AI and machine learning are changing the way we shop. The women leading the AI revolution in Indian fashion commerce reveal how they are helping businesses integrate the technology with their long-term plans.Athira Nair
If data is the new oil, artificial intelligence is the new electricity. AI is helping e-sellers add a personal touch to the shopping experience for buyers. India’s ecommerce market is estimated to be worth $84 billion by 2021 (as per the latest RAI report), which means more offline merchants are coming online. And one of the sectors seeing a revolution, courtesy AI, is fashion retail.
Fashion retailers, even those from small towns, are embracing technology, to be seen at par with or as more progressive than their counterparts in metro cities. And a few women-led startups are guiding them. HerStory talked to a few women leading the AI revolution in fashion commerce on their journey and how they are helping businesses integrate AI with their long-term plans.
Meghna Saraogi, formerly a graphic designer, in 2016 launched StyleDotMe, which was seed funded by the Indian Angel Network. The app lets users get instant fashion advice from not just friends and followers, but from experts around the world with instant polls and voting options.
The Delhi-based startup’s latest offering – mirrAR –lets people virtually try on things via augmented reality (AR) on digital platforms of client brands, via iPads. Users can see themselves in different jewellery products on a larger screen, and can take pictures and share on social media too.
Meghna recounts that building this product took about 10 months, and that the project was an internal secret. “When employees outside the core team and interns finally got to see it, they were amazed. The expression on their face told us that our effort had paid off!”
After piloting mirrAR at Bridal Asia exhibition in August 2018, StyleDotMe partnered with jewellery brand Tanishq for a virtual jewellery try-on experience zone at Delhi and Bangalore airports. Tanishq hosts over 200 designs, with this ‘Virtual Try and Buy’ experience, through mirrAR.
In December 2018, mirrAR was presented at an expo zone at Jaipur Jewellery Show, partnering with 11 jewellers. Meghna recounts that 20 jewellers approached them with upfront payment in those three days. “One woman consumer actually hugged me and said God bless you for making this! I think such tech connects with the end consumers on an emotional level.”
Tanishq, PC Jewellers, Farah Khan Jewellery, Amrapali, and several small retail jewellers across India are among mirrAR’s clients now. “Many jewellers from tier 3 and tier 4 cities take this tech to international expos in Hong Kong, Switzerland, and the Middle East rather than take a lot of inventory,” Meghna says.
Jewellery is a capital-intensive business, and cannot expand easily. But mirrAR helps jewellers with customer acquisition. In stores, they won’t lose out on sales due to lack of inventory, as customers can select items from the catalogue and try them on virtually.
Meghna claims that mirrAR created leads worth Rs 1.25 crore in the first three months, leading to conversions of Rs 13 lakh. “We create high engagement. For instance, an average customer tries on four-five pieces at a jewellery store, whereas on mirrAR it becomes 22,” she adds.
StyleDotMe follows a SaaS model with mirrAR; it charges Rs 1 lakh for the annual licence to use the product (and not commission based on conversion). Meghna says that they will break even soon.
The company will launch a consumer version of the application - where consumers can virtually try jewellery using their mobile phones - in September 2019.
AI-startup BigThinx was founded in Bengaluru by Shivang Desai and Chandralika Hazarika earlier this year. An MBA graduate, Chandralika has earlier worked at ITC and Space Matrix. The marketing professional, who has about 10 years of experience, is keen on simple, well-positioned, and intuitive high-tech products that anyone can quickly understand and adopt. Shivang is the CEO and CTO.
BigThinx’ flagship product, the Lyflike app, creates realistic, walkabout 3D avatars that look, measure, and move like you. All you need to do is upload three photos when you register on the app and create an avatar with a selfie. You can dress it up by recreating outfits using images and a virtual closet. It can also show you where you can buy the product or find something similar online. You can design unique outfits by picking from extensive libraries with different garments, cuts, patterns, graphics, and fabrics.
Chandralika says they knew fashion is the space AI companies were scared to touch, but wanted to take a plunge anyway. “We wanted to give customer a bigger role in using it, compared to the tech available now. Lyflike empowers the customer as it is in their hand.”
However, Lyflike’s revenue strategy is B2B partnerships. Chandralika explains, “When we approach bigger players with the technology, they either want exclusivity or want to acquire us. So we work with smaller players; we are now in talks with a few.” (The company is still pre-revenue.)
The free Android version of the Lyflike app was released at the end of February, and has seen over 500 organic installs without any marketing. BigThinx is angel funded by media industry veteran Pradeep Guha, CEO of 9X Media, who is also a partner-mentor to the founding team.
PurpleApple Infosytems is an apps developments company, which focuses on AR and VR. It was founded in Delhi in 2016, by IT professional Amrutha Valli (now 50) who earlier worked at Wipro and Tata Teleservices. She is an alumnus of Symbiosis Institute of Management Studies and certified from IIM-B and IIT-Delhi in entrepreneurship programmes.
“With ecommerce blooming globally, the gap between online and offline retail can be bridged with tech. I have done and noticed the defects in the size trial for jewellery. So PurpleApple began with two ideas: image recognition and a try-on feature. We have invested Rs 50 lakh so far,” Amrutha recounts.
One of their products is TRYb4uBUY, a multi-category AR experiential shopping solution. In ecommerce, this technology when integrated into the merchant’s app, enables customers to make purchases after trying on jewellery, dresses, or furniture virtually. You can zoom in, zoom out, rotate, crop, and apply filters, and thus customise the product, especially in furniture.
Tryb4uBUY is also beneficial to offline retailers. Amrutha explains, “We set up in shopping malls via kiosks. Customers can virtually try out fashion accessories from different stores on one large screen (accommodates all stores). This strategy is also possible in shopping areas like Brigade Road in Bangalore.”
The product was designed as an app-integration one since Amrutha believes that device-based technology will depend too much on the device manufacturers’ quality. “It may demand us to compromise on some features; we want to give an immersive experience to consumers. We have gone through many trials and errors. This technology is especially cost effective for small and medium merchants, and we have received positive feedback from them and end consumers.”
Although India is opening up to women entrepreneurs now, women in tech remain rare.
Meghna recounts an experience she had with a client. “When I gave my business card to the marketing head at a jewellery firm, he said, ‘Oh, you are the founder and CEO!’ and started laughing. I was irritated, but he was so impressed by the product that he immediately put me in touch with the director.”
But she adds that such experiences are few now. “Most top guys are experienced enough to know better. The ecosystem is slowly changing to encourage women to come forward,” she says.
Chandralika, of Lyflike, hopes that things will change in time. But she tells YourStory that she has noticed techies in her team having trouble accepting her as the boss. Her experience as an entrepreneur is different from that of her co-founder Shivang’s.
She says, “Having a male co-founder makes somethings easier. Although I have grown a Singapore-based firm into multiple countries in my previous stint, people take you seriously when the boss is a man.”
Many senior stakeholders in the startup ecosystem told her upfront, “Why are you trying to create something new? Let the US startups do it first; then you can copy it.” But Chandralika believes that despite lack of support, an entrepreneur has to be professional and ignore the negativity.
On the other hand, Amruthavalli, of Purple Apple, says that since she comes with more than 20 years’ experience, this has not been a problem for her. (An MCA gold medallist, she has experience in development, mobile payments, IOT, and was security consultant in framing data privacy and data security framework for NASSCOM.)
“Their focus is more on the product; the way we design a solution. My biggest challenge has been being a single founder,” she says. Her bootstrapped startup is now looking for external funding for scaling.
For entrepreneurs, one challenge after another is nothing unusual. For women, an extra challenge is to ensure that the “woman” tag next to “entrepreneur” remains invisible and that the world takes note of their work and not gender.