Omaha start-up helps companies, products learn how shoppers shop

Jan. 6, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

a small sensor attached to a shelf in a grocery store.
A Retail Aware sensor. (Image by Tiffany Johanson, Nebraska Public Media)

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Man in a black short-sleeve shirt and white glasses sitting in front of four tall bookcases with decorations on them.
Retail Aware CEO Keith Fix. (Image by Tiffany Johanson, Nebraska Public Media)
Two men in front of a refrigerated display case in a convenience store. One is holding an open laptop.
Nebraska Public Media producer and "What If..." host Mike Tobias with Retail Aware founder Keith Fix at Anderson's Convenience Market in Omaha. (Image by Tiffany Johanson, Nebraska Public Media)

Tech start-up Retail Aware wants to change in store shopping by providing companies and products the same kind of information they get from online shoppers. This story is part of our "What If..." series on innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship.

A couple decades ago an Omaha Tai Chi studio owner needed a website. He offered fifth grader Keith Fix a little money to help build it.

“He was like, ‘Yeah, you like computers. You can do a website.’ ‘Sure.’ I had no idea how to do a website. Basically, I made my mom drive me down to the library and I got every book on HTML, CSS, Dreamweaver, everything you could imagine and figured it out and built the website.”

Fix earned a couple hundred dollars, and became hooked on entrepreneurship. A few years and a few ventures later, he’s creator and CEO of Retail Aware.

“Retail Aware, we empower brands, retailers and their partners with shopper and product insights in real time,” Fix says. “Think of the four P's: product, place, price, promotion. We really solve for the place aspect of that.”

Here’s how. It starts with motion, light and contact sensors. Non-descript, about the size and shape of an old-school pager. Placed discretely in stores on shelves, above doors, in coolers, just about anywhere it’s useful to gather anonymous info.

Retail Aware uses Anderson Convenience Market in west Omaha as a place to test these tools. Fix and team gave us a demonstration starting with me taking a bag of chips from a shelf directly below one of the sensors.

“That sense device is actually looking at the motion, so we're characterizing your hand movement to say you picked up whatever was underneath there,” Fix says. “We can see how many folks walked by, but then we can also see how many people picked our product. So it gives you your conversion rate, and it's the most likely indicator to a sale.”

In another part of the store I walk by a sensor mounted near the floor.

“We want to understand what is going on in this space,” says Corey Spitzer, Retail Aware’s engineering vice president. “We want to understand, is this corner of the store getting any traffic at all? It's kind of like, if you have a website, you want to understand how many visitors you're getting. This is like real life analytics for the physical space.”

The sensors can also let products know if a store is executing a planned promotion, or let often short-staffed stores know if a product needs restocked. All this data is compiled for access through a web portal, some for real time viewing.

“Combined with sales data, we can actually see the full, what we call the path to purchase or the full customer journey,” Fix says. “Brands specifically spend a hundred billion dollars a year, just in North America, on all of the stuff that you see inside the store. That includes these merchandising displays, these light fixtures, messaging, those posters that you see that go into the store or special product displays. We're wrapping data around those decisions.”

“If you find out that nobody is even walking in a certain part of the store, you either need to come up with a good idea of how to get them there or reinvent that space into a better purpose,” says Ricky Anderson, vice president of the Anderson Convenience Market stores. “So I think that kind of data would go a long way and actually be worth paying for.”

Fix says he always wanted to start a high-growth tech business. Before Retail Aware it was Blabfeed, programmable, digital screens for doctor’s offices and other places. This was born from winning a business plan competition, fed by investment from the Winnebago Tribe’s economic development corporation, and bought by the economic development arm of Nebraska’s Ponca Tribe. Important because Fix is a Ponca Tribe member.

“I realized that building these enterprises and entrepreneurship was absolutely key to breaking some of the barriers and breaking some of the systemic challenges that have plagued tribal nations and for generations,” he says. “And it’s a way you move an entire socioeconomic group up a rung of the ladder.”

Back to Retail Aware. Yes, more people shop online these days. But Fix says most purchases still happen in physical stores, only bad retail is dying and good retail is stores of the future, where data drives decisions, just like online.

From a humble start, millions of people now pass by Retail Aware sensors yearly without knowing it.

“I had a moment not that long ago where this was us in a basement somewhere making these devices and building out the platform,” Fix recalls.

“There's this factor of scaling that is so exciting and it's so exhilarating, when something that you've taken all the way from the cradle to being able to ship devices globally. Everyday, we wake up and of course, we work with like the biggest beverage companies in the world and like biggest electronics company in the world. Of course, we work with these folks, right? But that wasn't the case two or three years ago. It’s been an incredible journey.”

Fix says the success is exciting. But not a surprise if you know it started with a kid who took a job building a web site, then learned how to build a web site.

Watch our "What If..." story about Keith Fix and Retail Aware: