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December 10, 2018
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FB QVC? Facebook tries Live video shopping

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Want to run your own home shopping network? Facebook is now testing a Live video feature for merchants that lets them demo and describe their items for viewers. Customers can screenshot something they want to buy and use Messenger to send it to the seller, who can then request payment right through the chat app.

Facebook confirms the new shopping feature is currently in testing with a limited set of Pages in Thailand, which has been a testbed for shopping features. The option was first spotted by social media and reputation manager Jeff Higgins, and re-shared by Matt Navarra and Social Media Today. But now Facebook is confirming the test’s existence and providing additional details.

The company tells me it had heard feedback from the community in Thailand that Live video helped sellers demonstrate how items could be used or worn, and provided richer understanding than just using photos. Users also told Facebook that Live’s interactivity let customers instantly ask questions and get answers about product specifications and details. Facebook has looked to Thailand to test new commerce experiences like home rentals in Marketplace, as the country’s citizens were quick to prove how Facebook Groups could be used for peer-to-peer shopping. “Thailand is one of our most active Marketplace communities” says Mayank Yadav, Facebook Product Manager for Marketplace.

Now it’s running the Live shopping test, which allows Pages to notify fans that they’re going broadcasting to “showcase products and connect with your customers”. Merchants can take reservations and request payments through Messenger.  Facebook tells me it doesn’t currently have plans to add new partners or expand the feature. But some sellers without access are being invited to join a waitlist for the feature. It also says it’s working closely with its test partners to gather feedback and iterate on the live video shopping experience, which would seem to indicate it’s interested in opening the feature more widely if it performs well.

Facebook doesn’t take a cut of payments through Messenger, but the feature could still help earn the company money at a time when it’s seeking revenue streams beyond News Feed ads as it runs out of space their, Stories take over as the top media form, and user growth plateaus. Hooking people on video viewing helps Facebook show lucrative video ads. The more that Facebook can train users to buy and sell things on its app, the better the conversion rates will be for businesses, and the more they’ll be willing to spend on ads. Facebook could also convince sellers who broadcast Live to buy its new Marketplace ad units to promote their wares. And Facebook is happy to snatch any use case from the rest of the internet, whether it’s long-form video viewing or job applications or shopping to boost time on site and subsequent ad views.

Increasingly, Facebook is setting its sights on Craigslist, Etsy, and eBay. Those commerce platforms have failed to keep up with new technologies like video and lack the trust generated by Facebook’s real name policy and social graph. A few years ago, selling something online meant typing up a generic description and maybe uploading a photo. Soon it could mean starring in your own infomercial.

[Postcript: And a Facebook home shopping network could work perfectly on its new countertop smart display Portal.]

News Source = techcrunch.com

Uber Eats test lets restaurants trade discounts for ranking boost

in Advertising Tech/Apps/Delhi/eCommerce/Food/food delivery/India/Logistics/mobile/Payments/Politics/Startups/TC/Uber/Uber Eats by

Uber Eats has effectively invented its own native ad unit. Uber confirmed to TechCrunch that a test quietly running in markets around India allows restaurants to bundle several food items together and sell them at a discounted price in exchange for promoted placement by Uber Eats in a featured section of local “Specials”. In some cases, restaurants foot the cost of the discount, while in others Uber pays for the discounts.

The Uber Specials feature demonstrates the massive leverage awarded to food delivery apps that aggregate restaurants. Users often come to Uber Eats and its competitors without a specific restaurant in mind. Uber can then point those customers to whichever food supplier it prefers. The suppliers in turn will increasingly compete for the favor the aggregators — not just in terms of food quality, speed, and review scores, but also in terms of discounts. The aggregators will win users if they offer the best deals, creating a network effect makes restaurants more keen to play ball.

TechCrunch first learned of Uber’s ambitions in the space from a mock-up of the Promoted Items Value Section feature spotted in its app by mobile researcher and frequent TC tipster Jane Manchun Wong. The fictional food items included “Best Beer” that “is made from only the finest gutter swill” and “Weird Fries” that “will so utterly decimate your sense of good food that you will be permanently reduced to a whimpering shell of your former self!” This jokey text that seemingly was never meant for public viewing also noted that the fries are so good you should “throw all your other food in the garbage right now!” Uber assured us these weren’t real.

But what it did confirm is that the discounts for promoted placement test is live in India. “We’re always experimenting with ways to make it easier to find your favorite foods on Uber Eats”, according to a statement provided by an Uber spokesperson.

The feature allows restaurants to create a bundled meal at certain price point, such as a chicken sandwich, french fries, and a drink at a price that’s less than the sum of its parts. The company tells me the goal is to take the friction out of ordering by giving people pre-set meals at a better price prominently available in the app. Attracting more customers that have plenty of other options could offset the discount. Businesses could also use it to bundle high margin items like soft drinks in with meals, or to get rid of overstock.

Ben Thompson’s aggregation theory describes how power accrues to aggregators that match supply with demand

It’s already common for restaurants to make ‘specials’ out of food they have too much of. That butternut squash ravioli might only be featured because they can’t get rid of it. In that sense, you could think of Uber Specials as the inverse of surge pricing. When supply is too high, restaurants can offer discounts to gain more demand. It’s also not far off from Google Search’s keyword ads where business pay for more visibility.

Uber wouldn’t discuss whether it plans to bring the strategy to other markets, but it makes sense to assume it’s considering expansion. Done wrong, it could look a bit like Uber Eats is pressuring restaurants to surrender discounts if they want to be discoverable inside its app. If restaurants within Uber Eats get into heated competition to offer discounts, it could drive down their profits. But done right, Specials could look like a triple-win. Restaurants can offload surplus and bundle in high margin items while scoring new customers from enhanced placement, customers get cheaper food options, and Uber Eats becomes people’s go-to app for easy-to-order discounted meals.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Cross-border fintech startup Instarem raises $20M for global expansion

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Instarem, a Singapore-based startup that helps banks transfer money overseas cheaply, has raised a Series C round of over $20 million for global expansion.

The round is led by MDI Ventures — the VC arm of Indonesian telecom operator Telkom — and Beacon — the fund belonging to Thai bank Kasikorn — as well as existing investors Vertex Ventures, GSR Ventures Rocket Internet and the SBI-FMO Fund.

The money takes four-year-old Instarem to nearly $40 million raised to date, although Instarem co-founder and CEO Prajit Nanu told TechCrunch that the startup plans to expand the Series C to $45 million. The extra capital is expected to be closed by January, with Nanu particularly keen to bring on strategic investors that can help the business grow in new emerging markets in Latin America as well as Europe.

“We are a the stage where the color of the money is very important,” he said in an interview. “It is very key to us that we bring people into the round who can add value to our business.”

Nanu added that the company is speaking to large U.S. funds among other potential investors.

Instarem works with banks to reduce their overseas transfer costs, offering a kind of ‘Transferwise for enterprise’ service. Although, unlike Transferwise which uses a global network of banks to send money across the world, Instarem uses mid-size banks that already trade in overseas currencies. As I previously explained, the process is the financial equivalent of putting a few boxes on a UPS freighter that’s about to head out, thus paying just a sliver of the costs you’d incur if you had to find a boat and ship it yourself.

Focused on Southeast Asia primarily, it services over 50 markets with transfers. The company does offer a service for consumers, but financial institutions — which have ongoing demand and higher average spend — are its primary target.

Prajit Nanu founded Instarem in 2014 alongside Michael Bermingham

The company has offices in Singapore, Mumbai and Lithuania and it is opening a presence in Seattle as it begins to look to broaden its business, which already includes three of Southeast Asia’s top ten banks. Nanu said that the company will try to work with banks and financial services such as cross-border services which target users with links to Latin America and Mexico initially. In Asia, it is awaiting payment licenses in Japan and Indonesia which will allow it to offer more services in both countries.

TechCrunch understands that the company is on the cusp of a deal with Visa that will allow its customers to roll out branded prepaid cards, adding another financial service to its offerings. Nanu declined to comment when we asked about a deal with Visa.

TechCrunch has also come to learn that Instarem was subject to an acquisition approach earlier this year from one of Southeast Asia’s unicorns. Nanu declined to name the bidder, but he did tell TechCrunch that the offer “wasn’t the right timing for us.” He is, however, giving increased thought to an exit via IPO.

Last year, when Instarem raised its $13 million Series B, he suggested that it could go public by 2020. Now that target date has shifted back to 2021, with the Instarem CEO telling TechCrunch that the U.S. remained the preferred option for a public listing when the time is right.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Standard Cognition raises $40M to replace retailers’ cashiers with cameras

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The Amazon Go store requires hundreds of cameras to detect who’s picking up what items. Standard Cognition needs just 27 to go after the $27 trillion market of equipping regular shops with autonomous retail technology.

Walk into one of its partners’ stores and overhead cameras identify you by shape and movement, not facial recognition. Open up its iOS or Android app and a special light pattern flashes, allowing the cameras to tie you to your account and payment method. Grab whatever you want, and just walk out. Standard Cognition will bill you. It even works without an app. Shop like normal and then walk up to kiosk screen, the cameras tell it what items you nabbed, and you can pay with cash or credit card. That means Standard Cognition stores never exclude anyone, unlike Amazon Go.

“Our tagline has been ‘rehumanizing retail’” co-founder Michael Suswal tells me. “We’re removing the machines that are between people: conveyor belts, cash registers, scanners…”

The potential to help worried merchants compete with Amazon has drawn a new $40 million Series A funding round to Standard Cognition, led by Alexis Ohanian and Garry Tan’s Initialized Capital. CRV, Y Combinator, and Draper Associates joined the round that builds on the startup’s $11 million in seed funding. Just a year old, Standard Cognition already has 40 employees, but plans to hire 70 to 80 more over the next 6 months so it can speed up deployment to more partners. Suswal wouldn’t reveal Standard Cognition’s valuation but said the round was roughly in line with the traditional percentage startups sell in an A round, That’s usually about 20 to 25 percent, indicating the startup could be valued around $160 million to $200 million pre-money.

Instead of some lofty tech solution that requires a whole new store to be built around it, Standard Cognition gets retailers to pay for the capital expenditures to install its low number of ceiling cameras and a computer to run them. They can even alter their store layout without working with an engineer as they pay a monthly SAAS fee based on their store’s size, SKUs, and product changes.

Standard Cognition’s founding team

Amazon Go uses thousands of cameras to track what you pick up

Suswal tells me “Retailers’ two biggest complaints are long lines and poor customer service.” Standard Cognition lets stores eliminate the lines and reassign cashiers to become concierges who make sure customers find the perfect products. “It’s already fun to shop, but I think it’s going to become a lot more fun in the future” Suswal predicts.

Having seven co-founders is pretty atypical for startups, but it’s helped Standard Cognition move quickly. The crew came together while all working at the SEC. They’d meet up as part of a technology research group, discussing the latest findings on computer vision and machine learning. Suswal recalls that “After about a year, we said ‘if we were going to productize this somehow, what would we do?” They settled on retail, and narrowed it down to autonomous checkout. Then a bombshell dropped. Amazon Go, the first truly signficant cashierless store, was announced.

“We initially thought ‘oh no, this is bad.’ And then we quickly came to our senses that this was the best thing that could happen” Suswal explains. Retailers would be desperate for assistance to fight off Amazon. So the squad quit their jobs and started Standard Cognition.

In September, Standard Cognition opened a 1,900 sq ft flagship test store on Market St in San Francisco, besting Amazon to the punch. Customers can stuff items in their bags, reconsider and put some back, and stroll out of the store with no stop at the cashier. Standard Cognition claims its camera system is 99 percent accurate, and is trained to identify the suspicious movements and behavior of shoplifters.

The store is part of a sudden wave of autonomous retail startups including Zippen that opened the first one in SF, fellow Y Combinator startup Inokyo that launched a bare-bones pop-up in Mountain View, and Trigo Vision which is partnering with Israeli an grocery chain for more than 200 stores.

Now with plenty of capital and eager customers, Standard Cognition is equipping stores for its first four partners — all public companies. Three refuse to be named but include US grocery, drug store, and convenience store businesses. The fourth is Japan’s pharmacy chain Yakuodo. Standard Cognition is already working on its store mapping for its cameras and will begin camera installation next month, though it will be a little while until it opens.

Japan is the perfect market for Standard Cognition because their aging population has produced a labor shortage. “They literally can’t find people to work in their stores” Suswal explains. Autonomous checkout could keep Japanese retailers growing. And because 70 percent of transactions in Japan are cash-based, it also forced the startup to learn how to handle payments outside of its app. That could make Standard Cognition appealing for retailers that want to embrace the future without abandoning the past.

Getting long-running retail businesses to invest in evolving may be the startup’s biggest challenge. Since they have to pay up front for the installation, they’re gambling that the system will reliably increase sales or at least decrease labor costs. But if it makes their stores too confusing, they could see an exodus of customers instead of an influx.

As for Standard Cognition’s impact on the labor class, Suswal admits that “the major chains will have some reduction . . . no one is going to get fired but fewer people will get hired.” He believes his tech could actually save some jobs too. “I was walking around NYC talking to (small chains and mom-and-pop) retailers about problems they face, and an alarming number of them told me ‘we’re closing in a year. We’re closing in 6 months.’ And it was all tied to the next minimum wage hike” Suswal tells me.

Reducing labor costs could keep those shops viable. “These stores can stay open with a reduction of labor so people are keeping their jobs, not losing them” he claims. Whether that proves true will take some time, but at least Standard Cognition’s tech could incentivize merchants to retrain their clerks for more fulfilling roles as concierges.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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