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Midwest Startups Surprisingly Driving Future of Retail Tech

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Saying the manner in which consumers shop has changed over the past 20 years is like saying the educated world is tired of Kim Kardashian - it's a given. But the retail technology revolution is clearly not done and continues to shape the manner in which we all engage in the shopping process at breakneck speed.

Yet while the assumption is that these innovations can only be born near Silicon Valley under the watchful eye of Bay-area VCs, some are coming from surprising locations not thought of as technology or innovation hubs.

To wit, here's a look at three technology platforms - all hailing from the Midwest - that have the potential to further reshape the retail landscape moving forward:


Ever walk into a massive store and have absolutely no idea where to find the high quality condoms, Colt 45, or smoked meats that you're looking for? Yeah, me too. Enter St. Louis-based-aisle411 (the "a" is lowercase), works with major retailers like Home Depot, Walgreens, Shop 'N Save, and Hy-Vee to create a better in-store shopping experience for consumers. Their technology digitizes product inventory, making it easily searchable for shoppers on mobile applications, and adds location intelligence so shoppers can find what they want, when they want it. The aisle411 tech helps retailers to connect the location of the shopper, the shopper's intent to purchase, and the location of products -- down to the shelf.

Why is this important?

"While we always think e-commerce today, more than 90 percent of retail purchases are still made at a physical store location and more than half of all shoppers are carrying mobile devices with them when shopping," said aisle411 CEO Nathan Pettyjohn. "But if they can't find what they want, they leave. Retailers are losing about 20 percent of in-store revenue due to store walkouts over consumer frustrations. So our technology keeps people there, shopping, because they can quickly get what they need and get out. Plus, we've seen what we call "basket-lift," increasing the sum of the average number of products purchased in a visit to a store."

Mobile influence on in-store sales, which is currently estimated at some $158 billion, is projected to more than triple by 2016, and aisle411 looks positioned to continue its leadership position in the indoor retail mapping space.

Click With Me Now

Does it seem like we've become a peer-review economy? You go to sites like or or Yelp to get suggestions from people you've never met, right? Of course you do, because consumers are looking to collaborate and engage with others online and in real-time - from connecting with a friend or loved one to walking through travel plans, to helping a technology-challenged friend navigate the complexities of health insurance, to delivering customer support.

What Click With Me Now does simplifies that peer-to-peer or business-to-consumer support process with a one-click, no-download solution that empowers computer users to simply and safely co-browse web experiences. Hence, if you run an e-commerce platform, you can simply add Click With Me Now's software to your site, and then a customer support specialist can more easily - and in the eyes of a consumer - more securely, co-browse and assist a consumer in making purchase decisions.

"The application is multifaceted," said Bud Albers the former Walt Disney Corp. CTO who is now CEO of Click With Me Now, which is also based in St. Louis. "It can substantially improve customer support efforts as well as increase conversion rates by visually enabling the assisted selling experience. This is the next stage in the evolution of customer service tools for large enterprises. It empowers consumers to leverage the technology for themselves and enables them to share, get opinions and to get help from people they personally know and trust."


While writing about changes technology was having on businesses for Forbes, Chris Steiner noticed grocery stores lagged behind. Consumers were on smartphones and supermarkets were using technology from Gilligan's Island.

So Steiner got VC funding from YCombinator for a concept he and his co-founder called Aisle50, a Chicago-based portal that links online coupons to stores' loyalty programs, which gives consumers access to daily deals like Groupon. But instead of 40 percent off a one-time deal like parasailing lessons or fish whispering sessions, Aisle50 users get deals on things like Kellogg's cereals and Coca-Cola. Stuff they use every day.

Thus far they have agreements in place with Oklahoma City-based Homeland Stores, Sacramento-based Raley's, North Carolina-based Lowes Foods, Pennsylvania-based Shop 'n Save, and New York-based D'Agostino.

"By subscribing consumers to products at brick and mortar stores, we're driving trips and giving our retailers an answer to Amazon," said Steiner.

They source exclusive content in the world of consumer packaged goods and are working to turn it into a marketing lever that, for CPGs, drives incremental volume and repeat buying. On the retailers' side, Aisle50 has seen its tech drive new trips, 31 percent bigger basket sizes with offers that are 100 percent funded by CPGs.

What's Next?

That's a great question. Consumers are always looking for means to more simply and safely shop. The likes of aisle411, Click With Me Now, and Aisle50 are in a very large pack seeking just mild slices of the retail tech pie that continues to see new innovations on seemingly a weekly basis.

Will that next big thing come from a Google, an Apple, or a Samsung? Perhaps. But more than likely it will come from three guys (or gals) in Austin or Charlotte or Champaign-Urbana or Louisville or St. Louis and -- with the right push -- will continue to change our shopping habits moving forward.

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