Mark Cummins and Charles Bibby are filling up a sprawling global database with stuff.
It’s got everything from hard-to-find Lego sets to craft beer, from potting soil to plantain chips.
These are all things you can get on Amazon, but (in case you forgot) you can get them at physical stores too. Google these items in the right geographic area and the pair’s database will point you to a local shop.
Hence their startup’s name: Pointy.
On Thursday Cummims and Bibby, who base themselves in Dublin, Ireland, are launching Pointy to the world. They’ve already done some experimenting to show that it can work.
Some 1,500 shops, mostly across the U.S. and Ireland, have used it to get even the most obscure products gathering dust on their shelves, online. Some 14% of all stores in Dublin are using the system.
Over in Brooklyn, New York, the owner of Greenpoint Toy Centre has pictures of Jenga sets and sidewalk chalk on a Pointy page. The site only lets potential customers see what the toy store has in stock, and won’t do transactions. But that’s enough to bring people through the door, a problem Greenpoint and plenty of other retailers are facing as Amazon’s dominance grows.
At one point, a customer came in asking for a specific toy, saying they’d been looking all over town, recalls the toy store’s owner, Herman Hernandez. When the customer did a Google search, he says, they found the store’s Pointy page.
If you live in Los Altos, California and need some LED lights, try typing “GE indoor LED Los Altos” into Google. The top result won’t be Amazon, but “True Value Hardware,” a shop on on 1st Street that has the bulbs in stock.
This goes beyond what brick-and-mortar stores have been able to do with Yelp (contact details and reviews) or social media (the chance to market to customer and field enquiries).
Even the cheapest items in a store can be “sitting alongside Amazon in the search results,” says Cummins. So far it’s been niche or obscure products that seem to benefit from the Pointy platform.
“There’s lots of searches for health foods, DIY and toys,” says Cummins, along with obscure spices and whiskey. “No one is searching for Coca-Cola. But they are asking ‘Where can I find coconut oil?’”
In his hand Cummins holds a rectangular device, about the size of a deck of cards, that makes all this possible. “The [store owners] unplug this guy from the till and plug it into the box,” he says from his office in Dublin, referring to simple cables that shopkeepers would use for stock-checking.
He holds up a handheld scanner. “This guy plugs into the Pointy box, and then back into the till. It doesn’t take five minutes.”
From then on, any product with a barcode gets automatically pulled into Pointy’s database once it gets scanned – whether that’s for a purchase or a stock check. A store can get all their stock on the system within a couple of weeks, Cummins says. The proprietary device has a cellular connection that keeps Pointy’s database constantly updated.
Pointy claims it can track what’s in stock by looking at patterns in how often an item is purchased. If the data is unclear, it’ll suggest calling the store to check.
Pointy, which quietly launched in the U.S, a year ago, makes money by charging retailers a one-time fee of $299 for the device and for having their products listed on its site. “They can stay on forever,” says Cummins.
Around 70% of Pointy’s current customers are small, independent stores. The other 30% are chains. The largest so far, Allcare Pharmacy in Ireland, has 60 locations across the country.
One of the challenges here is the fact that potential customers have to put in some pretty specific search terms to find a local product, often both the brand, product and city. For the LED lights in Los Altos, for instance, Pointy ends up as the 6th or 7th search result if you don’t include “GE.”
Hence Pointy’s pitch to shopkeepers: pay a little more and they’ll get bumped up the Google rankings by getting integrated into AdWords. It’s a freemium model, says Cummins. He spent several years with Google’s visual search team, before wondering one day why Google couldn’t tell him that a certain type of craft beer he was craving was a short walk away at a local store.
Another challenge is that Cummins can’t provide any hard evidence that Pointy is actually helping sales.
Pointy offers a dashboard to show how many people have visited the site, but they can’t yet correlate that with an increase in foot traffic. Hence why the company is now also raising $6 million from investors including Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital, Draper Associates and Frontline Ventures.
Pointy needs staff and scale to measure success, says Cummins. “Our mission is to bring every retailer in the world online.”
“We don’t want to be e-commerce,” his co-founder, Charles Bibby, hastens to add, “because for most local stores, e-commerce is not what they’re set up to do. They want people to come into the store.”
Whether Pointy will actually point people to those stores depends on a complicated mix of factors including exposure, scale and clever algorithms and SEO. “Online retailers have thousands in their engineering teams giving them beautiful websites,” says Cummins. “For local retailers, this is levelling the playing field.”