Vosper, co-founder and chief executive officer of Aisle 3, spent 15 years in e-commerce roles at Amazon, Tesco and Lastminute.com. After studying the ins and outs of e-commerce — and its many snags and stumbling blocks — Vosper and his co-founder said they refused to accept this “broken shopping experience.”
“We started the business as first-time founders at age 40, during the very onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.K.,” Vosper told WWD. “I took out a personal loan to bootstrap the company and try and prove an innovative approach that was solely focused on making shopping cheaper, quicker, easier and more joyful.”
Beginning with footwear, Aisle 3 is tackling the woes of product search through its proprietary technology that involves machine learning and AI to weed out the products consumers don’t want and help accurately populate desired products with ease.
Here, Vosper talks to WWD about the back-end technology behind its solution and plans for partnerships, expansion and development in the tech start-up space.
WWD: What was the genesis of Aisle 3, and how does it simplify the online shopping experience?
Thomas J. Vosper: Shoppers seem to have become numb to the fact that what you see is what search engines want to show you and marketplaces are now populated with promoted listings and own-brand products. At Aisle 3 we are passionate about removing the need to open another tab or app to shop. We can’t remember the last time a start-up went out with something this powerful to contribute.
It is simple to book flights, reserve hotel rooms and order complex services such as insurance or energy, but I became increasingly frustrated that online shopping leaves us all having to open a myriad of tabs across a bunch of retailers just to find a pair of sneakers in the right size. Many of us now spend so much more time in front of our screens and it’s simply exhausting just how time-consuming it is to wade through ads and broken links to shop online — and that’s before we think about how hard it is for exciting new brands and retailers to get found online.
In less than 18 months we built a business entirely remotely, across the planet, established a business in India and pulled together an expert team backed by investors involved in some of the biggest names such as Snap, Amazon, Money Supermarket and Catch. It was a journey that I was privileged to share at a TEDx event at Oxford University in the summer of 2020.
WWD: Walk us through Aisle 3’s unique back-end technology that streamlines product search. Why is this solution differentiated in the market?
T.J.V.: Many prices comparison sites and discovery platforms have tried and failed to create a destination that shows shoppers the best deals, stock availability, delivery availability, etc. However, the common source of failure is not the platforms trying, but the relatively low standard of data, which results in poor quality aggregation. This data is generally only obtainable from poorly maintained product feeds or by crawling retailers whose web page structures are frequently changing and is not standardized.
This results in data sets with no common IDs or product codes, so even the most powerful and sophisticated ML models are at the mercy of “garbage in garbage out” — meaning that what is displayed to shoppers is often inaccurate or incomplete and insufficient to instill trust to purchase. It’s the reason we all end up opening that extra tab to check one more site.
Our biggest challenge was to automatically identify the same product across retailers and unstructured data sets without the need to match offers using product IDs or barcode numbers.
We focused the business on the technical solution before going to market as we knew the very biggest businesses had not come close to solving this problem and, whilst we were comfortable backing ourselves with our own cash, we didn’t want to engage with investors until we knew we had the technology that even the big tech businesses hadn’t created (it’s a reason we’ve been approached about acquisitions six times already).
Initially, we built a set of unsupervised deep-learning models to identify and assign each product a unique “Aisle 3 code,” which creates a single view across multiple retailers and sources. The outcome is creating a time machine that reduces hours of shopper research into a single, simple 30-second product search.
Now is a super exciting time as we can access huge training datasets; open-source software developed by the very largest corporations and shrinking processing costs that would have required millions of dollars of investment and data centers as high as skyscrapers just a few years ago.
We employ about 15 people across the globe and have a subsidiary business based in Ahmedabad, India. The team includes Ph.Ds with expertise in AI, ML and Mathematics. Alongside more than 1 million euros of private investment, we’ve been lucky to have received funding from the U.K. government to continue our research and take on the big tech businesses from our humble U.K. beginnings.
WWD: Why is footwear the first retail category for Aisle 3? Are there plans for expansion?
T.J.V.: Tackling footwear presented a huge technical challenge and it’s a hugely exciting category. As shoppers we are all familiar with the frustration of having to traipse across the internet, wading through endless ads or broken text links taking you to poor search results on random websites. Whilst price is important for many shoppers, the volume of products and variations outside of size, brand, collection and color makes it very hard to simply discover and be inspired by a new brand or simply the latest trends in running shoes.
We knew that it wasn’t just important to tackle the aggregation of offers for deal-hungry shoppers, so we’ve been focusing on presenting all the information so shoppers can make an informed decision — such as delivery speed, proximity for local collection or retailer preference. This is incredibly challenging, as it involves recognizing and standardizing rich product information from multiple sources.
Sneakers are visually stimulating, and brands are usually at the front line of innovation, such as Nike’s dive into the metaverse. We are really excited to be able to turn the mishmash of data across the internet into a rich, exciting, shopper-focused view that best represents the products that brands and retailers care deeply about.
Over time we look forward to expanding into the U.S. with the right commercial and investment partners and exploring categories with different technical data challenges (such as electronics) where we all share frustrations trying to find the best specification and price for a TV or laptop.
WWD: How has the pandemic changed the way consumers shop? What trends/behaviors have emerged in retail?
T.J.V.: We’re spending an increasing amount of time in front of our screens; meetings are virtual with hours of Zoom calls; content is consumed digitally with the likes of TikTok exceeding even Google’s usage, and online shopping has catapulted 10 years into the future.
We genuinely believe that we tap into the consumer zeitgeist matching what’s on people’s minds and helping to shape a new shopping future. Despite the online boom, much of this is concentrated on the very largest marketplaces across the planet and the commercial opportunity sits with big tech-listed businesses that generate most of their revenue via advertising models.
Amazon’s ads business is now bigger than Snap, Twitter and Pinterest combined and promoted listings or own-brand products now litter search results, creating suboptimal shopper experiences, obfuscating the products you are looking for. We’ve seen the shift over recent years (heightened due to the acceleration of e-commerce during COVID-19) where the incumbents focus on convenience/logistics; payment transactions, and advertising budgets. At Aisle 3, we care about the shopper before the “buy button.”
WWD: What’s next for Aisle 3?
T.J.V.: It was exciting to be in New York City for the NRF “Big Show” and to unveil Aisle 3 to investors and independent retailers. If I wasn’t from London, I’d say it’s the best city in the world!
Although we’ve recently closed over $1.3 million of funding, we’re keen to find the right commercial and investment partners to help turbocharge the business. Our site is in its final development and will be launching with the U.K.’s largest aggregated selection of sneakers in a few weeks. With the right partners, we’re confident of scaling the business and launching in the U.S. in the next couple of months.
From a technical perspective, we’re looking to extend our product-matching technology where products are nearly indistinguishable (iPhone 11 versus iPhone 12) based on the image and the metadata, which is a huge technical challenge itself.
Of course, there’s a lot of buzz around Web 3.0 and NFTs and we are already taking advantage of the latest capabilities to develop smart contracts, tied to purchases, that provided authenticated proof of ownership.
We’ve just closed our latest investment backed by angels from the likes of Snap, Money Supermarket and Catch we’re exploring the right partner to turbocharge the opportunity to eliminate shopper frustrations and create a shopping destination that words in line with brands and retailers to reduce friction and instill confidence for shoppers just like you and me.