With its AI-driven recommendation engine and Online to Offline (O2O) solution, BFore is making the shopping experience for consumer durables easier
If you have ever bought an expensive product like a television or a refrigerator, you will agree that with the confuddling variety out in the market today, selecting one is no easy task. Numerous brands, each with a permutation and combination of different features, different price points, screaming discounts, makes the shopping research a cumbersome and cognitively-demanding journey.
While there are numerous blogs and articles online that serve as buying guides, they are often non-personal. Product reviews on e-commerce platforms on the other hand, are a confusing potpourri of delivery, service, installation and product experiences, and the lack of context means an increased dilemma. Also, if shoppers visit a physical store to get a concrete perspective, they often receive biased recommendations from brand promoters. This frustrating journey results in shoppers making poor decisions.
The experience was no different for Abhinav Sharma, Bharat Gupta and Rishabh Bucha. They are the co-founders of BFore, an online shopping platform addressing these challenges by giving customers access to verified information and best deals on appliances from stores near them. BFore works with over a hundred retail store partners to simplify and personalise every customer's shopping experience, recommend the right stores and products, offer exclusive deals and provide in-store assistance to make the shopping journey delightful.
The genesis of BFore
“It was the common frustration and a collective poor purchase experience that seeded the idea for BFore,” said Abhinav, who leads product development at the startup.
“We realised that the research journey for high-value products was a taxing and inefficient process and needed to be simplified and standardised. Further research revealed that 80 percent of shoppers were not sure about which brand or variant to buy or which features to look for,” shares Abhinav.
He adds that these research journeys typically take two-three weeks and are cognitively demanding, pushing as many as 40 percent shoppers to actively seek assistance.
With this initial research, Abhinav started working on the idea for BFore in January 2019. Abhinav had previously worked on a recommendation product at HolidayIQ and had the experience of building consumer-centric products for. His stint at Google also had helped him understand the strength of the company’s advertising products.
Abhinav then reached out to Bharat, a batchmate at Indian School of Business (ISB). A patent holder and a product owner in an AI startup, Bharat was onboarded in June 2019 as the co-founder. Rishabh, a former colleague at Google joined BFore in September 2019 as the third co-founder. Bharat, with his vast experience in building scalable solutions for enterprises, leads the partnerships and operations at BFore, while Rishabh is responsible for generating demand at the startup.
Deciphering and solving the shoppers’ dilemma
“We are building a product that takes away the burden of research from the user. BFore lets the user easily articulate their needs and choose from a curated list of options. Furthermore, the platform allows for price and availability discovery from various online, offline, rental and refurbished sellers to select the most suitable option,” shares Abhinav.
Reading over an ever growing database of product reviews from verified users through BFore’s partners, the startup’s AI-powered Natural Language Process engine extracts the relevant entities and the associated sentiment. It develops an understanding of the context in which the review was given and converts the review into objective scores that can be used to compare products across dimensions. It also surfaces frequently found issues and delightful experiences for each product expressed by similar users. “This helps generate a very granular understanding of products as expressed by individual user segments. We then combine insights from user-generated reviews with feature-based scoring, market share data and pricing, to generate product recommendations,” shared Abhinav.
This is in turn supported by the platform’s behaviour-science-based communication engine and the store recommendation engine. While the former creates relevant points of engagement to understand how the user’s preferences change over time and update the recommendations and thereby enhance the purchase journey, the latter matches user’s preferences in product, payment and delivery options with the inventory and offerings of stores, both online and offline to surface the best deal possible.”
The role of technology in their growth journey
For the startup, technology has been a key competitive advantage.
“Infact, technology is at the core of everything we do at BFore. Be it identifying the user needs or pain points in the buying journey or reading through thousands of product reviews, or finally putting out that easy-to-consume product recommendation that helps users make an informed decision. From NLP services, cloud computing to conversational AI technology is a key enabler for BFore,” said Abhinav.
In addition to the technology’s prowess, BFore’s online to offline (o2o) solutions gives the startup an advantage over existing players in the ecosystem. “Even today, a majority of the durables are still bought from offline stores and partnering with them helps us to service a larger user base and learn. But, given that we also partner with online retail stores as well as partners providing rental and refurbished options, we are at an advantage, especially in the post COVID-19 era, where we are likely to see an increasing number of shoppers shift their research journey online,” shares Rishabh.
An upward curve that is growing steeper
Within months of launching its MVP covering two categories- televisions and refrigerators — BFore now has partnerships with over a 100 stores in Bengaluru and has grown from helping one shopper a week to over a 100 a week.
“Over the last 12 months, we have been able to enhance the shopping experience of more than 14,000 shoppers in Bengaluru. A typical research journey for consumer durables lasts two-three weeks. We have been able to reduce that to five days on average. In addition to enhancing the shopping experience for consumers, we have also helped the 100+ stores that we work with, reach out to customers online and increase their catchment areas,” said Bharat.
The startup currently has two active revenue streams, a commission on transactions facilitated by BFore at the partner stores, and its own online store where the startup sources products locally.
“The focus right now is to ensure that BFore users find the right product for customers across all durables categories. Seven out of 10 BFore users end up buying the product that we recommend. The goal is to achieve a 100 percent satisfaction rate,” said Rishabh.
Over the next year, the startup plans on expanding into more product categories while also improving their product and technology and impacting at least 20x shoppers.
Industry Validation: The Dell TechnologiesStartup Challenge
BFore was among the four startups that made it to the finale of the Dell Startup Challenge Season 4 recently.
The action-packed season saw over 500 entries competing for the top prize.
Elated about their selection among finalists, Bharat shares, “Dell Startup Challenge is a great platform where early-stage startups get an opportunity to showcase their business and learn how other entrepreneurs are solving problems. Being a finalist among more than 500 gives us a sense of validation for our efforts and confidence that we are headed in the right direction. It only makes us strive harder to add value to the retail sector and make BFore a product that users love.”
In addition, with Dell being one of the leaders in the technology space, the startup hopes to leverage Dell’s cloud computing expertise and guidance to further their product development efforts.
“We want to be the preferred destination for anyone who is starting their buying journey for high value products,” signs off Rishabh.