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Yesterday — July 8th 2020Your RSS feeds

Amazon US sellers will have to display their name and address starting Sept. 1, 2020

By Sarah Perez

Amazon on Wednesday informed its U.S. sellers they will soon have to display their business name and address on their Amazon.com seller profile page. For individual sellers, this will include the individual’s name and address. A similar system is already in place across Amazon’s stores in Europe, Japan, and Mexico, due to local laws. Amazon says it’s making the change to ensure there’s a more consistent baseline of seller information across its platform, so online shoppers can make informed buying decisions.

The change, of course, is not just about transparency.

Amazon’s U.S. marketplace is its oldest and largest, with 461,000 active U.S. sellers out of its 2.2 million worldwide actives. In total, there are 8.6 million registered sellers worldwide and Amazon adds around a million more per year, according to Marketplace Pulse data.

Amazon’s marketplace also accounts for around half the retailer’s sales. But as it’s grown, it’s been afflicted by a variety of issues and fraud, including problems with counterfeit goods.

Though Amazon has long been accused of avoiding these issues, it’s more recently pledged to spend billions to address the problem. Amazon even inserted itself into legal battles with fraudulent sellers and counterfeiters over the past couple of years, including those with designers and accessory makers, as well as others participating in the fake reviews economy.

Last year, Amazon also launched a set of tools for brands and manufacturers under its “Project Zero” initiative, which work to proactively combat counterfeiting.

And just this April, Amazon announced it was piloting a new system aimed at verifying the identity of third-party sellers over video-conferencing — a shift from its in-person verifications that had to stop due to the coronavirus outbreak. Through this system, Amazon checks that the individual seller’s ID matches the person and the documents they shared with their application, among other things.

Now Amazon is telling its U.S. sellers their business name and address will need to be on their profile by September 1, 2020.

The change will help businesses fighting fraud or taking legal action against sellers over counterfeit goods. Consumers will also have an address in case the product has caused harm and they need to contact the seller or even initiative legal action of their own.

Once the new system goes live in the U.S., the seller’s storefront on Amazon.com will display an expanded set of information about their business.

A photo from Marketplace Pulse shows how this may look, with a comparison of a U.K. seller page with its current U.S. counterpart:

 

Image Credits: Marketplace Pulse

In a statement, Amazon says the change is about consistently, avoiding the topic of online fraud.

“Over the years, we have developed many ways for sellers to share more about their business, including through features like the seller profile pages, ‘Store’ pages for brand owners, and Handmade ‘Maker Profile’ pages,” an Amazon spokesperson said. “These features help customers learn more about sellers’ businesses and their products. Beginning September 1, we will also display sellers’ business name and address on their Amazon.com seller profile page to ensure there is a consistent baseline of seller information to help customers make informed shopping decisions,” they said.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Instagram swaps out its ‘Activity’ tab for ‘Shop’ in new global test

By Sarah Perez

Instagram today is starting a small global test of the Instagram Shop tab, first announced this May, which allows Instagram users to shop from top brands and creators via a new tab in the app’s navigation bar with just one tap. Here, users will be able to filter products by categories, as they can today via the existing Shop experience within Instagram Explore.

Though the company in May had also announced plans for a newly designed Instagram Shop with a different layout than what’s available today through Explore, those changes aren’t being tested at present. Instead, this new global test will direct users to the same “Shop” experience that U.S users been able to reach by tapping the “Shop” button in Explore.

The main difference is that the Shop icon will replace the heart icon (Activity) in Instagram’s main navigation.

Image Credits: Instagram

 

Thankfully, the Activity section isn’t totally gone. For those in the test, the Activity tab can either be accessed at the top right of your Feed (next to the paper airline Direct icon) or by going to your profile and clicking the heart icon from there.

In this version of Instagram Shop accessed from the main navigation bar, users can filter by brands they follow or by category, including things like Beauty, Clothing & Accessories, Home, Jewelry & Watches, and Travel, for example. In addition, not all products showcased in this version of Shop allow users to check out directly from Instagram’s universal cart. Instead, some brands have items tagged for shopping, but direct users to their own website to complete the transaction.

If the business is testing Instagram’s own Checkout feature, however, a small selling fee is involved.

An upcoming Instagram Shop experience will look a little different. Instagram had said in May it will feature collections from @shop, alongside selections from the user’s favorite brands and creators. These shopping options are laid out on the screen in a more intentional manner, with bigger images at the top of the screen, following by a scrollable row of brands, and then personalized content below in a “Suggested For You” section.

This new experience is still expected to arrive later this year, but an exact date has yet to be determined.

Instagram had already been testing today’s change with some portion of its U.S. user base. The expanded test will now introduce the change to a small number of users worldwide, including the U.S. 

Instagram says it will use the results of this test to determine how it will roll out Shop further down the road. It’s possible the company could revisit the idea of replacing Activity with Shop if it didn’t increase Shop traffic and conversions.

“This is a small global test of the Instagram Shop tab that we announced in May. We’ll use this test to assess how we decide to roll this out further,” a company spokesperson said.

 

US online grocery sales hit record $7.2 billion in June

By Sarah Perez

Despite the slow reopening of the U.S. economy over the past several weeks, online grocery shopping is continuing to reach ever-higher numbers as Americans seem to be in no rush to return to the store. According to new research released today by Brick Meets Click and Mercatus, U.S. online grocery sales hit a record $7.2 billion in June, up 9% over May, as 45.6 million households turned to online grocery pickup and delivery services for a larger portion of their grocery needs.

This figure is higher than the $4 billion seen in March 2020, when the U.S. first went under coronavirus lockdowns. Since then, online grocery sales have been growing quickly — jumping to $5.3 billion in April, then $6.6 billion in May, as more consumers shifted their shopping to online services, grocery included.

The customer base for online grocery also grew from 39.5 million monthly actives in March to now 45.6 million as of June, the report found.

Remarkably, only 16.1 million customers were using online grocery as of August 2019, totaling then just $1.2 million in sales.

The growth isn’t just due to a large influx of new customers to online grocery, but also due to more frequent orders. Customers may be ordering from online services not only for their large “stocking up” trips, but also for those smaller grocery runs they would often do in between — to grab ingredients for their weekly recipes or to replace the more quickly depleted items, like milk, bread and other staples, perhaps.

Image Credits: Brick Meets Click / Mercatus

According to the new research, order frequency ticked up from 1.7 orders per month for active households in May to 1.9 orders in June, demonstrating this increase.

In addition, more retailers, including independents, have added capacity for online order fulfillment amid the coronavirus pandemic to meet consumers’ changing needs. This has also resulted in an increase in sales as more customers are able to shop online and get a time slot for delivery or pickup.

Walmart Grocery in April even began pilot testing a way to offer two-hour “Express” grocery delivery service to customers who were willing to pay an upcharge. The company said this was a direct result of its newly added capacity aimed at serving its online grocery customer base. Instacart, meanwhile, added new features in April aimed at opening more delivery windows. And many retailers — including Amazon, Walmart, Instacart and Shipt, among others — have been hiring to help address the growing number of online orders.

When asked about their increased usage of online grocery in June, consumers reported fears of contracting coronavirus as their main concern, the report said. Specifically, 44% of households claimed they had “high levels” of concern about someone in their home being infected, up 2 percentage points from the prior month. This increase was also almost entirely driven by the 9% increase among shoppers in the over-60 age segment.

But on the downside, the increased choice in online grocery providers has made it more difficult for services to attract repeat usage, the data indicates. As of June, the likelihood of a shopper to use a specific online grocery service again within the next 30 days now sits at 57%. While this figure did grow by 1 percentage point since May, it’s still far below the pre-COVID 74% repeat rate seen back in August 2019. 

General interest in online grocery was also growing. Among both active online grocery shoppers and those not active, 32% said they were either “extremely” or “very likely” to use a service in the next 90 days — up 2 percentage points from May. The interest, not surprisingly, was strongest in households that had used an online grocery service in June, with 57% showing strong interest, compared with only 17% of the non-active households.

The data for the research was sourced from 1,781 U.S. adults in June (6/24-6/25), with responses weighted by age to reflect the national population of U.S. adults. The firms’ prior surveys also used a similar methodology, timing and sampling.

“Even though some retailers have seen sales decline within their respective business, the new reality of increased capacity across the market – and related greater choice (or options) for shoppers – means that all grocery retailers will need to accelerate their efforts to make shopping online even more seamless to thrive going forward,” said David Bishop, partner and research lead, Brick Meets Click, in a statement.

Mexico City’s Jüsto raises a $12 million bridge round for its delivery-only grocery stores

By Jonathan Shieber

Jüsto, the Mexico City-based, delivery-only grocery store chain, has raised another $12 million in financing as it looks to expand its now pandemically relevant business of “dark stores” across the country.

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing consumer habits and increasing the use of delivery services across the world, and consumers in Mexico are no different.

A recent Nielsen study cited by the company found that 11 percent of respondents had purchased fresh food online for the first time in 2020, as lockdowns in cities across the world restricted movement for everyone but essential workers — with 70 percent of those surveyed saying they’d do it again within the year.

“Despite Covid-19 dramatically accelerating the curve of adoption of e-commerce, the penetration rate of e-grocers is still less than 1 percent,” in Latin America, according to Jüsto founder and chief executive, Ricardo Weder, in a statement. “That means there’s an enormous opportunity—and all the right conditions—to disrupt the grocery industry in Latin America.”

With the new bridge round, Jüsto’s financing has hit just over $20 million in less than a year. Part of that can be attributed to the pedigree of the company’s founder.

Weder was instrumental in Cabify’s growth in Latin America, according to Rodolfo Gonzalez, a partner at Foundation Capital, which led the firm’s investments into Jüsto. Gonzalez also saw the opportunity in the company’s business model.

“We’ve seen that type of model of warehouse and D2C for groceries be very successful in other geographies,” Gonzalez told Crunchbase, when Jüsto announced its previous $10 million seed round. “But that model didn’t quite exist in Mexico yet.”

Other investors in Jüsto’s round include Mountain NazcaFEMSA VenturesQuiet Capital, and 500 Startups.

The Mexican company prides itself on selling both local and international brands in categories, including fresh produce, dry goods, personal hygiene and beauty care, home and cleaning goods, beverages, organic food, and pet supplies.

“We have these darkstores and hold the delivery,” says Manolo Fernandez, a spokesperson and member of Jüsto’s founding team. “At traditional supermarkets the fill rates are lower and the product is less fresh. One of our core tenets is to reduce waste. We don’t have fruits and vegetables sitting outside in the store.”

Jüsto also claims that its prices come in at roughly equivalent to those of a regular supermarket. The company has delivery options ranging from express delivery, same day, and next day delivery.

The company isn’t the first startup to look at unused real estate and internet shopping habits and see an opportunity.

Darkstore is a company that has raised nearly $30 million to convert empty space into third-party fulfillment centers. Istanbul’s Getir, which recently raised $25 million from Sequoia’s Michael Moritz, is doing the same thing. And Samokat has adopted a similar strategy in Russia, promising over 3,000 SKUs and an under-45-minute delivery time fulfilled via their urban darkstores.

These companies are focused on being third-party logistics players for delivery rather than creating their own brands, but Jüsto shows that there’s an opportunity for purpose built direct to consumer grocery businesses to use the same infrastructure and create actual brand loyalty.

We have the technology, talent, and infrastructure to scale our expansion to more cities in Mexico and begin our international expansion, beginning with Colombiam” Weder said. 

Amazon launches ‘Smart Stores’ in India to win mom and pop

By Manish Singh

For Amazon, it’s never too late to try something in India. The e-commerce giant is exploring ways to further spread its tentacles in the largely offline, technology-free neighborhood stores in one of its key overseas markets.

The American firm’s latest attempt is called “Smart Stores.” For this India-specific program, Amazon is providing physical stores with software to maintain a digital log of the inventory they have in the shop, and supplying them with a QR code.

When consumers walk to the store and scan this QR code with the Amazon app, they see everything the shop has to offer, as well as any discounts and past reviews from customers. They can select the items and pay for it using Amazon Pay. Amazon Pay in India supports a range of payments services including the popular UPI, and debit and credit cards.

Amazon told TechCrunch that it piloted this project two months ago and is formally launching it now after seeing the early feedback. More than 10,000 shops, ranging from mom and pop stores to big retail chains including Big Bazaar, MedPlus and More Supermarkets have deployed the company’s system, it said.

The company said these “digital storefronts” are a win-win for both consumers and shop owners. Consumers do not need to stay inside the store and worry about handling plastic cards or cash — that is, to maintain social distance  — and they will also get rewards for using Amazon Pay.

Customers also get the ability to use Amazon’s Pay Later feature that enables them to pay for their purchases in installments. All of this means that merchants are seeing increased footfalls and improving their sales. Amazon said it is not taking any cut from merchants or customers.

The company has been aggressively engaging with physical stores in India in recent quarters, using their vast presence in the nation to expand its delivery network and warehouses and even just relying on their inventory to drive sales.

The company’s push in the physical retails, which accounts for the vast majority of sales in India, comes as Facebook, Flipkart, Google, and Reliance Jio Platforms, which recently raised $15.2 billion, also race to capture this market. On Thursday, Google said it plans to offer loans to merchants in India by the end of this year.

These mom-and-pop stores offer all kinds of items, are family-run and pay low wages and little to no rent. Since they are ubiquitous — there are more than 30 million neighborhood stores in India, according to industry estimates — no retail giant can offer a faster delivery. And on top of that, their economics are often better than most of their digital counterparts.

Local is new global business plan. #O2O will be mainstream faster than "online retail" in India. https://t.co/NHIeFr2nJ6

— Vijay Shekhar Sharma (@vijayshekhar) April 23, 2020

“Amazon Pay is already accepted at millions of local shops, we are trying to make customers’ buying experience at local shops even more convenient and safe through Smart Stores. Further, through EMIs, bank offers and rewards, we seek to make these purchases more affordable and rewarding for customers, and help increase sales for merchants.” said Mahendra Nerurkar, chief executive of Amazon Pay, in a statement.

Amazon’s tardy but increasingly growing interest in the Indian physical retails market is not surprising. The company has often taken longer than most firms in India to study the market and then adds its own spin to tackle those challenges. Another recent case in point: Its foray into food delivery market in India.

Despite ubiquitous interest in the physical retails market, one thing that that no company is talking about yet is just how they plan to commercially incentivize these merchants.

The technology solutions built by these companies is unarguably driving sales for them, but a significant number of these small businesses take cash and under report their revenues to pay less tax. That incentive is multifold of any other incentive for many of them. 

Walmart’s Flipkart makes local languages push to win small Indian cities and towns

By Manish Singh

Flipkart on Wednesday added support for three more local languages as the Indian e-commerce giant looks to widen its foothold in smaller cities and towns across the country where fewer people speak English and Hindi.

The Walmart -owned firm said its online marketplace now has interfaces in Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada, three languages that are spoken by roughly 200 million people in India.

Today’s announcement follows Flipkart adapting its interface in Hindi language on its website and app last year. Flipkart’s rival, Amazon, added support for Hindi in 2018. It does not support any additional Indian languages.

A Flipkart spokeswoman told TechCrunch that support for Hindi language has been well received by customers. “About 95% of consumers who opted for the Hindi interface continued using the interface as a testament of its efficacy,” the spokeswoman said.

Flipkart said the new localization effort, for which it conducted on-ground surveys in many cities, includes a “judicious” mix of translation and transliteration of words from the aforementioned three languages. Overall, it has incorporated more than 5.4 million translated words into its product pages, banners, and payments pages in the three local languages.

“We truly believe that language, if solved well, can be an opportunity rather than a barrier to reach millions of consumers who have been underserved. As a homegrown e-commerce marketplace, we understand India and its diversity in a more nuanced way and are building products that have the potential to bring a long-term change,” said Kalyan Krishnamurthy, chief executive officer of Flipkart Group, in a statement.

The push to local languages comes as both Flipkart and Amazon India are exploring ways to expand their reach beyond urban cities in India. Online shopping accounts for about 3% of total retail sales in India, according to industry estimates.

In recent quarters, Flipkart has added support for voice assistant, short-form videos, and bundled a free on-demand video streaming service to please new customers. The company has previously stated that most of its new users are coming from smaller cities and towns in India.

India, the world’s second largest internet market, has emerged as a global battleground for American and Chinese technology groups. Both Amazon, which completed seven years in the country this month, and 13-year-old Flipkart claim the top spot in the e-commerce market.

Amazon India’s apps had about 140 million monthly active users last month, ahead of Flipkart marquee app’s 108 million, according to one of the top mobile insight firms, data of which an industry executive shared with TechCrunch. (Though it should be noted that monthly active users, that alone of mobile apps, is not the best metric to gauge a shopping platform’s performance.) Flipkart claims it has amassed over 150 million registered users.

Amazon and Valentino team up in joint lawsuit against New York counterfeiter over Rockstud knock-offs

By Ingrid Lunden

Amazon is ramping up its efforts to tackle counterfeiting on its platform by aiming for the higher end of the fashion market. Today the e-commerce giant announced that it has jointly filed a lawsuit with Italian luxury brand Valentino against Buffalo, New York-based Kaitlyn Pan Group, LLC and New York resident Hao Pan for copying a famous Valentino shoe style — the Garavani Rockstud, pictured above — and subsequently selling those products on Amazon and Kaitlyn Pan’s own site, “in violation of Amazon’s policies and Valentino’s intellectual property rights.”

Amazon said that any proceeds that result from the suit will go straight to Valentino itself. We’ve asked how much the companies are seeking in damages and will update this post with more information as we get it. We are embedding the suit below the article.

Notably, this is the first time that Amazon has teamed up with a luxury brand to go after counterfeiters in the courts, although it has partnered with other brands in the past. As with those previous cases, it’s important for Amazon to work with the brands to show it’s a friend to legitimate commerce by working actively to stop illicit sales.

Alongside that, however, Amazon has been making huge efforts to raise its game in fashion, and so it’s extremely important that it fights against the image that it’s a fertile ground for selling and buying illegal knock-off items of famous brands.

Getting off on the right foot — so to speak — with Valentino is part of that. The Garavani Rockstud (“Garavani” comes from Valentino’s full name, Valentino Clemente Ludovico Garavaniis one of Valentino’s most iconic styles, with its metallic lines of studs making an appearance on a range of Valentino footwear, including sandals, heels and flats. They were first introduced in 2010 and Valentino has design patents on the style.

Kaitlyn Pan currently sells a number of models that riff on that basic concept. Typically, authentic Valentino Rockstud shoes retail for between $425 and $1,100, while the Pan versions sell for significantly less, around $100.

You can see where the problem lies.

While the shoes are not being sold as Valentino and do not use the Rockstud branding, they could easily be mistaken for them (and may have even been promoted using that keyword when they were still being sold on Amazon):

One thing that isn’t really covered in the Amazon/Valentino suit, but you have to wonder about, is the role that others play in enabling the illicit sales of the items. In the case of Kaitlyn Pan, the site is powered by none other than Shopify, for example.

“The vast majority of sellers in our store are honest entrepreneurs but we do not hesitate to take aggressive action to protect customers, brands and our store from counterfeiters,” said Dharmesh Mehta, vice president, Customer Trust and Partner Support, in a statement. “Amazon and Valentino are holding this company accountable in a court of law and we appreciate Valentino’s collaboration throughout this investigation.”

Amazon said that it shut down Kaitlyn Pan’s seller account in September 2019, and it did not specify how many pairs of Pan’s shoes were sold via Amazon before then. As of today, the Pan models are still being sold directly on Kaitlyn Pan Shoes.

And rather audaciously, despite getting forced out of Amazon’s marketplace and being slapped with cease and desist orders from Valentino, Kaitlyn Pan has applied to the United States Patent and Trademark Office to trademark the style.

Valentino, like other expensive luxury brands, regularly gets copied and counterfeited, and that has been the case for decades. But arguably, the rise of e-commerce, where it can be harder to trace sellers and products have a higher chance of being disseminated more widely, has compounded that problem.

So the company has made a more concerted effort to fight back. In the past three years, it’s worked with United States Customs and Border Protection to seize more than 2,000 counterfeit products and work on a surveillance system to detect counterfeit products on sale in the U.S. market, leading to the removal of more than 7,000 listings across multiple marketplaces, 360 websites and more than 1,000 social media accounts.

“The Maison Valentino is one of the main protagonists of International fashion and plays a major role in the luxury division by sustaining Made in Italy,” Valentino said in a statement. “The brand represents in the global market, one of the Italian excellences in the execution of the industrial process in Italy and of the artisanal and handmade workmanship that are entirely produced in the historic Atelier of Piazza Mignanelli in Rome. We consider Made in Italy to be a fundamental value to be fully endorsed, respected and at the forefront of our business and creations. Valentino is an Italian brand operating globally and is a mirror of society. One of our core missions is to safeguard our brand and protect the Valentino Community by celebrating inclusivity and with creativity at the heart of everything we do. We feel this connection with Amazon will highlight the importance also in fashion for greater awareness, knowledge and understanding by shielding the brand online and its resources.”

Amazon’s role in creating an avenue for counterfeit items to be sold has been a problematic one for the company for years. It has invested in building technology to tackle the problem: In 2019, it said that it had invested over $500 million and dedicated 8,000 employees to work on fraud and abuse (which includes IP infringement and counterfeit goods), and it works with law enforcement and collaborates with authorities to build cases against infringing companies and people. But its critics continue to call out the company and its track record, saying it still has not done enough to address the issue — which of course still results in sales, and thus revenues — on its platform.

We’ll update this post as we learn more.

YouTube announces a new shoppable ad format

By Sarah Perez

YouTube today announced a new direct response ad format that will make YouTube video ads more “shoppable” by adding browsable product images underneath the ad to drive traffic directly to brands’ product pages. The introduction of the format comes at a time when advertisers are trying to find new ways to capture consumers’ growing interest in e-commerce shopping, amid a pandemic that’s kept people from shopping brick-and-mortar physical stores for fear of infection.

YouTube, in particular, believes its platform can serve this shift in interest, given that today 70% of people claim they’ve bought a brand’s product because they saw it in a YouTube video.

To use the new shoppable format, brands will first need to sync their Google Merchant Center feed with their video ads. They can then visually expand an ad’s “call to action” button with the best-selling products it wants to feature in the ad in order to generate traffic that sends viewers directly to the product listing on the brand’s own website.

One early tester of the new format was Aerie, which wanted to advertise on YouTube to both boost consumers’ love for its brand and its apparel sales for its Spring 2020 campaign. The company ran targeted ads on YouTube and saw a 25% higher return on ad spend than the prior year, as well as nine times more conversions than with their traditional ad mix, YouTube says.

Related to this news, YouTube also announced “Video action campaigns” — a way to bring YouTube video ads that drive these sorts of calls-to-action to YouTube’s home feed, watch pages and Google’s video partners, from within one campaign. The company says it will also include any future inventory that becomes available, like the What to Watch Next feed.

An early tester for this ad product was the startup Mos, which aims to help students find college scholarships. Over the past few months, Mos saw 30% more purchases for its service at a third of the cost, compared to its previous YouTube benchmarks, said YouTube.

Brands can also use the lead-generation forms along with their video ad campaigns to capture more leads while also running their ads, as Jeep did with its Korea branch leading to a 13x increase in completed leads at an 84% lower cost per lead.

YouTube isn’t the only tech giant that’s focused more heavily serving the needs of brands — and particularly e-commerce brands — in recent months. Facebook and Instagram rolled out Shops in May, to turn business profiles into online storefronts where consumers can buy directly from brands without leaving Facebook’s or Instagram’s app. Snapchat also this month expanded its dynamic ads for e-commerce retailers worldwide, allowing brands to easily run automated product ads on Snapchat’s app by way of templates connected to product catalogs.

But YouTube’s ads are perhaps more similar to those shoppable video ads now appearing on streaming services like Hulu and NBCU’s Peacock, where viewers can transact using their remote control. In YouTube’s case, however, viewers are just clicking and tapping their way through to the advertiser’s site.

Like many, YouTube believes businesses will continue to need solutions like these to find leads, boost their web traffic and drive more online sales, even when coronavirus-driven government restrictions lift and physical stores re-open.

Typically, announcements like this would have been made at YouTube’s NewFronts presentation, but as that event is now online-only due to the pandemic, YouTube has rolled out the news early.

Remessa Online raises $20 million to become the TransferWise of Latin America

By Jonathan Shieber

Remessa Online, the Brazilian money transfer service, said it has closed on $20 million in financing from one of the leading Latin American venture capital firms, Kaszek Ventures, and Accel Partners’ Kevin Efrusy, the architect of the famed venture capital firm’s Latin American investments.

Since its launch in 2016, Remessa Online has provided a pipeline for over $2 billion worth of international transfers for small and medium-sized businesses in the country. The company now boasts over 300,000 customers from 100 countries and says its fees are typically one eighth the cost of the local money transfer options.

“We understand that transferring money is just the beginning, and we are eager to build a global financial system that will make life easier for global citizens and businesses alike,” Liuzzi said.

Money transfer services are a huge business that startups have spent the last decade trying to improve in Europe and the US. European money transfer company, TransferWise has raised over $770 million alone in its bid to unseat the incumbents in the market. Meanwhile, the business-to-business cross-border payment gateway, Payoneer, has raised roughly $270 million to provide those services to small businesses.

Remessa Online already boasts a powerful group of investors and advisors including André Penha, the co-founder of apartment rental company Quinto Andar, and the former chief operating officer of Kraft Heinz USA, Fabio Armaganijan. With the new investment from Kaszek, firm co-founder Hernan Kazah, the co-founder of the Latin American e-commerce giant, MercadoLibre, and co-founder of Kaszek Ventures, will take a seat on the company’s board.

“We developed an online solution that is faster and substantially cheaper than traditional banking platforms, with digital and scalable processes and an omnichannel customer support offered by a team of experts”, said Remessa Online’s co-founder and strategy director Alexandre Liuzzi, in a statement.

Last year, the company expanded its money transfer service to the UK and Europe, allowing Brazilians abroad to invest money, pay for education or rent housing without documentation or paperwork. The company’s accounts now come with an International Banking Account Number that allows its customers to receive money in nine currencies.

With the new year, Remessa has added additional services for small and medium-sized businesses and expanded its geographic footprint to include Argentina and Chile.

Latin American countries — especially Brazil — have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. While much of the economy is still reeling, the broad trends that are moving consumers and businesses to adopt ecommerce and mobile payment solutions are just as pronounced in the region as they are in the US, according to investors like Kazah.

“This crisis is accelerating the digitization process of several industries around the world and Remessa Online has taken the lead to transform the cross-border segment in Brazil , specially for SMBs,” he said in a statement.

Founded in 2016,  by Fernando Pavani, Alexandre Liuzzi, Stefano Milo, and Marcio William, Remessa Online was born from the founders own needs to find an easier way to send and receive money from abroad, according to the company.

In 2018, after a $4 million investment from Global Founders Capital and MAR Ventures, the company developed international processing capabilities and a more robust compliance tool kit to adhere to international anti-money laundering and know your customer standards. In the latter half of 2019, the company entered the SMB market with the launch of a toolkit for businesses that had been typically ignored by larger financial services institutions in Brazil.

“We believe in a world without physical borders. Our mission is to help our clients with their global financial needs, so that they can focus on what matters: their international dreams,” said Liuzzi.

How D2C brands are holding up during the pandemic

By Walter Thompson
Ashwin Ramasamy Contributor
Ashwin Ramasamy is the co-founder of PipeCandy, an online merchant graph company that discovers and analyzes business and consumer perception metrics about D2C brands and e-commerce companies.

A lot has happened during the COVID-19 lockdowns in terms of human behavior.

E-commerce seems to have grown at the same rate in the last two months as it did in the last seven years. PipeCandy has been analyzing the segments within e-commerce that stand to gain the most with this “once in a generation” change.

Image Credits: PipeCandy

One segment that has dominated the news and the M&A cycles within e-commerce is direct-to-consumer. The segment moved from being a disruptor of old-guard CPG companies to a channel strategy that every CPG company is now embracing. With lackluster IPOs of the likes of Casper, the closing of disruptor brands like Brandless and Walmart’s decision to not pursue D2C acquisitions, the era of hyper-funded digital natives is over.

So what’s up with digital natives now? How has COVID-19 played out for the segment?

Firstly, a comparison that some of you may not take very kindly. We are comparing actual retail sales from the U.S. Census Bureau with unique visitors from our sample of nearly 1,000 digital native brands. The directionality alone tells the story, even if we can’t compare the same metrics.

Image Credits: PipeCandy

What’s interesting about furniture is that people are buying storage units and shelves and tables for their home offices. Also, they are spending on mattresses. The rest of the furniture categories aren’t finding traction. That said, this observation is limited to D2C.

Now let’s see some D2C categories and their traffic growth trends over different slices of time.

Image Credits: PipeCandy

What you see above is a set of D2C category median growth rates of April 2020 compared to average growth rates in various time slices in 2019. We took April 2020 as the anchor month and compared against (1) the monthly average for every brand in the previous year and, (2) the month where they had the peak traffic.

The idea was to see not just whether these brands grew in April 2020 but also to see if they hit their peaks they hit in 2019. We have a few other cuts in our report (Q1 2019 versus Q1 2020, accounting for launch PR-linked peaks, etc.).

Fitness, pets and grocery registered healthy growth compared to 2019 averages, while the declines in furniture, apparel and kids have been minimal (when compared to the carnage we see in retail). But, when we see the data cut for peak 2019 versus April 2020, we see fitness and pets as categories have been resilient. We are still not back to the glory days of D2C in several other categories. Several categories and companies have been having a second lease of life. So what seems like a jaded performance when compared to the peak of 2019 is actually good news for several brands. They’d have been counted out but for COVID-19.

One way to truly size up the impact of COVID-19 is to look at the traffic numbers of these brands in 2019 and project the trends for 2020 assuming it would be a normal world from the vantage point of December 2019 and compare them with how things actually panned out between January and April 2020. We did consider and account for blips in numbers due to launch/PR activities in our forecasting model. The more positive the deviation is of the actual from the forecast, the better the category is doing.

I can only hypothesize that a certain virus caused the change in the trajectory.

Without, further ado, here is what we found:

Image Credits: PipeCandy

Kids, cookware and kitchen tools, apparel, fine jewelry, fashion, women’s health, mattresses, furniture and skincare actually deviated negatively from the forecast. This is not to say that these categories declined. We are actually saying that these categories didn’t keep up with the growth trends they orchestrated in 2019. That said, the devil is in the details. For instance, within furniture, there is a category of D2C brands that sell shelves and office furniture. Consumers did invest in them heavily, presumably to allow participants in the Zoom call to absorb more the titles of the books stacked in those shelves than from the calls themselves.

Wine/spirits, grocery, fitness, baby care, pets and nutraceuticals did better than anticipated. Basically, anything that helped numb the reality (alcohol), sweeten the reality (food), distract from the reality (baby care and pets), survive the reality (fitness) or hallucinate an alternative reality (nutraceuticals) did well.

A summary of our findings (free) and a detailed report on the impact of COVID-19 on direct-to-consumer brands (behind paywall) can be found on PipeCandy’s website.

I will leave you with another interesting conclusion we arrived at, through further research that is currently underway: The spotlight category in e-commerce is not direct to consumer — it is the mid-market and large pure-play e-commerce companies. It is one segment where the compounded quarterly growth rate of active companies is better than the 2019 average.

We will have more to share in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!

Founders: Land a video interview with TC

By Neesha A. Tambe

Looking for a way to get your early-stage startup the massive attention it deserves? Look no further. TechCrunch is highlighting over 30 companies at Disrupt SF. Selected companies will get a video interview with TC editorial that will be shared with the masses. One of the best ways to get in front of thousands of influencers is by exhibiting in Startup Alley during Disrupt 2020. An even better way is to exhibit for free. Take the first step and apply to be a TC Top Pick.

Applying is easy, but earning the TC Top Pick designation — well, not so much. Discerning TechCrunch editors scour every application searching for creative, potential-laden startups that spark the imagination. Each startup that joins the ranks of the TC Top Picks wins an interview on TechCrunch and a free Digital Startup Alley Package. That’s where the massive exposure comes into play. Everyone — investors, tech media, founders, devs, engineers, R&D folks and more — wants to meet and greet those who made the grade.

Ready to take your shot? Here’s what you need to know. You’re eligible to apply if your pre-Series A startup falls into one of the following categories:

Social Impact + Education, Space, Artificial Intelligence + Machine Learning, Biotech + Healthtech, Enterprise + SaaS, Fintech, Mobility, Retail + E-commerce, Robotics, Hardware + IOT, and Security + Privacy.

TechCrunch editors will choose up to three startups in each category. Note the phrase “up to three.” They won’t fill the bucket without ample cause. What do you get with a Digital Startup Package? Plenty. For starters, it lets three people from your company exhibit from anywhere — remember, virtual Disrupt 2020 is a global event with a global audience. That’s huge.

You’ll demo like crazy — scheduling 1:1 video meetings with the previously mentioned masses — investors, media, potential customers, collaborators and the list goes on. Here’s more good news. You’ll have CrunchMatch, our AI-powered networking platform, to help make your networking easier and more efficient. The platform opens weeks ahead of Disrupt, giving you even more time to find and connect with people who can move your business forward.

Thanks to this next perk, the exposure you get as a TC Top Pick will stretch far beyond Disrupt. TechCrunch editors will create a video interview for each Top Pick startup and promote the videos across its social media platforms. It’s a long-term marketing tool you can use to pitch potential investors and clients.

Does your early-stage startup deserve massive attention? Take advantage of this massive opportunity to keep your startup on track and moving forward. Apply to be a TC Top Pick today.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

US e-commerce sales to jump 18% in 2020, but not enough to offset retail’s decline

By Sarah Perez

U.S. e-commerce sales will jump 18% this year due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic that forced more shoppers online, according to a new forecast released today by eMarketer. However, the surge in new online orders won’t make up for the overall hit that the U.S. retail sector will take this year, the firm noted. The analysts estimate that total U.S. retail sales, which also includes auto and fuel, will drop by 10.5% in 2020 to $4.894 trillion — a level not seen since 2016.

This is also steeper than the 8.2% drop last seen in 2009, amid the recession.

“This is the sharpest consumer spending freeze in decades in the U.S.,” said eMarketer senior forecasting analyst Cindy Liu, in a report. ‘In just a couple weeks, as Americans sheltered in place, retail sales fell dramatically in March. With sales hitting their lowest point of the year in Q2, it will take years before consumer activity returns to normal levels,” she predicted.

In fact, the forecast estimates total retail sales won’t rebound to prepandemic levels (i.e., 2019 levels) until 2022.

Physical retail is weighing down overall retail in the long term. This year, brick-and-mortar retail sales will fall by 14% to $4.184 trillion. And it may take up to five years for offline sales to return to prepandemic levels.

E-commerce hasn’t been strong enough to offset those losses — it’s only mitigating the severity of retail’s decline, the report said. In 2020, e-commerce sales will climb by 18% to reach $709.78 billion, representing 14.5% of total U.S. retail sales.

The report didn’t delve deeply into the contributing factors as to why overall retail sales will remain down despite stores reopening, but these would include the obvious impacts related to a coronavirus-triggered recession — like job losses and job insecurity, both of which prompt consumers to quell their spending. In addition, many consumers still continue to avoid brick-and-mortar retail entirely, instead only ordering their essentials online. Plus, with many consumers now working from home, apparel and accessories sales have taken a heavy hit.

The apparel and accessories category is typically the second-largest in e-commerce, for example, but will only grow 8.6% as consumers shift spending away from discretionary, non-essential purchases.

Meanwhile, other e-commerce categories including food and beverage and health/beauty/personal care are up by much more — the former by 58.5% and the latter by 32.4%.

“Everything we’re seeing with e-commerce is unprecedented, with growth rates expected to surpass anything we’ve seen since the Great Recession,” said Andrew Lipsman, eMarketer principal analyst. “Certain e-commerce behaviors like online grocery shopping and click-and-collect have permanently catapulted three or four years into the future in just three or four months,” he added.

The shift to online grocery has been particularly beneficial to Walmart, which typically cites online grocery as a contributing factor to its overall e-commerce sales growth. Emarketer’s new report also noted that Walmart will, for the first time, surpass eBay as the No. 2 e-commerce retailer in the U.S, behind Amazon. It expects Walmart will see its e-commerce sales jump by more than 35% in 2020, growing to claim a 5.8% share of the U.S. e-commerce market.

Target, Best Buy, The Home Depot and Costco will grow as well.

But Amazon, as expected, will outpace the lot.

“Amazon will increase its e-commerce market share to 38% and extend its reign of dominance,” Lipsman said.

Silicon Valley can fight systemic racism by supporting Black-owned businesses

By Walter Thompson
Will Walker Contributor
Will Walker is a JD candidate at Harvard Law School, and a contributing author to "Incomprehensible!: A Study of How Our Legal System Encourages Incomprehensibility, Why It Matters and What We Can Do About It".

As the United States sees its second week of large-scale protests against police brutality, it’s painfully clear that the country’s racial divide requires significant short- and long-term action. But most of these calls for change gloss over the role Silicon Valley can and should play in mending the racial divide.

Right now, activists are rightfully urging the public to take two crucial steps: vote out state and local government leaders and support Black-owned businesses. Both steps are necessary, but the importance of the latter has been largely overshadowed. Leaders can enact policy change, but much of the structural racial disparity in the U.S. is economic. Black workers are vastly overrepresented in low-paying agricultural, domestic and service jobs.

They’re also far more likely to be unemployed (in normal economic circumstances, and especially during the pandemic). A Stanford University study found that only 1% of Black-owned businesses receive loans in their first year. That’s seven times lower than the percentage for white businesses.

Put simply, enacting new laws and overturning old ones won’t suddenly reverse decades of biased investment decisions. That’s why all over social media, there are grassroots pushes to shop Black. Apps like WeBuyBlack and eatOkra collate businesses and restaurants into one centralized database, while organizations like Bank Black encourage investment in Black-owned funds or Black-owned businesses.

But what happens when the hashtags stop trending, the protests stop attracting crowds, and the Twitter feeds return to celebrity gossip and reality show reactions? Many organizers worry that, after the media cycle of the George Floyd protests expire, widespread interest in fixing systemic racism will go away too. Apps may be helpful in propping up Black businesses, but they rely on customers fundamentally changing their purchasing and consumption habits. Perhaps the perfect storm of COVID-19 and Mr. Floyd’s death will result in a wide-scale transformation of consumer behavior. But that’s not a given, and even if it were, it wouldn’t be enough.

To systematically fix underinvestment in Black businesses, we need big tech to step up. Now.

In particular, while there’s been a lot of recent talk about “algorithmic bias” (preventing algorithms on sites like Facebook or Google from implicitly discriminating on the basis of race), there hasn’t been enough talk about proactively demanding “algorithmic equality.” What if, for instance, tech companies didn’t just focus on erasing the entrenched bias in their systems, but actually reprogrammed algos to elevate Black businesses, Black investors and Black voices?

This shift could involve deliberately increasing the proportion of Black-created products or restaurants that make it onto the landing pages of sites like Amazon and Grubhub. Less dramatically, it could tweak SEO language to better accommodate racial and regional differences among users. The algorithmic structures behind updates like Panda could be repurposed to systematically encourage the consumption of Black-created content, allowing Black voices and Black businesses to get proportional purchase in the American consumer diet.

There’s also no compelling reason to believe that these changes would harm user experience. A recent Brookings study found that minority-owned businesses are rated just as highly on Yelp as white-owned businesses. However, these minority-owned businesses grow more slowly and gain less traction than their white-owned counterparts — resulting in an annual loss of $3.9 billion across all Black businesses. To help resolve this glaring (and needless) inequality, Yelp could modify its algorithms to amplify high-performing Black-owned businesses. This could significantly increase the annual income of quality Black entrepreneurs, while also increasing the likelihood in overall investment in Black small businesses.

At the very least, giving Black business a short-term algorithmic advantage in take-out and delivery services could help stem the massive economic breach caused by the coronavirus and could help save the 40% of minority-owned businesses that have shut down because of the pandemic.

Nothing can undo the losses of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery or the countless other Black Americans who unjustly died as a result of this country’s broken system. What we can do is demand accountability and action, both from our political leaders and from the Silicon Valley CEOs who structure e-commerce.

With thoughtful, data-based modifications, online platforms can give Black entrepreneurs, creators and voices the opportunity to compete — an equality that has been denied for far too long.

YC-backed Tajir raises $1.8M to help mom-and-pop stores source inventory in Pakistan

By Manish Singh

A number of high-profile firms and startups have set up logistics networks in India in the last decade as they attempt to digitize neighborhood stores.

Bangalore-headquartered startup Udaan, for instance, works directly with brands and sellers to source inventory and sells and delivers it to stores through its business-to-business marketplace. It’s a big opportunity. Most neighborhood stores that dot tens of thousands of cities and towns in India are still offline.

The startup has warehouses spread across the country, several in New Delhi and Gurgaon.

If you travel a few hundred miles west, things look very familiar. Pakistan has several similarities to India: its cities are just as dense and populated, for one. But the startup ecosystem in the nation, which is much smaller than India in size and population, is still in its nascent stage.

But slowly, global investors who arrived in India and other Asian markets in the last decade are beginning to look at Pakistan and bet on startups that are solving similar challenges.

Tajir, a Lahore-headquartered startup, today serves more than 15,000 neighborhood stores, locally known in the region as kirana, across Pakistan.

The two-year-old startup, the first startup from the nation to be backed by Y Combinator, said on Friday that it has closed a new financing round.

Pioneer Fund, Golden Gate Ventures, Fatima Gobi Ventures, Karavan, and VentureSouq led the round, with participation from a clutch of angel investors, Tajir co-founders Babar Khan and Ismail Khan told TechCrunch in an interview.

Tajir offers full transparency on the prices of various products, addressing a challenge that store owners confront offline each day, and sells and delivers inventories to the stores, said the Khan brothers, whose father ran an FMCG retail distribution business for three decades.

“We help store owners save money on inventory and help them boost their sales,” said Ismail.

Like in India, offline retail drives the vast majority of sales in Pakistan. “The retail is even more unorganized here compared to neighboring nations,” they said. There’s no Amazon or any major giant running an e-commerce business for consumers in Pakistan today.

For Babar and Ismail, that’s a big opportunity as they scale. According to official government data, there are about 2 million neighborhood stores in Pakistan.

Tajir is gaining ground in the country today mostly through word-of-mouth endorsement from existing partners, though the startup also maintains a sales team to educate more store owners about their platform.

It plans to use the capital to expand its offering and develop more services that stores need to grow their business, the brothers said. These offerings could include a wider catalog of inventory, and access to financial services, they said.

“We want to offer an essential service to every single mom-and-pop store in Pakistan,” said Babar.

Tajir today does not have any major competitor, which is good news as a lot is riding on its founders’ shoulders who are among the early batch of entrepreneurs in the country. In many ways, their success will determine the perception of the Pakistani market to investors worldwide.

Pinterest adds a ‘Shop’ tab to its Lens Camera search results to showcase matching in-stock products

By Sarah Perez

As more retailers are bringing their products online via Pinterest, the company this morning is launching a new “Shop” tab in its Lens camera search results that will show the matching in-stock merchandise similar to a photo you take of something offline in the real world or even uploaded as a screenshot.

To use the new shop tab, you first click the camera in the Search bar, and snap a photo or upload one. You’ll then see a “Shop” tab with shoppable Product Pins, including price and availability, along with links that deliver consumers to the retailer’s checkout page.

While the camera was originally intended to help shoppers find matching products to those they saw in real-world stores and elsewhere, while out and about, Pinterest suggests that consumers can now use the feature to find matches to products without leaving their house. You could snap a photo of your favorite running shoes you need to replace, for instance, or upload photos from your phone’s Camera Roll or from a blog or any other platform.

Pinterest says it’s now seeing as many as 3 times the number of visual searches using the Pinterest camera compared with 2019. That indicates a growing consumer familiarity with using their smartphone camera in order to shop. But it also points to the work Pinterest has done on the product over the past several months.

During the past 6 months, for example, Pinterest has doubled the number of attributes detected in women’s fashion, including color, pattern, fabric, dress style, length, texture, brand, neckline, shoe height, occasion, style, and season. Its accuracy in product matching in fashion has also increased by over 50% in the past year, the company claims.

The Shop tab’s debut follows a Shopify partnership that makes it easier for small businesses to upload their product catalogs to Pinterest to reach its some 350 million users, as well as last week’s launch of shopping spotlights— trends curated by influencers and publishers.

The Shop tab in Lens represents yet another way for Pinterest to compete with Google, which recently revamped its shopping vertical to include mostly free listings instead of paid ads, and whose own Google Lens camera lets consumers shop products that match those found in photos.

The Shop tab also presents a challenge to Instagram, which has been steadily growing its own Instagram Shopping service that connects shoppers with products found in photos, and allows them to transact without leaving the site. This feature was embraced by Target in May, around the same time that Facebook and Instagram announced the launch of “Shops,” which allow consumers to buy directly from a Facebook Page or Instagram Profile.

Combined, these efforts point to a new trend in the way consumers want to shop. Instead of long lists of products to scroll through, they want to be inspired by photos and real-world imagery, then transact. The result of this sort of image-driven shopping is an experience that feels similar to wandering a store and encountering the merchandise displays that are designed to catch your eye.

Pinterest’s new Shop tab in Lens search results is rolling out today.

Amazon expands use of SNAP benefits for online grocery to 11 more states

By Sarah Perez

Amazon customers in nearly a dozen more U.S. states are now able to use their SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits to purchase groceries online, the retailer announced on Thursday. The news represents a significant expansion of a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) pilot program introduced in 2019 that aimed to open up online grocery shopping to those on public assistance. This program is even more critical now, as in-store shopping puts consumers at risk of contracting the deadly novel coronavirus. 

To date, participating retailers in the USDA pilot program have included Walmart, Amazon, ShopRite and other smaller chains.

Amazon confirmed to TechCrunch that the 11 new states that now support using SNAP for online grocery include those that were added starting last week through today, Thursday, May 28.

The initial expansion of the pilot added New Mexico, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin, which all became active last week. On Tuesday of this week, Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota and New Jersey rolled out. And today, Massachusetts, Michigan and Virginia were added as well.

With these additions, Amazon customers on public assistance can shop online for groceries across a total of 25 U.S. states plus Washington, D.C. At checkout, they can pay for groceries using their SNAP EBT.

Including the new states, Amazon now offers the use of SNAP EBT for online grocery in Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

However, Amazon is not the only retailer offering online grocery for SNAP EBT customers in these 25 states.

According to the USDA’s website, SNAP users can now order their groceries online through either Amazon or Walmart in these markets.

The site also indicates that Amazon is the only retailer supporting the District of Columbia at present. In addition, ShopRite supports the use of SNAP for online groceries in Maryland, New Jersey and New York. And Wright’s Markets is participating in the pilot program in Alabama.

The USDA’s website indicates several more states are now in the planning phase, so they can add online purchasing as a shopping option soon. These include Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Wyoming.

As part of Amazon’s participation in the USDA program, it not only enabled the use of SNAP EBT as a payment method, it also made its Amazon Fresh service available to SNAP recipients in states where Fresh is available without requiring a Prime membership. And it offered free shipping on both Amazon Fresh and Amazon Pantry orders.

At launch, Amazon had said the USDA pilot program would “dramatically increase access to food for more remote customers.”

However, in the coronavirus era, access to online grocery can be a life-saving measure for some.

The pandemic has complicated access to food for those on SNAP benefits, and for high-risk individuals on SNAP in particular. These consumers now have to risk getting COVID-19 every time they go out for groceries themselves. And as more workers become unemployed due to the economic impacts from the pandemic, more people are joining public assistance programs like SNAP. 

In light of the pandemic, the USDA said it would fast-track any state that wanted to join the pilot. California, Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, Texas, West Virginia, D.C., North Carolina and Vermont were just approved in April, for example. In May, the USDA approved Minnesota, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, New Mexico and Wyoming.

In less than six weeks, the USDA has expanded access to the program to a total of 36 states plus D.C., it says, though many are not yet live. When they launch, however, online purchasing for groceries will be available to more than 90% of SNAP participants, the USDA has noted.

DHL acquires stake in Link Commerce developed by MallforAfrica

By Jake Bright

DHL has acquired a minority stake in Link Commerce, a turn-key e-commerce company that grew out of MallforAfrica.com — a Nigerian digital-retail startup.

Link Commerce offers a white-label solution for doing digital-sales in emerging markets.

Retailers can plug into the company’s e-commerce platform to create a web-based storefront that manages payments and logistics.

With the investment one of the world’s largest delivery services looks to build a broader client-base globally using a business built in Africa.

DHL is trying to get their hands more into global e-commerce…across the world and they figured our platform was a good way to do it,” Link Commerce CEO Chris Folayan told TechCrunch.

Folayan originally founded MallforAfrica, which paved the way for Link Commerce. DHL’s investment in the company —  the amount of which is undisclosed — has roots in collaboration with Folayan’s original startup.

MallforAfrica began a partnership with DHL in 2015 and launched DHL Africa eShop in 2019. The sales platform is powered by Link Commerce and has brought more than 200 U.S. and U.K. sellers — from Neiman Marcus to Carters — online to African consumers in 34 countries.

DHL AFRICA ESHOP MAP

Image Credits: DHL

Similar to MallforAfrica’s model, Africa eShop allows users to purchase goods directly from the websites of any of the app’s partners.

For the global retailers selling on Africa eShop, the hurdles that held back distribution on the continent — payments, currency risk, logistics — are handled by the underlying Link Commerce operating platform.

“That’s what our service does. It takes care of that whole ecosystem to enable global e-commerce to exist, no matter what country you’re in,” Folayan told TechCrunch in 2019.

Link Commerce was built out of Folayan’s startup MallforAfrica.com, which he founded in 2011 after studying and working in the U.S.

A common practice among Africans — that of giving lists of goods to family members abroad to buy and bring home — highlighted a gap between supply and demand for the continent’s consumer markets.

With MallforAfrica Folayan aimed to close that gap by allowing people on the continent to purchase goods from global retailers directly online.

MallforAfrica and Link Commerce founder Chris Folayan, Image Credits: MallforAfrica

The e-commerce site went on to onboard over 250 global retailers and now employs 30 people at order processing facilities in Oregon and the UK.

MallforAfrica’s Africa eShop expansion put it on a footing to compete with Pan African e-commerce leader Jumia — which went public on the NYSE in 2019 — and China’s Alibaba, anticipated to enter online retail on the continent at some point.

The Link Commerce, DHL deal won’t change that, but Folayan has shifted the hirearchy of his businesses to make Link Commerce the lead operation and Africa one market of many.

Image Credits: Link Commerce

“We changed the structure. So now Link Commerce is above MallforAfrica and MallforAfrica is now powered by Link Commerce,” Folayan explained on a recent call.

“Right now the focus is on Africa…but we’re taking this global,” he added.

Folayan and DHL plan to extend the platform to emerging markets around the world, where other companies may look to grow by wrapping an online store, payments, and logistics solution around their core business.

That could include any large entity that wants to launch an international e-commerce site, according to Folayan.

“Link Commerce is focused on banks, mobile companies, shipping companies and partnering with them to expand globally,” he said.

That’s a big leap from Folayan’s original venture, MallforAfrica.com

What began as a startup to sell brand name jeans and sneakers online in Africa, has pivoted to a global e-commerce fulfillment business partially owned by logistics giant DHL.

Ecwid raises $42M from Morgan Stanley and PeakSpan

By Ingrid Lunden

In the same week that Facebook announced a redoubled effort to make a bigger mark in e-commerce, one of its long-time partners has closed a large round of funding. Ecwid, the startup that sells e-commerce tools directly and via third parties like Square and Wix, letting businesses build e-commerce experiences on their own websites and apps, as well as via Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, Google, and more, has raised $42 million from Morgan Stanley and PeakSpan Capital.

Notably, now San Diego-based Ecwid had only raised about $6.5 million since 2009, the year it was founded in Russia as a spinout of X-Cart, a previous company founded by the founder and CEO Ruslan Fazylev; and it’s already profitable. So rather than being used to operate, Fazylev said the funding enabled earlier outside investors — Russia’s Runa Capital, iTech from Latvia and the IT-park business incubator from Kazan — cash out, and gives Ecwid funds that it can use both for acquisitions and to continue expanding its platform organically.

Ecwid is in the stable of e-commerce companies that include the likes of Shopify, BigCommerce and WooCommerce, which have seized on the growth of online shopping over the last decade and helped companies that are not digital by nature — specifically small and medium brick-and-mortar businesses — become a part of that digital economy. And to underscore that low barrier to entry, its pricing starts at free to enable shopping on a website covering 10 or fewer products. (Further priced tiers include the ability to integrate with Facebook and other sites, as well as sell more items, apply more analytics and so on.)

That mandate and opportunity to provide analogue SMBs a route to the next generation of shopping has taken on a new dimension in the last few months. Authorities in many jurisdictions have closed down brick-and-mortar establishments and offices, and restricted day-to-day movement and contact between people in an attempt to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In other words, if e-commerce has been a long-term growth opportunity with upside for those that cared to invest in it, overnight it became a must-have for any small business that wanted to continue to operate through and after this health crisis.

Just as we’ve seen that trend play out for Shopify (whose share price has been on a roll), Fazylev said that Ecwid, too, has had a big boost. Ironically all that activity started after it closed the round (which was raised before COVID-19 really hit).

“The moment we signed the term sheet, things started to go really crazy,” he said. “Overnight, demand tripled because SMBs were under immense pressure to transition to online ordering. We at Ecwid are not worried about the Walmarts of the world but about the small guys and making it super easy for them. And so demand went through the roof.” Transaction volume between March and April grew by 50% and to meet demand.

Even before that, Ecwid was an under-the-radar success, which is why PeakSpan and Morgan Stanley came knocking.  Even if it’s not the 300% growth of the last couple of months, 2019 saw sign-ups double on the platform with a Net Promoter Score of above 60. (Fazylev said Ecwid lives and dies by its Net Promoter Score so he’s especially proud of this above-average figure.)

And in addition to its direct-to-SMB offering, it white labels through a number of popular channels like Wix, GoDaddy and Square. Together, there are some 1.5 million SMBs across 175 countries (and 54 languages) using its e-commerce rails. This might actually have been one reason why it wasn’t a part of the Facebook Shops news: it’s quietly enabling an army of competitors. But to be very clear, when I asked about the omission, Fazylev said he was stumped by it himself.

PeakSpan Capital Co-Founder and Managing Partner Phil Dur, and Pete Chung, Managing Director and Head of Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital, are both joining the board as part of this round.

“Covid-19 is reinforcing what we already knew: e-commerce is vital, and it’s available to even the smallest of merchants now with Ecwid’s free tools that even novice Internet users can adopt quickly,” said Dur, in a statement. “We have been watching Ecwid for many years.The company’s impressive capital efficiency and very strong long-term market opportunity made it an easy decision for us to partner with them during this next phase of growth.”

“Ecwid is truly helping its customers make the most of e-commerce enablement at a time when their traditional retail businesses have been disrupted so dramatically,” said Chung, in a statement. “Ruslan is an e-commerce visionary who has built a team and beloved solution that allows any mom-and-pop shop to embrace the online world,  dramatically expanding their revenue and market potential.”

China’s Geek+ brings warehouse robots to US via Conveyco partnership

By Rita Liao

Chinese robots will soon be seen roaming a number of warehouse floors across North America. Geek+, a well-funded Chinese robotics company that specializes in logistics automation for factories, warehouses and supply chains, furthers its expansion in North America after striking a strategic partnership with Conveyco, an order fulfillment and distribution center system integrator with operations across the continent.

Geek+ is seizing a massive opportunity in replacing repetitive warehouse work with unmanned robots, a demand that has surged during the coronavirus outbreak as logistics services around the world face labor shortage, respond to an uptick in e-commerce sales, and undertake disease prevention methods.

The partnership will bring Geek+’s autonomous mobile robots, or ARMs, to Conveyco’s clients in retail, ecommerce, omnichannel and logistics across North America. The deal will give a substantial boost to Geek’s overseas distribution while helping Conveyco to “improve efficiency, provide flexibility, and reduce costs associated with warehouse and logistics operations in various industries,” the partners said in a statement.

Beijing-based Geek+ so far operates 10,000 robots worldwide and employs some 800 employees, with offices in China, Germany, the U.K, the U.S., Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Some of its clients include Nike, Decathlon, Walmart and Dell.

Since founding in 2015, the company has raised about $390 million through five funding rounds, according to public data collected by Crunchbase, including a colossal $150 million round back in 2018 which it claimed was the largest-ever funding round for a logistics robotics startup. It counts Warburg Pincus, Vertex Ventures and GGV Capital among its list of investors.

Kenya’s Apollo Agriculture raises $6M Series A led by Anthemis

By Jake Bright

Apollo Agriculture believes it can attain profits by helping Kenya’s smallholder farmers maximize theirs.

That’s the mission of the Nairobi-based startup that raised $6 million in Series A funding led by Anthemis.

Founded in 2016, Apollo Agriculture offers a mobile-based product suit for farmers that includes working capital, data analysis for higher crop yields and options to purchase key inputs and equipment.

“It’s everything a farmer needs to succeed. It’s the seeds and fertilizer they need to plant, the advice they need to manage that product over the course of the season. The insurance they need to protect themselves in case of a bad year…and then, ultimately, the financing,” Apollo Agriculture CEO Eli Pollak told TechCrunch on a call.

Apollo’s addressable market includes the many smallholder farmers across Kenya’s population of 53 million. The problem it’s helping them solve is a lack of access to the tech and resources to achieve better results on their plots.

The startup has engineered its own app, platform and outreach program to connect with Kenya’s farmers. Apollo uses M-Pesa mobile money, machine learning and satellite data to guide the credit and products it offers them.

The company — which was a TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Africa 2018 finalist — has served over 40,000 farmers since inception, with 25,000 of those paying relationships coming in 2020, according to Pollak.

Apollo Agriculture Start

Apollo Agriculture co-founders Benjamin Njenga and Eli Pollak

Apollo Agriculture generates revenues on the sale of farm products and earning margins on financing. “The farm pays a fixed price for the package, which comes due at harvest…that includes everything and there’s no hidden fees,” said Pollak.

On deploying the $6 million in Series A financing, “It’s really about continuing to invest in growth. We feel like we’ve got a great product. We’ve got great reviews by customers and want to just keep scaling it,” he said. That means hiring, investing in Apollo’s tech and growing the startup’s sales and marketing efforts.

“Number two is really strengthening our balance sheet to be able to continue raising the working capital that we need to lend to customers,” Pollak said.

For the moment, expansion in Africa beyond Kenya is in the cards but not in the near-term. “That’s absolutely on the roadmap,” said Pollak. “But like all businesses, everything is a bit in flux right now. So some of our plans for immediate expansion are on a temporary pause as we wait to see things shake out with with COVID.”

Apollo Agriculture’s drive to boost the output and earnings of Africa’s smallholder farmers is born out of the common interests of its co-founders.

Pollak is an American who studied engineering at Stanford University and went to work in agronomy in the U.S. with The Climate Corporation. “That was how I got excited about Apollo. I would look at other markets and say, ‘wow, they’re farming 20% more acres of maize, or corn, across Africa but farmers are producing dramatically less than U.S. farmers,'” said Pollak.

Pollak’s colleague, co-founder Benjamin Njenga, found inspiration from his experience in his upbringing. “I grew up on a farm in a Kenyan village. My mother, a smallholder farmer, used to plant with low-quality seeds and no fertilizer and harvested only five bags per acre each year,” he told the audience in 2018 at Startup Battlefield Africa in Lagos.

Image Credits: Apollo Agriculture”We knew if she’d used fertilizer and hybrid seeds her production would double, making it easier to pay my school fees.” Njenga went on to explain that she couldn’t access the credit to buy those tools, which prompted the motivation for Apollo Agriculture.

Anthemis Exponential Ventures’ Vica Manos confirmed its lead on Apollo’s latest raise. The UK-based VC firm — which invests mostly in the Europe and the U.S. — has also backed South African fintech company Jumo and will continue to consider investments in African startups, Manos told TechCrunch.

Additional investors in Apollo Agriculture’s Series A round included Accion Venture Lab, Leaps by Bayer and Flourish Ventures.

While agriculture is the leading employer in Africa, it hasn’t attracted the same attention from venture firms or founders as fintech, logistics or e-commerce. The continent’s agtech startups lagged those sectors in investment, according to Disrupt Africa and WeeTracker’s 2019 funding reports.

Some notable agtech ventures that have gained VC include Nigeria’s Farmcrowdy, Hello Tractor — which has partnered with IBM and Twiga Foods, a Goldman-backed B2B agriculture supply chain startup based in Nairobi.

On whether Apollo Agriculture sees Twiga as a competitor, CEO Eli Pollak suggested collaboration. “Twiga could be a company that in the future we could potentially partner with,” he said.

“We’re partnering with farmers to produce lots of high-quality crops, and they could potentially be a great partner in helping those farmers access stable prices for those…yields.”

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