They say necessity is the mother of invention. That rings true for Thomas Ong Wei Kheong, who co-founded artificial intelligence company Shuga after noticing the lack of offline data to determine the product preferences of consumers – an asset he believes is key to inferring purchase decisions.

“The realisation actually happened one evening, over some beers with a friend,” says the seasoned 37-year-old marketer. “At that moment, it was evident that the transaction data on a receipt seems like a possible holy grail to unlocking an ultra-granular segmentation that could increase conversion for businesses.”

That’s how the app Shuga, which helps businesses get customer insights and improve sales while customers enjoy shopping rewards, came to life. Taking after the company’s name, Shuga is fun and functional for both businesses and consumers. Ong, who is also the chief executive officer of Shuga, shares why data is important for his company and the future of retail.

Thomas Ong, chief executive of Shuga.
Thomas Ong, chief executive of Shuga.

What is the story behind the name Shuga?
Well, we came up with ten names that we think are relevant to our core mission and shared them on different group chats. Shuga was popular in all of the group chats, so we thought, maybe it’s catchy! Shuga is really an intended misspelling of the word “sugar”, which means sweet – like how sweet the feeling of getting rewards is. Today, there are still some people pronouncing it as Shu-ga, but it is actually intended to be pronounced as “sugar”.

What does data mean to your company?
Everything! Being a data company, we don’t just preach about how using data could help businesses to accurately predict what would give them the best possible outcome; we do that internally too. Every design change, new features and debates the teams have will have to be backed by data. We don’t practice going into a meeting and say “I feel that”. It’s always, “from our data, it’s proven that”. As time went by, it became a culture, and everyone started digging in to collate and correlate data to move things forward.

The Shuga dashboard for retailers.
The Shuga dashboard for retailers.

How do you see data transforming the future of shopping?
The possibilities are endless at this point in time, but what is evident to me is that data can help companies to predict and infer buying decisions. With more granularity of the data, we will be able to surpass prediction and implement prescriptive analytics for the companies where conversions will be at its fullest potential. These will only be sensible when we couple it with artificial intelligence (AI), as it has the ability to analyse and decide what’s best for a shopper and do that all over again. It can also learn from its own mistakes to improve its simulations. In the time to come, shoppers may soon get their shopping list created by AI while they are asleep, only needing to click ‘Buy’ on their phone to complete their purchase when they wake.

What can the retail industry expect from Shuga?
To start, we are already in talks with online merchants, media companies, shopping malls and even petroleum companies. Moving forward, we also hope to work with airlines and healthcare companies. We are inspired to expand beyond Singapore and into potential markets like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and Australia.