Peter McCaul, founder of a tech company based around a smart key fob, is providing shoppers and the stores they visit with something that appeals to both parties.
Last updated: 06 Nov 2019 4 min read
In business today, everything is about data: the more you know about your customers, the more you can understand their needs and their shopping habits.
The lion’s share of businesses involved in the collection of this data are tracking people’s habits online, but Peter McCaul, founder of Péarlaí, had a brainwave that took him down a different path. What if the data behind an individual’s real-world shopping habits could be put to good use as well?
The answer he found lies in a piece of technology which he describes as “the most accurate method of tracking consumers through physical space”. He says it’s based around the most cost-effective hardware, it’s the smallest tech of its kind on the market, and its potential knows no bounds. The tiny smart key fob at the heart of the Péarlaí system – which offers users year-round money-saving deals at certain stores – could one day be used as your passport, your credit card or the season ticket for your favourite football team.
So how does it work? “When people carry their key fobs around with them, the Péarlaí system helps us to identify them as soon as they arrive at the shopping centre,” says McCaul. “We know where they go, how long they spend there, we know what items they’re looking at – so shops can then text them messages with recommendations and offers.”
While many tech businesses were burying their heads in the sand when whisperings of new GDPR regulations started circulating a few years ago, McCaul saw the new changes to collecting consumer data as an opportunity. Customers actively opt in for Péarlaí – they have to buy the key fob for £5 – and McCaul says they’re able to control how often they get messages from the shops they’re interested in. They can also leave their fobs at home if they don’t want their shopping habits to be ‘tracked’ for any reason.
After two years in development, Péarlaí went live last year at Buttercrane Shopping Centre in Newry. Not that McCaul was able to celebrate this momentous day. “We had 700 people queued up the length of the shopping centre to collect their VIP smart fobs,” he says, “and then the wifi collapsed, so the system didn’t work. I was frantically sending text messages to the new customers but thankfully they weren’t all that clear on how it worked yet because it was so new, so in some ways they were none the wiser.”
“Having people from outside your own business giving you their honest opinion and whose only goal is wanting to see you do well has been amazing” Peter McCaul, founder, Péarlaí
Today, McCaul has four shopping centres and also Newry city centre (where he’s based) signed up, and he’s recently done a deal for his first European shopping centre, in Portugal.
“It’s only now that we’re planning world domination,” he says, “although I don’t think I can really celebrate until we break even.”
Helping him to inch ever nearer to that point is Ulster Bank’s accelerator hub in Belfast; Péarlaí’s eight-strong team have now been a firm fixture there for almost three years.
“We did our first 18 months and then they asked us back as a more mature company,” says McCaul. “Having people from outside your own business giving you their honest opinion and whose only goal is wanting to see you do well has been amazing,” he says. “I've got nothing but good things to say about it.”
McCaul is thrilled to be included on the bank’s new #PowerUp Index, which celebrates the businesses to watch in Northern Ireland, ie the best and brightest from the Entrepreneur Accelerator programme. “[It’s] a nice bit of validation that gives us confidence and shows us we’re not crazy,” he says, adding that the company has big plans for the year ahead. “We want to have 20 sites live within 12 months.”
McCaul is currently in talks with an American company that has hundreds of shopping centres that could use his technology. Longer term, he’s thinking even bigger. “One day,” he says, “we see Péarlaí being the only ID you’ll ever need.”
Peter’s top tip for fellow entrepreneurs:“It’s all about resilience – just keep on doing it and never give up. If you never give up and also listen to feedback, you’ll be on the right lines.”