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Darren Gill, COO and president of Vejii.

Lucas Oleniuk/The Globe and Mail

It has become a bit of a cliché to say a new startup has designs on being the Amazon of its segment. But online vegan marketplace Vejii does seem to tick the boxes: It plans on both dominating and growing the plant-based product space and is using artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance and personalize its customer experience.

Launched last year in the United States and this past April in Canada, Vancouver-based Vejii functions as both an online store, selling familiar products such as Beyond Meat from its own inventory, and as a larger plant-based products marketplace, where customers can buy from third-party sellers offering a range of plant-based products. Befitting of a company born during the early days of the pandemic, it promises rapid delivery to your door, with cold and frozen products arriving nestled in dry ice or cold packs.

With several vendors selling more than 3,000 products on the site, the goal for founders Kory Zelickson and Darren Gill is for the site to host the largest variety of vegan products, while providing a top-drawer, personalized customer experience. A key to both of those goals is the AI that gathers user data to try to guide customers to products they will be interested in.

“The AI algorithms really allow us to place the right product in front of the right people and better align product with consumers based on their own interests,” Mr. Zelickson says.

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A visit to the Vejii platform begins a process of information gathering from new customers, including their browsing activities on the site, shopping preferences, lifestyle indicators and pricing preferences. It’s all used to customize the options promoted to the customer.

“After two or three visits, the site is going to look different for you and it will display different products in different sequences than it might for somebody else or for a first-time visitor,” Mr. Zelickson says.

It’s a familiar approach these days used famously by Amazon alongside other online vendors to varying degrees. It’s the same approach that floods your Netflix home page with action movies after you watch the latest Liam Neeson kidnapping flick.

On the supplier side, the AI can track and analyze inventory and product availability from third-party sellers, making sure that customers can find what they’re looking for, even if one supplier runs out.

It can also be extended into applications that can make the online shopping experience convenient to the point of being almost an afterthought. For instance, Vejii is currently developing a smart list feature that would take a customer’s hastily composed shopping list and essentially autopilot the shopping trip.

“It will allow you to upload a list – via text or even a written note – that it will convert and then go onto the platform. Then it finds the closest match to what you have in the product list, the closest alternative in the same category, and then auto-populates your checkout,” Mr. Zelickson says.

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Companies such as Vejii are just the latest example of retailers using AI to fast-track processes that used to take a considerable amount of time and employee head count to accomplish. Andrew Au, a digital transformation expert and co-founder of technology consultancy Intercept, gives the example of a bricks-and-mortar retailer using sales data to determine which store products should be put on prominent shelves.

“Often what you’ll see is you overstock the wrong products, and the reason is that you aren’t considering things like weather or local events. There are so many additional data points that are available that you can’t humanly crunch and analyze, so you’re making predictions based on your gut, rather than data,” he says.

Using AI, retailers can identify hidden patterns in different data sets that can reveal new or changing customer preferences. The result can lead to changes in packaging or product design to suit customer tastes and needs, Mr. Au says.

“There’s not just a cost optimization but it’s … uncovering unmet opportunities, so it’s actually driving product innovation,” he says.

Plant-based food sales in the U.S. rose by 27 per cent in 2020 to surpass US$7-billion, according to the U.S. industry group Plant Based Foods Association, and Nielsen data from December, 2019, peg Canadian plant-based food sales at around a half-billion dollars, with annual growth of 16 per cent.

It’s a rapidly expanding market and a market with many small brands that produce niche products, often requiring subscription fees from customers. This can make it a challenging market for potential new customers to access, which is what both Mr. Zelickson and Mr. Gill concluded when researching opportunities in the plant-based space.

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“It’s a mainstream trend, and we know that it’s only going to continue to grow in terms of product offering selection … but nobody’s catering to a mainstream audience,” Mr. Gill says. “All of the sites [we saw] were still very much focused on ‘it’s vegan’ and that has its own stigma around it. There wasn’t just a site open for folks to come try a whole host of different products and see how big the offering was.”

Using their algorithm – as well as an offering of plant-based products that goes beyond food into clothing and personal care items – Vejii hopes to rope in the vegan-curious or part-time vegans with products with specific appeal, such as innovative meat substitutes that go beyond simple vegan burgers, to newer products such as vegan seafood and cheeses. For buyers looking for something else, their offerings from independent vendors are continually growing, Mr. Gill says.

“This all this goes back to the notion of ‘why Amazon?’ ” he says. “You go to it because you can get everything you need, instead of having to go to 10 different websites, and a lot of the brands that sell there also happen to have their own websites. So we’re actually no different.”

Can AI help green the economy?

Sustainability and emission reductions are on the minds of Vejii founders Mr. Gill, pictured, and Mr. Zelickson, who are using AI to grow the customer base for their plant-based products portal.

Lucas Oleniuk/The Globe and Mail

The growing use of AI can be a frightening idea for some people. It’s understandable, as AI in movies tends to be in the form of a robot or computer network bent on human destruction. Some regard it suspiciously as a mechanism for online retailers to steal our personal information and profit from it.

But others see it as a way to fast-track more sustainability into carbon-intensive industries such as retail shipping, food production and energy.

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A 2019 study by PwC and commissioned by Microsoft found that using AI for environmental applications could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 4 per cent and contribute up to US$5.2-trillion to the global economy by 2030, compared with business as usual.

With its capacity to process huge amounts of data and produce more efficient practices, many companies are looking to AI to find ways to reduce their carbon footprint and burnish their environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) credentials, Mr. Au says.

“A lot of the AI platforms now can be tooled for this and some are designed specifically to do this,” he says.

For instance, AI could gather consumption information from a company’s utility provider, smart meters and other sources to build a picture of its total carbon footprint.

“Take that a step further; using AI, you can now run simulation models to actually simulate a decarbonatization plan. So, if we did A, B, C or D, what would be the impact on our carbon footprint?” Mr. Au says.

Sustainability and emission reductions are also on the minds of Vejii founders Mr. Zelickson and Mr. Gill, who are using AI to grow the customer base for their plant-based products portal and to eventually expand the site’s product offerings to include items such as electric scooters and animal product-free furniture.

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“Today it’s all your plant-based products in one place; tomorrow it’s going to be all your plant-based and environmentally sustainable products in one place,” Mr. Gill says.

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