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Marc Lore leaves Walmart a little over four years after selling Jet.com for $3B

By Jonathan Shieber

Marc Lore, the executive vice president, president and CEO of U.S. e-commerce for Walmart, is stepping down a little over four years after selling his e-commerce company Jet.com to the country’s largest retailer for $3 billion.

Lore’s tenure at the company was a mixed bag. Walmart instituted several new technology initiatives under Lore’s tenure, but the Jet.com service was shuttered last May and other initiatives from Lore, like an option to have customers order items via text, was also a money-loser for the Bentonville, Arkansas-based company.

“After Mr. Lore retires on January 31, 2021, the U.S. business, including all the aspects of US retail eCommerce, will continue to report to John Furner, Executive Vice President, President and Chief Executive Officer, Walmart U.S., beginning on February 1, 2021,” Walmart said in a filing.

Walmart has continued to push ahead with a number of tech-related initiatives, including the launch of a new business that will focus on developing financial services.

That initiative is being undertaken through a strategic partnership with the fintech investment firm, Ribbit Capital and adds to a startup tech portfolio that also includes the incubator Store N⁰8, which launched in 2018.

“Reflecting on the past few years with so much pride – Walmart changed my life and the work we did together will keep changing the lives of customers for years to come. It has been an honor to be a part of the Walmart family and I look forward to providing advice and ideas in the future,” Lore said in a statement posted to Linkedin. “Looking forward, I’ll be taking some time off and plan to continue working with several startups. Excited to keep you all up to date on what’s next.”

Tresl’s Segments Analytics gives small online stores the same data analytics as large sellers

By Catherine Shu

Tresl’s flagship product, e-commerce intelligence platform Segment Analytics, is designed to give small brands on Shopify access to the same kind of analytics larger online retailers have. Founded by former LinkedIn data scientists, Tresl is currently exhibiting at CES’ Taiwan Tech Arena.

Segments Analytics analyzes a Shopify store’s data and then automatically sorts visitors into more 30 pre-built customer segments based on their browsing habits, spending and how likely they are to make repeat purchases.

This means that brands can identify specific groups of shoppers and use Segments Analytics’ suggestions for targeted campaigns without spending too much on data analytics, marketing or user acquisition. For example, one of the segments the platform identifies are people who have made one purchase already, but are unlikely to buy again unless they are see an ad or promotion soon. Segments Analytics can be used for advertising across multiple channels, including email, Facebook and Google.

Tresl claims that brands using Segments Analytics have increased their clickthrough rates on abandoned cart flows (or reminders sent to customers who have unpurchased items) by 30% and grown sales by 40% month-over-month within one month of implementing the platform.

Segments Analytics is currently available through the Shopify App Store, with subscriptions starting from $79 a month.

Poshmark is pushing into the public market at a high-end valuation as the resale market sizzles

By Connie Loizos

Poshmark, the nine-year-old, Redwood City Ca.-based online marketplace for second-hand clothing, beauty, and home decor products, is set to start trading as a public company on the Nasdaq tomorrow after pricing 6.6 million shares higher than originally planned, according to Bloomberg.

Per its report, the company, which originally planned to sell shares at between $35 and $39 million, saw enough demand to rationalize a $42-per-share price — one that values the company at $3.5 billion on a fully diluted basis.

Given investors’ feverish embrace of all kinds of newly public consumer brands, including Airbnb, DoorDash and, to a more moderate degree, Wish (trading currently where it opened when it hit the market in mid-December), most anticipate smooth sailing for the company as it makes the move from private to publicly traded company.

What it has going for it: More than 70 million Poshmark users having sold more than 130 million items through the platform since its inception, according to the company.

Its numbers are moving in the right direction. Poshmark makes money off commissions on peer-to-peer sales and on products that it sells sold via wholesale and the company turned profitable last year for the first time Specifically, according to its S-1, it produced net income of $21 million off revenue of $193 million during the nine months ended September 30, 2020, compared with a net loss of $34 million on revenue of $150 million during the same period in 2019.

Also, unlike many brick-and-mortar retail businesses to be hard hit by pandemic-related shutdowns  — J. Crew, Neiman Marcus, and Brooks Brothers are just a few in a line of companies that have declared bankruptcy — Poshmark only facilitates transactions between buyers and sellers so it doesn’t have the burden or expense of holding inventory.

More, resale platforms have the wind at their back right now. Shoppers are more interested than ever in sustainability, and buying someone else’s never- or lightly-used items is more environmentally friendly than supporting, say, a fast fashion brand. (Forever 21, the fast-fashion mall staple, filed for bankruptcy in 2019.)

What Poshmark is going up against: making public market investors understand how it differs from already publicly traded rivals like The RealReal, which went public in 2019 and whose current market cap is roughly $2.3 billion, as well as other newer entrants. For example, another company set to go public (unless it gets SPAC’d) is ThredUp, which filed a confidential registration statement with the SEC for an IPO last fall around the same time that Poshmark did this. Unlike The RealReal, which is focused exclusively on high-end luxury goods that it authenticates, Poshmark and ThredUp make accessible a wider range of more affordable items and compete more directly.

Further, while investors are excited about the many companies that are finally beginning to trade publicly, companies like Poshmark are competing for mindshare with other newer entrants.

Among these is the lending company Affirm. Its shares began trading earlier today.

Tokyo-based SODA, which runs Japan’s largest sneaker resell platform, lands $22 million led by SoftBank Ventures Asia

By Catherine Shu

Tokyo-based SODA, which runs sneaker reselling platform SNKRDUNK, has raised a $22 million Series B led by SoftBank Ventures Asia. Investors also included basepartners, Colopl Next, THE GUILD and other strategic partners. Part of the funding will be used to expand into other Asian countries. Most of SNKRDUNK’s transactions are within Japan now, but it plans to become a cross-border marketplace.

Along SODA’s $3 million Series A last year, this brings the startup’s total funding so far to $25 million.

While the COVID-19 pandemic was initially expected to put a damper on the sneaker resell market, C2C marketplaces have actually seen their business increase. For example, StockX, one of the biggest sneaker resell platforms in the world (which hit a valuation of $2.8 billion after its recent Series E), said May and June 2020 were its biggest months for sales ever.

SNKRDUNK’s sales also grew last year, and in December 2020, it recorded a 3,000% year-over-year increase in monthly gross merchandise value. Chief executive officer Yuta Uchiyama told TechCrunch this was because demand for sneakers remained high, while more people also started buying things online.

Launched in 2018, SNKRDUNK now has 2.5 million monthly users, which it says makes it the largest C2C sneaker marketplace in Japan. The Series B will allow it to speed up the pace of its international expansion, add more categories and expand its authentication facilities.

Like StockX and GOAT, SNKRDUNK’s user fees cover authentication holds before sneakers are sent to buyers. The company partners with FAKE BUSTERS, an authentication service based in Japan, to check sneakers before they are sent to buyers.

In addition to its marketplace, SNKRDUNK also runs a sneaker news site and an online community.

SODA plans to work with other companies in SoftBank Venture Asia’s portfolio that develop AI-based tech to help automate its operations, including logistics, payment, customer service and counterfeit inspection.

E-commerce optimization startup Tradeswell raises $15.5M

By Anthony Ha

After launching in October, Tradeswell is announcing today that it has raised $15.5 million in Series A funding.

Co-founder and CEO Paul Palmieri previously led digital ad company Millennial Media (now owned by TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon Media), and he said the e-commerce market today is similar to the online ad market when he was leading Millennial — ready for more optimization and automation.

Tradeswell focuses on six components of e-commerce businesses — marketing, retail, inventory, logistics, forecasting, lifetime value and financials — with the key goal of allowing those businesses to improve their net margins, rather than simply driving more clicks or purchases. The platform can fully automate some processes, such as buying online ads.

To illustrate what it can accomplish, Tradeswell pointed to the work it did with a personal care brand on Amazon Prime Day, with total sales doubling versus the previous Prime Day and profits increasing 67%.

The startup has now raised a total of $18.8 million. The Series A was led by SignalFire, which also led Tradeswell’s seed round, while Construct Capital, Allen & Company and The Emerson Group also participated.

“With the explosion of ecommerce over the past year, Tradeswell is perfectly positioned to help brands manage the complexity of online sales across an ever-increasing number of platforms and marketplaces,” said SignalFire founder and CEO Chris Farmer in a statement. “Paul and his team bring together a unique blend of experience in data, marketing and logistics to address the challenges of today and a rapidly evolving market in the years ahead with a central command center to optimize profitable growth.”

Palmieri said the new funding will allow Tradeswell to continue investing in the product, which will also mean building more integrations so that more types of data become “more liquid,” which in turn means that the platform can “make much more real-time decisions.”

When Tradeswell launched publicly last fall, it already had 100 customers, and Palmieri told me that number has subsequently grown past 150. Nor does he expect the consumer shift in e-commerce to disappear once the pandemic ends.

“Some of it probably goes back to the way it was, some of it stays online,” he said. “I do think it’s important to point out there’s something in the middle — that something is this notion of high convenience, that is semi-brick-and-mortar with [elements of e-commerce], whether that’s mobile ordering or something like an Instacart.”

Naturally, he sees Tradeswell as the key platform to help businesses navigate that shift.

 

App stores saw record 218 billion downloads in 2020, consumer spend of $143 billion

By Sarah Perez

Mobile adoption continued to grow in 2020, in part due to the market forces of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to App Annie’s annual “State of Mobile” industry report, mobile app downloads grew by 7% year-over-year to a record 218 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, consumer spending grew by 20% to also hit a new milestone of $143 billion, led by markets that included China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

Consumers also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone, the report found.

In another shift, app usage in the U.S. surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours on their mobile device.

The increase in time spent is a trend that’s not unique to the U.S., but can be seen across several other countries, including both developing mobile markets like Indonesia, Brazil and India, as well as places like China, Japan, South Korea, the U.K., Germany, France and others.

The trend isn’t isolated to any one demographic, either, but is seen across age groups. In the U.S., for example, Gen Z, millennials and Gen X/Baby Boomers spent 16%, 18% and 30% more time in their most-used apps year-over-year, respectively. However, what those favorite apps looked like was very different.

For Gen Z in the U.S., top apps on Android phones included Snapchat, Twitch, TikTok, Roblox and Spotify.

Millennials favored Discord, LinkedIn, PayPal, Pandora and Amazon Music.

And Gen X/Baby Boomers used Ring, Nextdoor, The Weather Channel, Kindle and ColorNote Notepad Notes.

The pandemic didn’t necessarily change how consumers were using apps in 2020, but rather accelerated mobile adoption by two to three years’ time, the report found.

Investors were also eager to fuel mobile businesses as a result, pouring $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year. According to Crunchbase data, 26% of total global funding dollars in 2020 went to businesses that included a mobile solution.

From 2016 to 2020, global funding to mobile technology companies more than doubled compared with the previous five years, and was led by financial services, transportation, commerce and shopping.

Mobile gaming adoption also continued to grow in 2020. Casual games dominated the market in terms of downloads (78%), but Core games accounted for 66% of games’ consumer spend and 55% of the time spent.

With many stuck inside due to COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines, mobile games that offered social interaction boomed. Among Us, for example, became a breakout game in several markets in 2020, including the U.S.

Other app categories saw sizable increases over the past year, as well.

Time spent in Finance apps in 2020 was up 45% worldwide, outside of China, and participation in the stock market grew 55% on mobile, thanks to apps like Robinhood in the U.S. and others worldwide, that democratized investing and trading.

TikTok had a big year, too.

The app saw incredible 325% year-over-year growth, despite a ban in India, and ranked in the top five apps by time spent. The average monthly time spent per user also grew faster than nearly every other app analyzed, including 65% in the U.S. and 80% in the U.K., surpassing Facebook. TikTok is now on track to hit 1.2 billion active users in 2021, App Annie forecasts.

Other video services boomed in 2020, thanks to a combination of new market entrants and a lot of time spent at home. Consumers spent 40% more hours streaming on mobile devices, with time spent in streaming apps peaking in the second quarter in the west as the pandemic forced people inside.

YouTube benefitted from this trend, as it became the No. 1 streaming app by time spent among all markets analyzed except China. The time spent in YouTube is up to 6x that of the next closet app at 38 hours per month.

Of course, another big story for 2020 was the rise of e-commerce amid the pandemic. This made the past year the biggest ever for mobile shopping, with an over 30% increase in time spent in Shopping apps, as measured on Android phones outside of China.

Mobile commerce, however, looked less traditional in 2020.

Social shopping was a big trend, with global downloads of Pinterest and Instagram growing 50% and 20% year-over-year, respectively.

Livestreaming shopping grew, too, led by China. Downloads of live shopping TaoBao Live in China, Grip in South Korea and NTWRK in the U.S. grew 100%, 245% and 85%, respectively. NTWRK doubled in size last year, and now others are entering the space as well — including TikTok, to some extent.

The pandemic also prompted increased usage of mobile ordering apps. In the U.S., Argentina, the U.K., Indonesia and Russia, the app grew by 60%, 65%, 70%, 80% and 105%, respectively, in Q4.

Business apps, like Zoom and Google Meet among others, grew 275% in Q4, for example, as remote work and sometimes school, continued.

The analysis additionally included lists of the top apps by downloads, spending and monthly active users (MAUs).

Although TikTok had been topping year-end charts, Facebook continued to beat it in terms of MAUs. Facebook-owned apps controlled the top charts by MAUs, with Facebook at No. 1 followed by WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram.

TikTok, however, had more downloads than Facebook and ranked No. 2 by consumer spending, behind Tinder.

The full report is available only as an online interactive experience this year, not a download. The report largely uses data from both the iOS App Store and Google Play, except where otherwise noted.

E-commerce infrastructure startup Nacelle closes $18M Series A

By Lucas Matney

Consumer online shopping habits have led to a windfall of revenues for these web storefronts, but COVID-era trends have also breathed new life into the market for developer tools that help e-commerce sites operate more smoothly for shoppers.

LA-based Nacelle is one of many e-commerce infrastructure startups to earn attention from investors amid COVID.

The web services company helps streamline the backends of e-commerce websites with a so-called “headless” platform that shifts how the front-end of websites interact with content in the backend. The startup claims its tech can boost performance, promote better scalability, cut down on hosting costs and offer developers a more streamlined experience.

Nacelle has closed an $18 million Series A led by Inovia with participation from Accomplice, Index Ventures, High Alpha, Silas Capital and Lerer Hippeau. The company just closed a $4.8 million seed round in mid-2020, the speedy pace of their Series A’s close seems to speak to the investor enthusiasm that has deepened around companies operating in the e-commerce world.

“It’s not secret that commerce has done well during COVID,” CEO Brian Anderson tells TechCrunch. “Not only did we get this subtle structural change with COVID that I believe is long-lasting, but merchants have been focusing more on performance.”

One of the startup’s central points of focus has been ensuring that they can bring customers onboard its platform without causing undue headaches. It can be “very painful to migrate data” with other services, Anderson says. The company’s service is “anti rip-and-replace,” meaning potential customer can integrate “without having to be rebuild their stores.”

The firm’s customer base is largely made up of small to medium-sized e-commerce sites. Nacelle works closely with agencies for customer referrals, also tapping on Anderson’s past contacts from his days running a Shopify Plus agency.

This past August, data from IBM’s U.S. Retail Index suggested that pandemic trends had accelerated the consumer shift from primarily visiting to physical stores to shopping on e-commerce storefronts by roughly five years.

MadeiraMadeira, Brazil’s answer to Wayfair and Ikea, is now worth over $1 billion

By Jonathan Shieber

MadeiraMadeira, the Brazilian answer to Wayfair or Ikea, is now worth $1 billion after raising $190 million in late stage financing from investors led by SoftBank’s Latin American investment fund and the Brazilian public and private investment firm, Dynamo.

An online marketplace specializing in home products, MadeiraMadeira offers roughly 300,000 products so customers can build furnish, renovate and decorate their homes.

Founded in 2009 by Daniel Scandian, Marcelo Scandian and Robson Privado, the company has seen huge tailwinds come from the shift to online shopping in Brazil as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

With stores closed, online shopping in Brazil surged. As Daniel Scandian noted, before the pandemic ecommerce penetration in Brazil was at roughly 7%, that number ballooned to 17% at the height of the pandemic in Brazil and has now stabilized at around 10%.

Combining third party sales with private labeled goods and its own shipping and logistics facilities has meant that MadeiraMadeira can take the best practices from several online retailers and home furnishing stores, Scandian said.

There are more than 10,000 sellers on the MadeiraMadeira platform and roughly 2.5 million stock keeping units. In recent years the company has added showrooms to its mix of retail facilities, where customers can check out merchandise, but complete their orders online.

“That’s the way we can tackle the offline market with a digital mindset,” Scandian said. 

Money from the most recent financing will be used to invest in expanding its logistics capabilities with the addition of new warehouse facilities to expand on its existing ten locations. The company also intends to add same day delivery and the expansion of its private label services.

The new capital, likely the last round before a potential public offering, included previous investors like Flybridge and Monashees along with public-focused investment firms Velt, Brasil Capital and Lakewood.

Early investors like Monashees, Kaszek, Fundo Avila, Endeavour Catalyst and angel backers like Niraj Shah, the founder of Wayfair, and Build.com founder Christian Friedland were instrumental to MadeiraMadeira’s early success, Scandian said.

Based in Curitiba, MadeiraMadeira has over 1300 employees, with the majority of them focused on technology, logistics and product development.

“With this new investment, we are raising our commitment to MadeiraMadeira’s long-term value creation vision as the company consolidates its position as the leader in Latin America’s home goods market. Since our initial investment, MadeiraMadeira’s management team has delivered everything they’ve promised, and our faith in them continues to grow,” said Paulo Passoni, Managing Investment Partner to SoftBank Latin America fund.

Perfect Corp., developer of virtual beauty app YouCam Makeup, closes $50 million Series C led by Goldman Sachs

By Catherine Shu

Spending on cosmetics has usually weathered economic crises, but that changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, with stay-at-home orders and masks tempering people’s desire to wear makeup. This forced retailers to accelerate their online strategies, finding new ways to capture shoppers’ attention without in-store samples. Virtual beauty try-on technology, like the ones developed by Perfect Corp., will play an important role in this shift to digital. The company announced today it has raised a Series C of $50 million led by Goldman Sachs.

Based in New Taipei City, Taiwan and led by chief executive officer Alice Chang, Perfect Corp . is probably best known to consumers for its beauty app, YouCam Makeup, which lets users “try on” virtual samples from over 300 global brands, including ones owned by beauty conglomerates Estée Lauder and L’Oreal Paris. Launched in 2014, YouCam Makeup now counts about 40 million to 50 million monthly active users and has expanded from augmented selfies to include live-streams and tutorials from beauty influencers, social features and a “Skin Score” feature.

Perfect Corp.’s technology is also used for in-store retail, e-commerce and social media tools. For example, its tech helped create a new augmented reality-powered try-on tool for Google Search that launched last month (its was previously used for YouTube’s makeup try-on features, too). It also worked with Snap to integrate beauty try-on features into Snapchat.

The new funding brings Perfect Corp.’s total raised so far to about $130 million. Its last funding announcement was a $25 million Series A in October 2017. The Series C will be used to further develop Perfect Corp.’s technology for multichannel retail and open more international offices (it currently has operations in 11 cities).

In a press statement, Xinyi Feng, a managing director in the Merchant Banking Division of Goldman Sachs, said, “The integration of technology through artificial intelligence, machine learning and augmented reality into the beauty industry will unlock significant advantages, including amplification of digital sales channels, increased personalization and deeper consumer engagement.”

Perfect Corp. will also be part of the investment firm’s Launch with GS, a $500 million investment initiative to support a diverse, international cohort of entrepreneurs.

The company uses facial landmark tracking technology, which creates a “3D mesh” around users’ faces so beauty try-ons look more realistic. In terms of privacy, chief strategy officer Louis Chen told TechCrunch that no user data, including photos or biometrics, is saved, and all computing is done within the user’s phone.

The vast majority, or about 90%, of Perfect Corp’s clients are cosmetic or skincare brands, while the rest sell haircare, hair coloring or accessories. Chen said the goal of Perfect Corp’s technology is to replicate the experience of trying on makeup in a store as closely as possible. When a user virtually applies lipstick, for example, they don’t just see the color on their lips, but also the texture, like matte, glossy, shimmer or metallic (the company currently offers seven lipstick textures, which Chen said is the most in the industry).

While sales of makeup have dropped during the pandemic, interest in skincare has grown. A September 2020 report from the NPD Group found that American women are buying more types of products than they were last year, and using them more frequently. To help brands capitalize on that, Perfect Corp. recently launched a tool called AI Skin Diagnostic solution, which it says verified by dermatologists and grades facial skin on eight metrics, including moisture, wrinkles and dark circles. The tool can be used on skincare brand websites to recommend products to shoppers.

Before COVID-19, YouCam Makeup and the company’s augmented reality try-on tools appealed to Gen Z shoppers who are comfortable with selfies and filters. But the pandemic is forcing makeup and skincare brands to speed up their adaption of technology for all shoppers. As a McKinsey report about the impact of COVID-19 on the beauty industry put it, “the use of artificial intelligence for testing, discovery and customization will need to accelerate as concerns about safety and hygiene fundamentally disrupt product testing and in-person consultations.”

“Depending on the geography of the brand, in the past probably only 10%, no more than 20%, of their business was direct to consumer, while 80% was going through retail distribution and distribution partnerships, the network they already built over the year,” said Chen. But beauty companies are investing more heavily in e-commerce now, and Perfect Corp. capitalizes on that by offering its technology as a SaaS.

Another way Perfect Corp. has adapted its offerings during the pandemic is offering remote consultation tools, which means beauty and skincare consultants who usually work in salons or a store like Ulta can demonstrate makeup looks on clients through video calls instead.

“Every single thing we are building now is not a siloed technology,” said Chang. “It’s now always combined with video-streaming.” In addition to one-on-one chats, this also means live-cast shopping, which is extremely popular in China and gradually taking off in other countries, and the kind of AR technology that was integrated into YouTube and Snapchat.

Indian B2B e-commerce startup Udaan raises $280 million

By Manish Singh

Business-to-business marketplace Udaan has raised $280 million from new and existing investors as the Indian startup builds a war-chest to accelerate its growth and fend off rivals.

The new capital is not part of a new financing round but is an extension of its Series D. The Bangalore-based startup, which secured $585 million prior to the new capital as part of its Series D round and has overall raised $1.15 billion to date, is now valued at more than $3.1 billion, a source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

Octahedron Capital and Moonstone Capital are financing the fresh capital, with participation from existing investors Lightspeed Venture Partners, partners of DST Global, GGV Capital, Altimeter Capital, and Tencent.

Much of the business-to-business market in India remains unorganized. This means that merchants in the nation today have to travel to other cities — where all the major dealers operate — to stock up their inventory. But these merchants don’t have much leverage to negotiate, so they struggle to find best-value for money and access to a wider selection of catalog.

Udaan, co-founded by three former Flipkart executives, is solving this problem by connecting small retailers with wholesalers and traders. The startup today serves over 3 million retailers and small and medium-sized businesses and it has signed up thousands of brands including Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Boat Lifestyle, Micromax, HP, LG, ITC, HUL, and P&G.

Amod Malviya, co-founder of Udaan, said in a statement that the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted New Delhi to order a nationwide lockdown and put restrictions on e-commerce firms, underscored the significance of small businesses and mom-and-pop shops (popularly known as kiranas) in the country.

“Udaan is at the forefront of this uniquely Indian e-commerce opportunity, emerging in the last 4 years as one of the largest e-commerce platforms in India, while taking an India-first mobile-first approach to e-commerce. This financing enables us to further our journey of taking e-commerce to the depth and breadth of the country, with Udaan’s unique low-cost model for core middle India,” he said.

Other than the inventory problem, Udaan also helps merchants secure working capital. Small businesses, especially mom-and-pop shops, rely on money they secure from selling their existing inventory for buying their next batch. Since Udaan is able to see the engagement of different merchants on the platform, it is able to determine who all it could safely grant working capital ahead on time.

These decades-old challenges also present a massive potential reward to firms. “The unaddressed SME credit demand in India is ~US$300-$350 billion, with more than 90% of current demand being met by banks. A typical digital SME lender focusses on Rs1-5 million ($13,575 to $67,875) ticket size with no collateral, average tenure ~12-18 months, and with some ecosystem anchor,” analysts at Bank of America wrote in a recent equity research report, obtained by TechCrunch.

“While growth potential in theory is high, despite much higher yields, we don’t find their economics to be much superior to banks even in a steady state. Overall, steady state ROE (return on equity) for an average digital SME lender is unlikely to be much more than 18% levels — not meaningfully higher than a big private bank,” they wrote.

Udaan said it will deploy the fresh capital in further creation of the market, and expanding the selection of products and categories it offers. Additionally, the four-year-old startup said it will expand its financing capabilities for small businesses and extend its supply chain network.

The fresh fundraise “reflects the long-term truly transformative and fundamental value creation potential that Udaan platform offers for the lives and businesses of Indian MSMEs, who are major job creators and form the backbone of our economy and the society,” said Malviya. “Participation of existing and new investors in this financing highlights the increasing recognition of capital markets of this unique nature of the Indian market, and the opportunity it offers.

In the past two years, scores of startups and giants such as Reliance, and Amazon have started to explore the business-to-business market in India, which is currently dominated by Udaan.

For instance, India’s largest retail chain Reliance Retail, which serves more than 3.5 million customers each week through its nearly 10,000 physical stores in more than 6,500 cities and towns in the country, entered the e-commerce space with JioMart in late 2019 through a joint venture with sister subsidiary telecom giant Jio Platforms. By mid last year, JioMart had established presence in over 200 Indian cities and towns — though currently its reach within those cities and customer service leave a lot to be desired.

Reliance Retail also maintains a partnership with Facebook for WhatsApp integrationFacebook, which invested $5.7 billion in Jio Platforms earlier this year, has said that it will explore various ways to work with Reliance to digitize the nation’s mom and pop stores, as well as other small- and medium-sized businesses.

For JioMart, Reliance Retail is working with retail shops, giving them a digital point-of-sale machine to make it easier for them to accept money electronically. It is also allowing these shops to buy their inventory from Reliance Retail, and then using their physical presence as delivery points. The platform is currently largely focused on grocery delivery, however. In a recent report to clients, Goldman Sachs analysts estimated that Reliance could become the largest player in online grocery within three years.

Further reading:

Jack Ma’s absence from public eye sparks Twitter discussions

By Rita Liao

The world’s attention is on Jack Ma’s whereabouts after reports noted the billionaire founder of Alibaba and Ant Group had been absent from public view since late October.

On October 24, Ma delivered fiery remarks against China’s financial system to an audience of high-ranking officials. Days later the Chinese authorities abruptly halted Ant’s initial public offering, an act believed to be linked to Ma’s controversial speech. The Chinese government subsequently told the fintech behemoth, which had thrived in a relatively lax regulatory environment, to “rectify” its business according to the law. The future of Ant hangs in the air.

Concurrently, Chinese regulators have launched an unprecedented probe into Alibaba over suspected monopolistic behavior.

Ma is known for his outspoken personality and love for the limelight, so it’s no surprise that his missing from recent events, including the final episode of an African TV program he created, is sparking widespread chatter. From economists to journalists, the Twitter world has tuned in:

Chinese billionaire Jack Ma is missing after criticizing the Chinese government. Wow. This would be like the U.S. government kidnapping Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg to teach them a lesson. https://t.co/AREly0Ba7M

— Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) January 4, 2021

Billionaire Jack Ma (@JackMa) suspected to be missing shortly after criticizing China’s government.

Chinese authorities launched an anti-monopoly investigation into Alibaba in late December and told Ant Group to restructure its operations.

Report: https://t.co/I5riZJOJ28 pic.twitter.com/5rHS8h3IgF

— Anonymous 👥 (@YourAnonCentral) January 4, 2021

Where is Chinese billionaire Jack Ma? He has not made any public appearance in 2 months. He criticised Chinese regulators and state-owned banks in Shanghai in October. https://t.co/SyIZZOYMqn

— Smita Prakash (@smitaprakash) January 4, 2021

“Regarding the Africa’s Business Heroes competition, Mr. Ma had to miss the finale due to a schedule conflict,” an Alibaba spokesperson said.

While China’s Twitter equivalent Weibo has not blocked searching for “Jack Ma missing,” the posts it surfaced barely have any likes or reposts. Elsewhere on the Chinese internet, users are speculating inside WeChat groups that Ma was either “made vanished” or has fled the country.

It’s worth noting that Ma has long stepped back from day-to-day operations at Alibaba. In September 2019, he officially handed his helm as the company’s chairman to his successor Daniel Zhang. That said, the billionaire still holds considerable sway over the e-commerce business as a lifetime partner at the so-called Alibaba Partnership, a group comprising senior management ranks who can nominate a majority of the directors to the board.

It’s not unusual to see Chinese tycoons choosing to lie low in tough times. After Richard Liu was accused of rape, the flamboyant founder of JD.com, Alibaba’s archrival, skipped a key political event in China last year. Tencent founder Pony Ma, who already keeps a low profile, has been absent from the public eye for about a year, though the cause is his chronic “back problems,” a source told TechCrunch, and the tech boss has made virtual appearances at events by sending voice messages in the past year.

China’s e-commerce titan Alibaba hit with antitrust probe

By Rita Liao

China’s top market watchdog has begun a probe into Alibaba over alleged anti-competition practices at the e-commerce firm, the latest of Beijing’s efforts to curb the country’s ever-expanding internet titans.

The State Administration for Market Regulation said Thursday in a brief statement that it is investigating Alibaba over its “choosing one from two” policy, in which merchants are forced to sell exclusively on Alibaba and skip rivaling platforms JD.com and Pinduoduo.

“Today, Alibaba Group has received notification from the State Administration for Market Regulation that an investigation has been initiated into the Company pursuant to the Anti-Monopoly Law. Alibaba will actively cooperate with the regulators on the investigation,” Alibaba said in a statement.

“Company business operations remain normal.”

Alibaba’s shares tumbled more than 8% on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange on Thursday.

On the same day, state-backed Xinhua reported that Ant Group, Alibaba’s affiliate, has been summoned by a group of finance authorities to discuss its “compliance” work. Ant, which operates the popular Alipay e-wallet and works as an intermediary for financial services and customers, has pledged to take measures to curb debt risks after Chinese authorities abruptly called off its colossal initial public offering last month.

“Today, Ant Group received a meeting notice from regulators. We will seriously study and strictly comply with all regulatory requirements and commit full efforts to fulfill all related work,” the firm said in a statement.

Some argue that the clampdown is a long time coming for China’s internet giants, which have been allowed to grow under a relatively loose regulatory environment. The Alibaba case is a “significant step” in China’s anti-monopolistic regulations on the internet industry, said an opinion piece published in the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party. Assuaging worries that stricter regulations could deal a blow to the industry, the piece said the probe into Alibaba “is beneficial to restoring orders and promoting long-term, healthy development of the platform economy.”

Chicago’s ShoppingGives gets served a seed round from Serena Williams’ VC firm, Serena Ventures

By Jonathan Shieber

ShoppingGives, a Chicago-based startup pitching retailers a service that can integrate non-profit donations into their sales and shopping platforms, has raised an undisclosed amount from Serena Williams’ venture capital firm, Serena Ventures, the company said. 

ShoppingGives allows retailers to offer a donation on behalf of a shopper to any of over 1.5 million nonprofits that are on its list — all without leaving the retailer’s website.

The company said that retailers can use the donation data to create a more authentic and personalized engagement with customers based on the causes they support.

“ShoppingGives aligned with my values of investing in businesses and entrepreneurs who are making a difference. By creating opportunities to grow social impact with a seamless approach for retailers and brands, ShoppingGives is charting the course for all businesses to stand forth as agents of change in our society,”said Williams in a statement. 

The company’s technology helps retailers manage and report donations and is already recommended by Shopify as one of a collection of apps for merchants setting up their online stores. Its service integrates with ecommerce content management systems and is already a partner for the PayPal giving fund.

ShoppingGives has already donated to over 6,000 non-profit organizations selected by customers, according to the company. Brands like Kenneth Cole, Natori, White + Warren, Margaux, Solstice Sunglasses, Tomboyx, Fresh Clean Tees, Blind Barber, Huron, and Neighborhood Goods use the service already. 

Image Credit: ShoppingGives

Wish wants to be the Amazon for the rest of us; will retail investors buy it?

By Connie Loizos

Most people know Wish as a site that sells throwaway doodads from China, but in anticipation of its impending IPO, the ten-year-old, San Francisco-based company has begun portraying itself as a kind of Amazon for the rest of us.

Judging by what we’ve read and heard from sources in recent months, Wish wants to paint itself as a patriotic alternative to the trillion-dollar juggernaut and is positioning itself as the better option for the estimated 60% of families in the U.S. without enough liquid savings to get through three months of expenses. Such cost-conscious customers can’t afford Amazon Prime and are — at least in Wish’s telling — willing to wait an extra week or three for a product if it means paying considerably less for it.

We’ll know soon enough if public market investors buy the pitch. Wish registered plans this morning to sell 46 million shares at between $22 an $24 per share in an offering that’s expected to take place next week. The current range would value Wish at up to $14 billion, up from the 11.2 billion valuation it was last assigned by its private investors.

Wish has a lot of reason to feel optimistic about its story heading into the offering. For one thing, people are clearly still discovering its business. According to Sensor Tower, Wish’s mobile shopping app was downloaded 9 million times last month, compared with the 6 million downloads that Amazon’s shopping app saw and the 2 million downloads seen by Walmart. Across all of 2019, across all types of apps, Wish was the 16th most downloaded app.

There’s a lot to discover once potential customers do check out Wish. According to the company’s prospectus, its more than 100 million monthly active users across more than 100 countries are now shopping from 500,000 merchants that are selling approximately 150 million items on the platform.

While many of these are the nonessential tchotchkes that Wish has long been identified with, from tattoo kits to pet nail trimmers, a growing percentage of the mix also includes essential goods like paper towels and disinfectants — the kinds of items that keep customers coming back in reliable fashion.

It’s a bit of an evolution for the company, whose early focus was almost exclusively on cheap items that didn’t weigh much, which was the company was able to sell for a few reasons. First, Wish has always worked with unbranded merchants, mostly in China, that don’t have marketing costs built into the products and like the platform because it enables them to reach new customers for free without cannibalizing their existing market. The value proposition for the consumer has meanwhile been really cheap stuff when cheap stuff — like fishing bait, or a $5 shower curtain — will suffice.

But Wish — which takes 15% of each transaction —  had also been relying heavily on a partnership with the USPS and China called ePacket that long enabled it to send items overseas to the U.S. for $1 to $2 as long as the items weren’t unusually large or heavy. Yet that changed on July 1, with a new USPS pricing structure that now requires companies like Wish to pay more to ship their goods or else move to more costly commercial networks.

Unsurprisingly, Wish had back-up plans. One of these has involved packing together multiple orders in China based on customers’ locations, then sending them in bulk to the U.S. to a designated location they can be picked up.

Relatedly, dating back to early 2019, Wish began partnering with what are now tens of thousands of small businesses in the U.S. and Europe that stock its products, trading their storage space for access to Wish’s customers along with a small financial bonus for every in-store pickup. (Wish will pay store owners even more if they can deliver orders directly to customers’ homes.) As Forbes described these partnerships, they provided Wish with an “inexpensive distribution network practically overnight.”

It happens to fit neatly into a larger anti-Amazon narrative wherein the Goliath, unable to disrupt convenience stores, is now trying to supplant them with its own branded convenience shops, while Wish may be helping them prosper.

It is also a very asset-lite model compared with Amazon.

Of course, none of these developments completely or even mostly address the challenges that unprofitable Wish is still facing, beginning with its scale, which remains tiny compared with the towering giants against which it is competing and Amazon in particular, whose growth has exploded in 2020.

While the company is showing moderate revenue growth, its filings also show steady losses owing in part to its marketing spend. (In 2019, Wish reported revenue of $1.9 billion, up 10% year over year, but it saw a net loss of $136 million.)

The company, which has been making inroads into new geographies around the world, is also still heavily dependent on China-based merchants, even while it has reportedly begun partnering increasingly with more U.S.- and Europe-based retailers, including those with overstocked or returned items that big retailers are looking to offload, along with those looking to sell refurbished electronics.

“We’d love to diversify,” Szulczewski told Forbes this summer.

Wish has always been plagued by quality control issues, too, which it has yet to fully resolve. In fact, there are YouTube channels — some very funny —  focused entirely around what Wish products look in person versus how they are presented to shoppers online. (See below.)

Largely, it’s a cultural issue. For example, at a 2016 event hosted by this editor, cofounder and CEO Peter Szulczewski talked about having to educate Chinese merchants, who aren’t accustomed to thinking about the lifetime value of customers.

“It’s true that consumer expectations in China are very different,” Szulczewski explained at the time. “Like, if you order a red sweater and you get a blue one, [shoppers are] like, ‘Eh, next time.’ So we have a lot of merchants that have only sold to Chinese consumers and we have to educate them that it’s not okay to ship a blue sweater because you don’t have any red sweaters in stock.”

Wish has been working to close the gap, as well as to tackle outright fraud on the platform. Just one of many moves has involved hiring a former community manager at Facebook as its own director of community engagement, a task that reportedly involves organizing Wish users to weed out bad apples. But Wish has surely lost plenty of shoppers burned by their experience along the way.

Whether it is doing enough is something that ultimately the market will decide along with consumers. In the meantime, plenty of private market investors will be watching and waiting. That’s true of the venture capitalists that have provided the company with $2.1 billion in funding over the years, including Formation 8, Third Point Ventures, GGV Capital, Raptor Group, Legend Capital, IDG Capital, DST Global, 8VC, and Vika Ventures.

Other marketplace experts are also eager to see how this one plays out.

For her part, Anna Palmer of Boston-based Flybridge Capital Partners — who does not have a stake in Wish but who is focused very much on so-called commerce 3.0 — thinks that Wish “serves a different use case and a different customer need” than the Amazon shopper.

“If you look at the strong retail performance of the off-price and discount market —  think of retailers like Dollar General and Dollar Tree — it bodes well for the continued growth of Wish, especially since the discount market has been a tough one to bring online because of the additional logistics costs involved.”

Adds Patterson, “Amazon has dominated on convenience and inventory. Wish has really done a great job of carving out low-cost discovery and competing on price in a way that Amazon can’t get there . . . I’m bullish that Wish has plenty of breathing room to continue to expand.”

E-commerce fulfillment platform Shippit raises $22.2 million led by Tiger Global

By Catherine Shu

Shippit, a Sydney, Australia-based e-commerce logistics platform, will expand in Southeast Asia after closing a $30 million AUD (about $22.2 million USD) Series B led by Tiger Global, with participation from Jason Lenga. Founded in 2014, Shippit’s technology automates tasks related to order fulfillment, including finding the best carrier for an order, tracking packages and handling returns.

The company’s Series B, which brings its total raised since 2017 to $41 million AUD, will be used to expand in Southeast Asia and double its total team by hiring 100 new people, including 50 software developers.

Shippit says it currently handles five million deliveries a month in Australia from thousands of retailers, including Sephora, Target, Big W and Temple & Webster. The company launched in Singapore in May, followed by Malaysia in August.

“Southeast Asia is predicted to be the world’s largest e-commerce market in the next five years, and the addressable market for us in Southeast Asia alone is already five times the size of Australia and twice the size of the U.S.,” co-founder and co-chief executive officer William On told TechCrunch.

Shippit is considering expansion into the Philippines and Indonesia, too, and expects its Southeast Asian business to grow 100% year-over-year for the next three years at minimum.

Shippit’s Australian operations have also seen a threefold incraese in delivery volumes over the past twelve months, On added.

The increase in online sales combined with instability in the supply and logistics chain during COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of software like Shippit. E-commerce in the Asia-Pacific was already growing quickly before the pandemic hit, with Forrester forecasting online retail sales in the region to grow from $1.5 trillion in 2019 to $2.5 trillion in 2024, at a compound annual growth rate of 11.3%.

Other startups in the same space include ShipStation, EasyShip and Shippo. Shippit’s competitive strategy is to make online fulfillment as simple as possible for merchants, On said, with features like allowing the integration of online shopping carts with its allocation engine, which automatically picks the best carrier option for an order.

3 ways the pandemic is transforming tech spending

By Walter Thompson
Eric Tan Contributor
Eric Tan is Senior Vice President of IT and Business Services Coupa, a leader in business spend management and a former Battery portfolio company.
Scott Goering Contributor
Scott Goering is VP of Business Development at Battery Ventures .

Ever since the pandemic hit the U.S. in full force last March, the B2B tech community keeps asking the same questions: Are businesses spending more on technology? What’s the money getting spent on? Is the sales cycle faster? What trends will likely carry into 2021?

Recently we decided to join forces to answer these questions. We analyzed data from the just-released Q4 2020 Outlook of the Coupa Business Spend Index (BSI), a leading indicator of economic growth, in light of hundreds of conversations we have had with business-tech buyers this year.

A former Battery Ventures portfolio company, Coupa* is a business spend-management company that has cumulatively processed more than $2 trillion in business spending. This perspective gives Coupa unique, real-time insights into tech spending trends across multiple industries.

Tech spending is continuing despite the economic recession — which helps explain why many startups are raising large rounds and even tapping public markets for capital.

Broadly speaking, tech spending is continuing despite the economic recession — which helps explain why many tech startups are raising large financing rounds and even tapping the public markets for capital. Here are our three specific takeaways on current tech spending:

Spending is shifting away from remote collaboration to SaaS and cloud computing

Tech spending ranks among the hottest boardroom topics today. Decisions that used to be confined to the CIO’s organization are now operationally and strategically critical to the CEO. Multiple reasons drive this shift, but the pandemic has forced businesses to operate and engage with customers differently, almost overnight. Boards recognize that companies must change their business models and operations if they don’t want to become obsolete. The question on everyone’s mind is no longer “what are our technology investments?” but rather, “how fast can they happen?”

Spending on WFH/remote collaboration tools has largely run its course in the first wave of adaptation forced by the pandemic. Now we’re seeing a second wave of tech spending, in which enterprises adopt technology to make operations easier and simply keep their doors open.

SaaS solutions are replacing unsustainable manual processes. Consider Rhode Island’s decision to shift from in-person citizen surveying to using SurveyMonkey. Many companies are shifting their vendor payments to digital payments, ditching paper checks entirely. Utility provider PG&E is accelerating its digital transformation roadmap from five years to two years.

The second wave of adaptation has also pushed many companies to embrace the cloud, as this chart makes clear:

Similarly, the difficulty of maintaining a traditional data center during a pandemic has pushed many companies to finally shift to cloud infrastructure under COVID. As they migrate that workload to the cloud, the pie is still expanding. Goldman Sachs and Battery Ventures data suggest $600 billion worth of disruption potential will bleed into 2021 and beyond.

In addition to SaaS and cloud adoption, companies across sectors are spending on technologies to reduce their reliance on humans. For instance, Tyson Foods is investing in and accelerating the adoption of automated technology to process poultry, pork and beef.

All companies are digital product companies now

Mention “digital product company” in the past, and we’d all think of Netflix. But now every company has to reimagine itself as offering digital products in a meaningful way.

Walmart+ takes on Prime by dropping $35 minimum on Walmart.com purchases

By Sarah Perez

Walmart+, the retailer’s lower cost alternative to Amazon Prime offering same-day delivery of groceries and other items, is making its service more appealing with today’s launch of a new perk. The company says that starting on Friday, December 4, it will remove the $35 shipping minimum on orders from Walmart.com for its members. However, this doesn’t apply to the same-day orders of groceries or other items fulfilled by Walmart stores, but rather online shopping where orders are placed through Walmart’s traditional e-commerce channels.

That means there’s no longer a minimum order requirement on the next-day and two-day shipping that’s offered on items shipped from Walmart.com, no matter the basket total. The change, arriving only a couple of months after Walmart+’s launch, positions the new program as more of a true alternative to Amazon Prime, as Prime’s biggest perk has always been its free fast shipping service that encourages consumers to shop online without worrying about minimum order sizes.

Meanwhile, Walmart+’s biggest perk until now had been its same-day delivery service, with a particular focus on groceries — similar to Instacart or Amazon Fresh. The service didn’t charge fees on same-day grocery if the orders were at least $35, and this aspect continues today.

The Walmart+ program itself grew out of Walmart’s Delivery Unlimited, an earlier version of the service that had also involved having Walmart store staff pick orders which are handed off to delivery partners. In the past, those partners have included Postmates (now acquired by Uber), DoorDash, Roadie, and Point Pickup, among others. More recently, Walmart acquired last-mile delivery operation JoyRun, to bring more of its delivery logistics business in-house. 

Unlike some grocery delivery services, Walmart’s advantage in same-day is that it could also fulfill orders of other everyday items from its store shelves, not just food and household goods. When Walmart+ launched in mid-September, it promised same-day delivery of over 160,000 items.

The program also includes a small handful of other perks like fuel discounts at nearly 2,000 Walmart, Murphy USA and Murphy Express stations and access to Scan & Go to skip the checkout lines when shopping in-store.

Today, Walmart said it’s also expanding the fuel savings to over 500 Sam’s Club gas stations, too.

While Amazon Prime has expanded over the years to include all sorts of benefits, like free music and streaming video, e-books, audiobooks, gaming perks, and more, Walmart+ so far remains focused on its core features — like shipping benefits and cost savings. And coming in at $98 per year (or $12.95/mo), it’s cheaper than Prime’s $119 per year membership, which could appeal to consumers only interested in free delivery.

Walmart, like many large retailers, has benefitted by the acceleration of e-commerce driven by the pandemic. The company, in its third quarter earnings, reported U.S. e-commerce sales were up by 79% in the quarter, with earnings of $1.34 a share on revenue that was up 5.2% year-over-year to $134.7 billion.

So far, Walmart has declined to share how many customers have signed up for Walmart+ much to investors’ dismay. The retailer, however, notes the program is available at over 4,700 stores, including 2,800 stores that offer delivery — the latter which reaches 70% of the U.S.

Florida-based logistics provider ShipMonk raises $290 million on the back of rising eCommerce demand

By Jonathan Shieber

Jan Bednar started ShipMonk with $70,000 in winnings from a string of student business plan competitions and launched the business that just closed on $290 million in new funding from a small warehouse with no air conditioning in the middle of Florida.

While Bednar’s new offices are still inside the warehouse his company operates, they now have air conditioning… and a $290 million financing round from Summit Partners to grow its business.

The Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based ShipMonk provides a slew of shipping and logistics services for small to medium-sized eCommerce businesses and right now — given the continuing COVID-19 pandemic — business is good.

We help SMBs and mid-market direct to consumer companies manage their supply chains. Help get their products from suppliers to facilities and connect with all of their sales channels including B2B … order management, transportation management, reverse logistics,” said Bednar. 

The company’s largest customers can book anywhere from $150 million to $250 million in revenue, but most of ShipMonk’s customers are actually small businesses pulling in between $1 million and $10 million on average.

It’s for these businesses that ShipMonk will fill its warehouses in Pennsylvania, California and Florida with 60,000 stock keeping units — managing around 50 different items for each customer it serves.

Bednar said ShipMonk would use the new cash to continue to upgrade its automation services and increase its staffing while also looking to expand internationally.

Profitable from the outset, ShipMonk just came off one of its best years, taking in upwards of $140 million in revenue. 

Bednar began the business alone, but quickly brought on co-founders Kevin Seitz, who handles marketing for the business, and Bosch Jares, a fellow native of the Czech Republic (like Bednar) who serves as the company’s chief technology officer.

The story of how Jares joined the business is indicative of the type of hustle that’s allowed Bednar to grow a booming tech and logistics business from the Ft. Lauderdale beaches.

It was the Florida weather that sold Jares, a college student from one of the Czech Republic’s top technical institutions, on the move to ShipMonk. Bednar had posted an internship opportunity to work (unpaid, but offering room and board) at his company on a college job board in the middle of January. The applications came pouring in, but it was Jares, a programmer who had been working with computers since age 14 who took the slot.

The rest… is ShipMonk history. Jares built the bulk of the backend for the company’s initial services spending nearly 20 hours a day coding.

 The thriftiness and hard work has won ShipMonk a booming business that has grown from 15,000 square feet of warehousing space into nearly 1 million square feet of storage space and a logistics service that spans the U.S. 

Timing for the new round couldn’t be better, as National Retail Federation estimates are banking on a 20% bump in new online sales — which could reach $202 billion this year. 

Black Friday alone raked in $9 billion in online purchases, according to data from Adobe Analytics provided by the company, and consumer spending is only going to continue to move online as the pandemic continues to threaten the health and safety of American consumers.  

ShipMonk’s technology integrates with shopping cart and marketplace platforms like Shopify to import orders across sales channels, which are then processed at the company’s warehouse locations. Customers can save up to 50% on their operational costs, according to the company.

“We believe ShipMonk truly demonstrates the power of a bootstrapped, durable growth mindset. Jan identified a significant gap in the market and, together with the ShipMonk team, has scaled the business in a deliberate and capital efficient manner to address that need. The results have been impressive,” said Christopher Dean, a Managing Director at Summit Partners who is taking a seat on the company’s board. 

 

Who’s building the grocery store of the future?

By Walter Thompson
Christopher Wan Contributor
Chris is a venture fellow at Bessemer Venture Partners and a JD/MBA candidate at Stanford University who writes a weekly newsletter about tech, policy and business strategy.
Tess Hatch Contributor
Tess Hatch hopes to travel to space, in the meantime she is a venture investor at Bessemer Venture Partners, investing in frontier tech.

The future of grocery stores will be a win-win for both stores and customers.

On one hand, stores want to decrease their operational expenditures that come from hiring cashiers and conducting inventory management. On the other hand, consumers want to decrease the friction of buying groceries. This friction includes both finding high-quality groceries at consumers’ personal price points and waiting in long lines for checkout. The future of grocery stores promises to alleviate, and even eliminate, these points of friction.

Amazon’s foray into grocery store technology provides a succinct introduction into the state of the industry. Amazon’s first act was its Amazon Go store, which opened in Seattle in early 2018. When customers enter an Amazon Go store, they swipe the Amazon app at the entrance, enabling Amazon to link purchases to their accounts. As they shop, a collection of ceiling cameras and shelf sensors identify the items and places them in a a virtual shopping cart. When they’re done shopping, Amazon automatically charges for the items they grabbed.

Earlier this year, Amazon opened a 10,400-square-foot Go store, about five times bigger than the largest prior location. At larger store sizes, however, tracking people and products gets more computationally complex and larger SKU counts become more difficult to manage. This is especially true if the computer vision AI-based system also must be retrofitted into buildings that come with nooks and crannies that can obstruct camera angles and affect lighting.

Perhaps Amazon’s confidence in its ability to scale its Go stores comes from vertical integration that enables it to optimize customer experiences through control over store format, product selection and placement.

While Amazon Go is vertically integrated, in Amazon’s second act, it revealed a separate, more horizontal strategy: Earlier this year, Amazon announced that it would license its cashierless Just Walk Out technology.

In Just Walk Out-enabled stores, shoppers enter the store using a credit card. They don’t need to download an app or create an Amazon account. Using cameras and sensors, the Just Walk Out technology detects which products shoppers take from or return to the shelves and keeps track of them. When done shopping, as in an Amazon Go store, customers can “just walk out” and their credit card will be charged for the items in their virtual cart.

Just Walk Out may enable Amazon to penetrate the market much more quickly, as Amazon promises that existing stores can be retrofitted in “as little as a few weeks.” Amazon can also get massive amounts of data to improve its computer vision systems and machine learning algorithms, accelerating the speed with which it can leverage those capabilities elsewhere.

In Amazon’s third and latest act, Amazon in July announced its Dash Cart, a departure from its two prior strategies. Rather than equipping stores with ceiling cameras and shelf sensors, Amazon is building smart carts that use a combination of computer vision and sensor fusion to identify items placed in the cart. Customers take barcoded items off shelves, place them in the cart, wait for a beep, and then one of two things happens: Either the shopper gets an alert telling him to try again, or the shopper receives a green signal to confirm the item was added to the cart correctly.

For items that don’t have a barcode, the shopper can add them to the cart by manually adding them on the cart screen and confirming the measured weight of the product. When a customer exits through the store’s Amazon Dash Cart lane, sensors automatically identify the cart, and payment is processed using the credit card on the customer’s Amazon account. The Dash Cart is specifically designed for small- to medium-sized grocery trips that fit two grocery bags and is currently only available in an Amazon Fresh store in California.

The pessimistic interpretation of Amazon’s foray into grocery technology is that its three strategies are mutually incompatible, reflecting a lack of conviction on the correct strategy to commit to. Indeed, the vertically integrated smart store strategy suggests Amazon is willing to incur massive fixed costs to optimize the customer experience. The modular smart store strategy suggests Amazon is willing to make the tradeoff in customer experience for faster market penetration.

The smart cart strategy suggests that smart stores are too complex to capture all customer behaviors correctly, thus requiring Amazon to restrict the freedom of user behavior. The more charitable interpretation, however, is that, well, Amazon is one of the most customer-centric companies in the world, and it has the capital to experiment with different approaches to figure out what works best.

While Amazon serves as a helpful case study to the current state of the industry, many other players exist in the space, all using different approaches to build an aspect of the grocery store of the future.

Cashierless checkout

According to some estimates, people spend more than 60 hours per year standing in checkout lines. Cashierless checkout changes everything, as shoppers are immediately identified upon entry and can grab products from the shelf and leave the store without having to interact with a cashier. Different companies have taken different approaches to cashierless checkout:

Smart shelves: Like Amazon Go, some companies utilize computer vision mounted on ceilings and advanced sensors on shelves to detect when shoppers take an item from the shelf. Companies associate the correct item with the correct shopper, and the shopper is charged for all the items they grabbed when they are finished with their shopping journey. Standard Cognition, Zippin and Trigo are some of the leaders in computer vision and smart shelf technology.

Smart carts and baskets: Like Amazon’s Dash Cart, some companies are moving the AI and the sensors from the ceilings and shelves to the cart. When a shopper places an item in their cart, the cart can detect exactly which item was placed and the quantity of that item. Caper Labs, for instance, is pursuing a smart cart approach. Its cart has a credit card reader for the customer to checkout without a cashier.

Touchless checkout kiosks: Touchless checkout kiosk stations use overhead cameras that verify and charge a customer for their purchase. For instance, Mashgin built a kiosk that uses computer vision to quickly verify a customer’s items when they’re done shopping. Customers can then pay using a credit card without ever having to scan a barcode.

Self-scanning: Some companies still require customers to scan items themselves, but once items are scanned, checkout becomes quick and painless. Supersmart, for instance, built a mobile app for customers to quickly scan products as they add them to their carts. When customers are finished shopping, they scan a QR code at a Supersmart kiosk, which verifies that the items in the cart match the items scanned using the mobile app. Amazon’s Dash Cart, described above, also requires a level of human involvement in manually adding certain items to the cart.

Notably, even with the approaches detailed above, cashiers may not be going anywhere just yet because they still play important roles in the customer shopping experience. Cashiers, for instance, help to bag a customer’s items quickly and efficiently. Cashiers can also conduct random checks of customer’s bags as they leave the store and check IDs for alcohol purchases. Finally, cashiers also can untangle tricky corner cases where automated systems fail to detect or validate certain shoppers’ carts. Grabango and FutureProof are therefore building hybrid cashierless checkout systems that keep a human in the loop.

Advanced software analytics

US shopping app downloads on Black Friday reached a record 2.8M installs

By Sarah Perez

Many U.S. consumers spent this year’s Black Friday sales event shopping from home on mobile devices. That led to first-time installs of mobile shopping apps in the U.S. to break a new record for single-day installs on Black Friday 2020, according to a report from Sensor Tower. The firm estimates that U.S. consumers downloaded approximately 2.8 million shopping apps on November 27th — a figure that’s up by nearly 8% over last year.

However, this number doesn’t necessarily represent faster growth than in 2019, which also saw about an 8% year-over-year increase in Black Friday shopping app installs, the report noted. This could be because mobile shopping and the related app installs are now taking place throughout the month of November, though, as retailers adjusted to the pandemic and other online shopping trends by hosting earlier sales or even month-long sales events.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

The data seems to indicate this is true. Between Nov. 1 and Nov. 29, U.S. consumers downloaded approximately 59.2 million shopping apps from across the App Store and Google Play — an increase of roughly 15% from the 51.7 million they downloaded in Nov. 2019. That’s a much higher figure than the 2% year-over-year growth seen during this same period in 2019.

Another shift taking place in mobile shopping is the growing adoption of app from brick-and-mortar retailers. During the first three quarters of 2020, apps from brick-and-mortar retailers grew installs 27%. This trend continued on Black Friday, when 5 out of the top 10 mobile shopping apps were those from brick-and-mortar retailers, led by Walmart.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Walmart saw the highest adoption this year, with around 131,000 Black Friday installs, followed by Amazon at 106,000, then Shopify’s Shop at 81,000. Combined, the top 10 apps saw 763,000 total new installs, or 27% of the first-time downloads in the Shopping category.

Because the firms are only looking at new app installs, they aren’t giving a full picture of the U.S. mobile shopping market, as many consumers already have these apps installed on their devices. And many more simply shop online via a desktop or laptop computer.

To give these figures some context, Shopify reported on Saturday it had seen record Black Friday sales of $2.4 billion, with 68% on mobile. And today, Amazon announced its small business sales alone topped $4.8 billion from Black Friday to Cyber Monday, a 60% year-over-year increase, but it didn’t break out the percentage that came from mobile.

Sensor Tower and rival app store analytics firm App Annie largely agreed on the top 5 shopping apps downloaded this Black Friday. They both saw Walmart again beating Amazon to become the most-downloaded U.S. shopping app on Black Friday — as it did in 2019. The two firms reported that Amazon remained No. 2 by downloads, followed by Shopify’s Shop app, then Target. However, Sensor Tower put Best Buy in 5th place, followed by Nike, while App Annie saw those positions swapped.

Image Credits: App Annie

The rest of Sensor Tower’s top 10 included SHEIN, Sam’s Club, Klarna, then Offer Up, while App Annie’s list was rounded out by SHEIN, Sam’s Club, Wish, then Offer Up.

The pandemic’s impact may not have been obvious given the growth in online shopping this year, but the recession it triggered has played a role in how U.S. consumers are paying for their purchases. “Buy Now, Pay Later” apps like Klarna were up this year, even breaking into the top 10 per Sensor Tower’s data. The firm also noted that many new shopping apps launched this year focused on discounts and deals and retailers ran longer sales this year, as well.

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