Leaning on tech from startups to drive growth

April 27, 2018

Thanks to rapid technological advancements and significant shifts in consumer behaviour, the retail industry is in the midst of a major upheaval. In March, Rami Karam, Co-founder and CEO of Thirdshelf, Pascal Pettinicchio, Chief Business Development Officer of Smooch, and Peter Simons, President and CEO of La Maison Simons, took part in a panel discussion on the topic of growth as part of the Sommet du Commerce de détail. Here is a recap of some of their observations and advice, and the key takeaway: that local tech startups have plenty to offer retail businesses of all sizes.

Soutenir sa croissance grâce aux technologies des startups
Michèle Boisvert, Executive Vice-President, Business Outreach at CDPQ, Rami Karam, Co-founder and CEO of Thirdshelf,
Pascal Pettinicchio, Chief Business Development Officer of Smooch, and Peter Simons, President and CEO of La Maison Simons.


Business and innovation

Founded in Québec City in 1840, La Maison Simons has necessarily had to reinvent itself over the years, in terms of both brick-and-mortar stores and online presence. While innovation may be central to its business strategy, the digital transformation it undertook in 2007 was no cakewalk. Peter Simons recounted the great “pains” that came with making this shift: “It wasn’t just about developing a costly website. We had to rethink the business and how it created value for customers.” Crucial decisions and significant investments had to be made. When all was said and done, the digital transformation was beyond imperative: it turned out to be key to the company’s survival and success.

Simons says the secret lies in making change a constant. “A web strategy is only a starting point; it’s something that needs to evolve on a continuous basis. The minute you launch your new website, you should start planning the next revamp.”

Innovation should be ongoing and built into the company’s DNA. Eleven years later, La Maison Simons continues to move forward. The store that opened in Québec City’s Galeries de la Capitale in March is entirely energy self‑sufficient. The company also has plans for a new state‑of‑the‑art distribution centre in Québec City.

Startups breaking new ground

Established in 2014, Québec startup Thirdshelf offers loyalty marketing solutions for retailers, integrating email- and SMS-based loyalty programs. Driven by predictive analytics, Thirdshelf analyzes retailers’ transaction data to identify their best customers and other market segments. With its customer tracking capabilities and artificial intelligence (AI) features that automate many aspects of customer-relationship building, it is able to increase sales and build customer loyalty for small and medium-sized enterprises.

“We developed our solution with a handful of clients and have fine-tuned it in the process,” says co-founder and CEO Rami Karam. “Even if you’re a promising startup with super groundbreaking technology, you absolutely need to be adaptable and receptive to what clients are saying. Clients these days don’t necessarily want to commit and make a substantial investment right off the bat. They want to test out the product to see its merits before entering into a longer-term commitment with the service provider. That is totally understandable.”

Thirdshelf concentrates on analytics and customer loyalty, keeping its focus on a very specific problem. Its goal is to help retailers draw customers to their stores not just once, but twice, three times and beyond. Their specialization is vertical in that, rather than offering the solution directly to retailers, they offer it to retail platforms (POS, e-commerce and payment, a.k.a. omnichannel solutions, Lightspeed being one such example).

Smooch is a Montréal-based business created by Hamnett Hill and Mike Gozzo in 2015. The company offers a platform that creates omnichannel conversational experiences for customers, using web, SMS and social messaging apps. This software bridges the gap between business apps (Salesforce, Slack, etc.) and customers’ preferred communication channels (Facebook Messenger, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc.) to enhance customer relationships.

In the words of chief business development officer Pascal Pettinicchio, “We’re passionate about business-to-consumer messaging. We firmly believe in the assumption that consumers will increasingly want to interact with businesses using their favourite apps (SMS, Facebook, WeChat, Twitter, etc.). We are seeing the email and phone interactions of the past moving over to messaging systems. Businesses need to adapt and embrace these new communication channels.”

Software development company Zendesk, American multinational Uber and the Four Seasons hotel chain are just some of the big names that have turned to the budding Montréal company to incorporate its solution into their products.

Keeping pace with trends

The business world is changing dramatically, across every industry. Shaped by morphing demographics and increasingly powerful digital technology, new trends are changing how business is done.

The boom in e‑commerce, process automation and data analytics has made digital technology more and more vital for all businesses. How can you keep up in an environment that is always changing? Peter Simon shares his secret: “We read a lot and travel. We are curious and take an interest in all kinds of things. On trips, I try to learn new things. For example, if I am on a trip for buying purposes, I try to find out about new technologies and local businesses. I try to always be open and on top of the latest information. You have to constantly seek out the latest innovations to enrich your ecosystem, learn and create something new for customers.”

It’s now known that a business’s digital strategy has to include mechanisms for continuous improvement and innovation. These are what makes it possible to verify that changes and technologies integrated are indeed relevant and meet customers’ actual needs.

Closing remarks

Peter Simons’s advice: “Change is a constant. Not only will it always be there, but it is going to happen faster and faster. Embrace it and build something unique with your customer at the core. Dive in, and, above all, remember that you only live once. If you’re the captain of a ship that is about to run aground, better you do it with intent rather than drifting.”

Pascal Pettinicchio’s advice: “We live in an exciting time, with the world quickly changing. Businesses that stand out will be those that manage to use the innovations on the market and strategically adapt them to their own brand to offer consumers a different experience.”

Rami Karam’s advice: “Play to your strengths. If you’re small, you’re agile. You have less baggage, which means you can test things. We live in a time when technology is readily available and relatively easy to try out. Test things and establish a process of innovation. You can try new technologies on an ongoing basis; it’s easier than you might think.”