Amazon will pay $135,000 to settle alleged US sanction violations

In a statement issued this week, the U.S. Treasury Department notes that Amazon has agreed to pay $134,523 to settle potential liability over alleged sanctions violations. The charges specifically pertain to goods and services sent to people located in Crimea, Iran and Syria, which are covered by Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctions, between November 2011 and October 2018.

The Treasury Department also states that the retail giant failed to report “several hundred” transactions in a timely manner. The department adds:

Amazon also accepted and processed orders on its websites for persons located in or employed by the foreign missions of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. Additionally, Amazon accepted and processed orders from persons listed on OFAC’s List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (the “SDN List”) who were blocked pursuant to the Narcotics Trafficking Sanctions Regulations, the Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferators Sanctions Regulations, the Transnational Criminal Organizations Sanctions Regulations, the Democratic Republic of the Congo Sanctions Regulations, the Venezuela Sanctions Regulations, the Zimbabwe Sanctions Regulations, the Global Terrorism Sanctions Regulations, and the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Sanctions Regulations.

The settlement is, of course, fairly insubstantial, compared to the massive market cap of the online retail giant. The transactions, were, however, for fairly low-level retail goods and services. In all, the violations only amounted to around double the settlement price of $134,523. 

The department doesn’t believe there was anything malicious going on, rather an issue with Amazon’s system, which failed to flag shipments to sanctioned areas. There appear to be a number of reasons this occurred. One example involves the site failing to note when product was shipped to the Iranian embassy in a different country.

Amazon opted not to offer a comment on the story, though the company notably self-disclosed what it believed to be potential violations of the aforementioned laws back in July of 2016. As The Wall Street Journal notes, a number of other tech giants have been hit with similar issues. Last year, Apple agreed to a $467,000 settlement for similar violations.

Flipkart invests $35 million in Indian fashion brand to target youth

Flipkart on Thursday announced it has invested $35 million in Arvind Fashions for a significant minority stake in one the decades-old Indian firm’s subsidiaries as the Walmart-owned firm looks to widen its hold on fashion e-commerce in the world’s second largest internet market.

The e-commerce firm, which operates market-leading fashion e-commerce firm Myntra, said it was acquiring a stake in Arvind Fashions‘ Arvind Youth Brands, which operates Flying Machine brand in India. The two companies said today the new investment strengthens their partnership as they look to serve demands and needs of the “fashion-conscious youth” in India. Arvind Fashions began selling items on Flipkart six years ago.

91-year-old Arvind Fashions runs of the nation’s largest fashion brands, carrying apparels from Polo Assn, Arrow, GAP, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Aeropostale, the Children’s Place and Ed Hardy among other local and international firms. The Indian e-commerce market for fashion products was worth $7 billion last year, research firm Forrester told TechCrunch.

“Flying Machine is a brand that is known in households across India, popular with the youth and synonymous with value and style. Through this investment, we look forward to partnering with the team at Arvind Youth Brands to continue to grow the market for its portfolio of products and enhance the strong brand equity that has been built over the last few decades,” said Kalyan Krishnamurthy, chief executive officer of Flipkart Group, in a statement.

The partnership with the Flipkart Group is aimed at helping Arvind Fashions accelerate its online growth strategy, said J. Suresh, managing director and chief executive of Arvind Fashions.

“Given the strong existing relationship with the Flipkart Group, and their presence in online fashion, it was an obvious choice for us to enter into this engagement through which Flipkart and Myntra will be our preferred online partner for the Flying Machine brand, while we continue to grow our offline sales through channels like exclusive brand stores, department stores and multi-brand stores,” he said in a statement.

More to follow…

Colvin raises $15M to rethink the flower supply chain

At first glance, Colvin — which recently announced that it has raised a $15 million Series B — might look like just another flower and plant delivery company, but co-founder and CEO Andres Cester said the startup has a much grander vision.

“We were born with the ambition the company that would redesign global flower trade,” he said.

Apparently, when Cester and his co-founder/COO Sergi Bastardas started researching the flower supply chain, they found an industry that was both “fragmented” in terms of growsers and sellers, but also surprisingly centralized, with the Aalsmeer Flower Auction in the Netherlands accounting for 77% of all flower bulbs sold globally.

With all the middlemen, Cester said flowers end up being more expensive (with the growers getting a smaller share of the overall payment), and it takes longer for the flowers to reach the consumer.

So the startup created a marketplace where consumers are buying flowers from straight the growers, with Colvin as the only intermediary. That results in average savings of 50% to 100% compared to online competitors, Cester said. (For example, the bouquets featured on the Colvin homepage all cost about €33 or €34).

And while the flower business is hurting overall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bastardas said consumers are turning to online options, with Colvin seeing a fourfold sales increase year-over-year, and delivery volumes worth $1 million in a single day. The challenge, he said, has been making sure to deliver those flowers within the promised time window.

Colvin founders

Image Credits: Colvin

Cester said Colvin started by selling directly to consumers because it was a good way to build the supply from growers, and that consumer sales should a become a profitable, “cash-generating business.” However, the company’s big focus moving forward is building out its sales to flower wholesalers, who in turn sell to the retailers.

“We’re envisioning the B2B part of the business is going to drive most of the returns and valuation,” Bastardas added.

Colvin was founded in Spain and currently operates in Spain, Italy, Germany and Portugal. There are no plans to come to the U.S. anytime soon, but Cester said, “We believe that if we really want to … redesign how the flower industry works, we’re going to have to land in U.S. sooner or later.”

The startup has now raised a total of $27 million. The new round was led by Italian investment fund Milano Investment Partners, with participation from P101 sgr and Samaipata.

And if you’re wondering about the name, Bastardas said the company was named for civil rights pioneer Claudette Colvin, who was arrested in several months before Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person.

It’s an incongruous choice for a flower startup, but Bastardas said the founders took inspiration from Colvin’s story and the idea that “from several small actions, we can really change an industry.”

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

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 has grown, it has 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.

US online grocery sales hit record $7.2 billion in June

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.

Minted.com’s Mariam Naficy will join us at TechCrunch Early Stage

At Early Stage, the first event of its kind from TechCrunch, entrepreneurs will have the opportunity to learn from some of the greatest minds in the tech world across categories like fundraising, scaling, operations and marketing. Alongside these VCs, lawyers, growth marketers, operators and recruiters, we’ll also be hearing directly from entrepreneurs who have charted their own course.

One such entrepreneur is Mariam Naficy, founder and CEO of Minted. Naficy is an early trailblazer of the ecommerce and crowdsourcing spaces, and a serial entrepreneur to boot.

Minted started as a marketplace for unique paper stationary, all the way back in 2007. The vision was to build out a platform that crowdsourced incredible, unique design into a single marketplace, elevating beautiful products and amplifying independent designers. Today, Minted sells wall art, stationary and home goods, and also sources design for other retailers and brands.

Independent designers on the platform hail from all 50 states and more than 100 countries, and their products have made their way to more than 75 million homes worldwide. The company has raised nearly $300 million from investors Norwest Venture Partners, Benchmark, TCV, and Ridge Ventures.

At Early Stage, we’ll talk to Naficy about how she’s grown Minted over the years. From securing funding to using that funding, from scaling the community to scaling the team, everything is on the table.

Marketplaces are, historically speaking, incredibly hard to build, but Naficy is an expert on the subject. We’ll talk specifically about how to maintain that perfect balance between customer and creator all while growing at a rapid clip.

TC Early Stage (July 21 and 22) has so much to offer. The show will bring together 50+ experts across startup core competencies, such as fundraising, operations, and marketing. Cyan Bannister is set to explain how to get an investor to say yes to your startup. Asher Abramson will be sharing how to create growth assets for paid channels, lawyers James Alonso and Adam Zagaris will share how to draw up your first contracts, and Priti Choksi is hosting a session on how to get a company acquired rather than selling.

The two-day show features more than 50 sessions, but don’t worry; attendees will get access to the videos on demand for all of them. What’s more, most of the speakers, who happen to be investors, are participating in TechCrunch’s CrunchMatch, our platform that connects founders to investors based on shared interests. 

Here’s the fine print. Each of the 50+ breakout sessions is limited to around 100 attendees. We expect a lot more attendees, of course, so signups for each session are on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Buy your ticket today, and you can sign up for the breakouts we are announcing today, as well as those already published. Pass holders will also receive 24-hour advance notice before we announce the next batch. (And yes, you can “drop” a breakout session in favor of a new one, in the event there is a schedule conflict.)

Get your TC Early Stage pass today and jump into the inside track on the sessions we announced so far, as well as the ones to be published in the coming weeks.

Possible sponsor? Hit us up right here.

R&D Roundup: Tech giants unveil breakthroughs at computer vision summit

Computer vision summit CVPR has just (virtually) taken place, and like other CV-focused conferences, there are quite a few interesting papers. More than I could possibly write up individually, in fact, so I’ve collected the most promising ones from major companies here.

Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft all shared papers at the conference — and others too, I’m sure — but I’m sticking to the big hitters for this column. (If you’re interested in the papers deemed most meritorious by attendees and judges, the nominees and awards are listed here.)

Microsoft

Redmond has the most interesting papers this year, in my opinion, because they cover several nonobvious real-life needs.

One is documenting that shoebox we or perhaps our parents filled with old 3x5s and other film photos. Of course there are services that help with this already, but if photos are creased, torn, or otherwise damaged, you generally just get a high-resolution scan of that damage. Microsoft has created a system to automatically repair such photos, and the results look mighty good.

Image Credits: Google

The problem is as much identifying the types of degradation a photo suffers from as it is fixing them. The solution is simple, write the authors: “We propose a novel triplet domain translation network by leveraging real photos along with massive synthetic image pairs.” Amazing no one tried it before!

As Uber hunts for a deal, can Postmates leverage an IPO?

It’s been a busy last 24 hours or so for on-demand delivery company Postmates. According to reporting, the company is reviving its IPO plans, possibly selling to Uber, or perhaps looking to go public with the help of a special purpose acquisition vehicle, also known as a SPAC.

For Postmates, a company caught somewhere between DoorDash’s cash-fueled rise and Uber’s ability to lose hundreds of millions on its Uber Eats delivery service every quarter, multiples options are likely welcome.

Postmates first filed to go public in early 2019, but its IPO failed to materialize. The company was also reported to be pursuing a sale in 2019 after it had filed to go public. An M&A exit also failed to appear.


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But 2020 is very different from 2019. With GrubHub’s bidding war behind us, Uber appears hungry for more volume, and the IPO market is surprisingly hot given the global pandemic. Postmates may have a number of viable options in front of it, instead of a continued grind as a private company.

The IPO market

So what to do?

Despite some blips, if Postmates has managed anything like revenue growth acceleration because people have been staying home and ordering more food and other goods, the company’s IPO story could prove attractive. And if so, the firm could perhaps best what a cash-burning company can afford to part with in an M&A transaction by going public.

Let’s check the tape. It’s a commonly known fact that the public markets have favored technology companies this year, especially software companies. For many venture-backed companies, this is great news. For Postmates, it’s a slightly different equation, as its margins won’t match those of software companies, nor will its revenue recur in a similar fashion.

But, there are IPOs from this year that we can point to featuring companies that also do not feature strong margins or recurring revenue that did great. So, there is an IPO path for venture-backed startups and unicorns to go public even if they are not software entities.

Vroom

Nacelle raises $4.8M for its headless e-commerce platform

As e-commerce companies aim to capitalize on the online spending boom connected to shelter-in-place and keep the party going as physical retailers open back up, more are turning their attention to how they can juice the functionality of their online storefronts and improve experiences for shoppers. Enter Nacelle, an LA-based startup in the burgeoning “headless” e-commerce space.

The startup bills itself as a JAMstack for e-commerce, offering a developer platform that delivers greater performance and scalability to online storefronts. Nacelle has raised about $4.8 million to date in fundings led by Index Ventures and Accomplice. Some of the company’s other angel investors include Shopify’s Jamie Sutton, Klaviyo CEO Andrew Bialecki and Attentive CEO Brian Long.

Nacelle builds an easier path for e-commerce brands to embrace a headless structure. Headless web apps essentially mean a site’s frontend is decoupled from the backend infrastructure, so it’s leaning fully on dedicated frameworks for each to deliver content to users. There are some notable benefits for sites going headless, including greater performance, better scalability, fewer hosting costs and a more streamlined developer experience. For e-commerce sites, there are also some notable complexities due to how storefronts operate and how headless CMSes need to accommodate dynamic inventories and user shopping carts.

“We asked how do you pair a very dynamic requirement with the generally static system that JAMstack offers, and that’s where Nacelle comes in,” CEO Brian Anderson tells TechCrunch.

Anderson previously operated a technical agency for Shopify Plus customers building custom storefronts, a venture that has led to much of the company’s early customers. Nacelle also recently hired Kelsey Burnes as the startup’s first VP of Marketing; she joins from e-commerce plugin platform Nosto.

Though Anderson described a flurry of benefits regarding Nacelle’s platform, many are the result of reduced latency that he says converts more users and pushes them to spend more. The startup has a particular focus on mobile storefronts, with Anderson noting that most desktop storefronts dramatically outperform mobile counterparts and that the speedier load times Nacelle enables on mobile can do a lot to overcome this.

Image Credits: Nacelle

As more brands embrace headless structures, Nacelle is aiming to manage the experience. Nacelle is optimized for Shopify users to get up-and-running the most quickly. Users can also easily integrate the system with popular CMSs like Contentful and Sanity. All in all, Nacelle sports integrations for more than 30 services, including payments platforms, SMS marketing platforms, analytics platforms and more, the goal being to minimize the need for users to migrate data or learn new workflows.

The company is unsurprisingly going after direct-to-consumer brands pretty heavily. Some of Nacelle’s early customers include D2C bedding startup Boll & Branch, cozy things marketplace Barefoot Dreams and fashion brand Something Navy. Most of Nacelle’s rollouts launch later this summer. Last month, Nacelle went live with men’s toiletries startup Ballsy, and says that the storefront has already seen conversions increase 28%.

Nacelle is far from the only young entrant in this space. Just last month, Commerce Layer announced that it had raised $6 million in funding from Benchmark.

Google brings free product listings to its main Google Search results

Earlier this year, Google made a significant change to its Shopping search tab in the U.S. to allow the service to primarily feature free product listings selected by Google’s algorithms, instead of paid ads. Building on that change, Google is today introducing a shift to free product listings in the main Google Search results page in the U.S. Before, it would only showcase sponsored links in its “product knowledge panel.”

This panel appears when a Google user searches for a product that has matching listings on e-commerce website. But until now, those links were paid ads. Google says, starting this summer, these panels will instead feature free listings.

This change will roll out first in the U.S. on mobile, followed later by the desktop.

Shopping ads aren’t going away, however. These ads will appear separately at the top of the page, where they’re marked like Google’s other ad units.

Since its shift to free listings in April of this year, Google says it’s seen an average 70% increase in clicks and 130% increase in impressions across both the free listings and ads on the Shopping tab in the U.S. These metrics were based on an experiment looking at the clicks and impressions after the free listings were introduced, compared with a control group. The control group was a certain percentage of Google traffic that had not been moved to the new, free experience.

Image Credits: Google

 

Google has positioned its shift to free listings as a way to aid businesses struggling to connect with shoppers due to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. But the reality is that this change would have had to arrive at some point — pandemic or not — because of Amazon’s threat to Google’s business.

Amazon over the years has been steadily eating away at Google’s key business: search ad revenue. In a report published last fall, before the pandemic hit, analyst firm eMarketer said Google’s share of search ad market revenue would slip from 73% in 2019 to 71% by 2021, as more internet users started their searches for products directly on Amazon.

Now the coronavirus is pushing more consumers to shop online in even greater numbers, much to Amazon’s advantage. The online retailer reported the pandemic helped drive a 26% increase in its first-quarter 2020 revenue, for example. Meanwhile, a new eMarketer forecast estimates that Google ad revenues will drop for the first time this year, falling 5.3% to $39.58 billion due to pandemic impacts on ad spend — particularly the pullback in travel advertiser spending.

Google needed to change its Search service to return more than just paid listings to better compete. Paid listings alone wouldn’t always feature the best match for the user’s search query nor would they show as complete a selection — a problem Amazon’s vast online superstore doesn’t have. But Google’s shift to free listings also incentivizes advertisers to pay for increased visibility. Now, advertisers will need a way to stand out against a larger and more diverse selection of products.

“For many merchants, connecting with customers in a digital environment is still relatively new territory or a smaller part of their business,” notes Google’s, Bill Ready, President of Commerce. “However, consumer preference for online shopping has increased dramatically, and it’s crucial that we help people find all the best options available and help merchants more easily connect with consumers online.”