Circle K Invests in Retail AI Startup

The convenience chain is piloting Pensa’s shelf intelligence platform to minimize out of stocks.

June 10, 2021

Pensa Systems Shelf Intelligence Technology

AUSTIN—Circle K Ventures, the venture arm of Circle K, is among the backers of Pensa Systems, an Austin, Texas, startup that’s developing computer vision and artificial intelligence for in-store data and analytics for convenience stores and other retail outlets.

Pensa has raised $11 million to expand its data and shelf-monitoring platform, the company announced. Circle K Ventures and ATX Venture Partners led the investment, which brings Pensa’s total raised to $28 million and follows a newly launched pilot project at several Circle K locations in Central Texas, the company said. Anheuser-Busch InBev is another investor. Pensa said it expects to gain valuable insight and support for the convenience store sector and beyond by working with Circle K, which is part of Alimentation Couche-Tard.

“We look forward to working with Pensa as a way to improve the store experience for both our customers and team members,” said Mike Bott, head of digital innovation at Circle K. “Leveraging advanced technology to continuously improve in-store availability of key products is a top priority. Collaborating with Pensa as a customer and investor presents a promising opportunity for us to optimize store shelves and reduce stockouts.”

Founded in 2016, Pensa is developing autonomous perception systems using computer vision and artificial intelligence technologies, along with smartphone cameras and small drones to help optimize product stocking and reduce out-of-stocks. Pensa's core technology is the ability to train computers to see and identify items, and the company said it has already logged more than two billion product images on retail shelves.

"We are in effect indexing the physical world in a way similar to Google indexing the cyber world, starting with the physical aisle and shelves at retail," Richard Schwartz, CEO, Pensa, told the Austin Business Journal. "We have started to expand to the so-called omnichannel world, covering both physical retail stores shopped by consumers, as well as e-commerce online shopping for items to be delivered, picked up at the curb, etc."

Pensa wants to resolve the problem of in-store visibility, which has only become more acute with the explosion of omnichannel. “Pensa’s patented and frankly groundbreaking AI approach and novel use of automation is generating at-scale primary data and analytics for the first time in this last true black box of our modern economy,” said Chris Shonk, managing director of ATX Venture Partners.

"We anticipate many other uses for our artificial intelligence seeing and interpreting a range of other indoor and outdoor locations, taking on other activities which are hard and tedious for people to do but which, with the right technology, can be well handled by a computer," Schwartz said.

To read more about how technology is impacting retail, check out “Adapting to the Future” in NACS Magazine.