Threads raises $20M for its luxury goods ’boutique’ that exists only in messaging apps

When you think of e-commerce marketplaces, chances are that the first things that come to mind are storefronts built on websites and apps. But today an e-commerce startup that has never had either — and never plans to — has raised a fistful of cash to continue building out its shopping experience on the platform has been its growth engine: messaging apps.

London-based Threads has raised $20 million in funding for an operation that courts high-end, millennial, mostly female customers with tailored selections of luxury fashion, which it then sells to them on services like WeChat, WhatsApp, SnapchatInstagram and Apple’s iMessage for their primary interactions with a team of human (not AI) shopping assistants.

“We very intentionally didn’t build a website for consumers, just as we haven’t built an app,” founder and CEO Sophie Hill explained in an interview. “The idea behind Threads is curation and convenience. It’s a customer-centric business and it’s built on chat because that is where the customers wanted to be and transact. Chat may not have been used in the way we were using it in 2010” — when the company was founded — “but that was our problem to solve. We had to learn to serve through chat rather than create was for convenient for us as a business.”

The company says that it will be using the new funding — led by fashion and millennial-focused fund C Ventures, with participation from Highland Europe (which invests in Matches Fashion, among other related businesses) — to expand its business across the board: hiring more stylists, more engineers to build tech to help the operation run smoother, and other creative and other staff to bolster the 90 who already work for the business. But even before now, the company has been growing quite impressively.

With customers in 100 countries — 70 percent of them under the age of 35, with Asia one of its fastest-growing regions — Threads says that its average amount people spend in a shopping session (basket size) is a very unshabby $3,000. And because of its success in linking up expensive goods with people willing to buy it, it’s secured relationships with designers and brands like Dior, Fendi, Chopard and some 250 other luxury names to source key items for its clients. As a marketplace, Threads makes commissions from the suppliers when items are sold.

Threads materialised (sorry) as a business when founder and CEO Sophie Hill was still working as a buyer for Topshop owner Arcadia, her first job out of university (where she studied sociology).

The year was 2010, and even though messaging apps had yet to take off, and well before the ones you likely use today really had any functionality at all, with Instagram and the “stories” format nowhere on the scene, Hill started canvassing opinion among the people she hoped to target. She saw that they were already all avidly using messaging clients on their phones to chat to each other.

Messaging in the West was relatively feature-free, but Hill could see what was coming around the corner by looking at WeChat, the Chinese app that was well ahead of its time, and that — plus what her target audience was already using — was enough to convince her of how she needed to build her business.

Threads has a somewhat unconventional cost base as an e-commerce startup.

Without a site and app, its developer team instead is focused on ways of improving the processes that go into the selling that Threads does do: personalized, concierge style services. That means building tech to make tracking items more efficient for customers (that might come in the form of an actual chatbot at some point, Hill said); building a better search engine for the assistants to find specific pieces for Threads clients; and so on.

Another area where Threads’ costs are quite different from the typical e-commerce business is in customer acquisition. Hill says the startup company also has never really had a dedicated marketing budget (nor “someone leading the marketing function”). Instead, Threads has grown mainly by word of mouth among users, and later via social media platforms like Instagram as its own content and that of its customers gets attention.

On the other hand, one area where Threads has potentially weathered significantly more expense than the average e-commerce business is in how it connects clients with products.

Hill says that its chat-based shopping service fits into a wider world of busy activity and travel for a typical customer, who will nonetheless expect a high level of engagement as part of a five-star service, even if it originated in chat. So, Threads has been known to organise designers flying in from one city to another to show off a specific piece to a client, and also pulling together shopping to hand deliver it to a client in whatever location she happens to be, or even organising excursions to actual, physical boutiques when those customers take a trip to a city, either specifically to shop or for another reason.

“It is a complement to what they need and how they want to shop for luxury goods,” she said.

There is something about a business based fundamentally around a team of people serving users, versus a business that has built technology to do that job, which frankly feels very analogue. But Hill and her investors believe that there is scalability in Threads’ future, and tech will be what helps get it there (just as it has been what helped the startup materialise in the first place).

“Just because someone doesn’t have a website or app doesn’t mean we don’t have a direct purchase path,” Hill said. “We are going to be using technology to enhance that personalised experience. Using tech blended with human interaction will be the ultimate service for the luxury industry. We see it as a complement, a way to enhance the personal experience.

“Tech has moved quickly and we are starting to test and how we will integrate more AI,” she added. “You can see where the customers might be happy with that response versus talking to a person. It’s about us seeing how customers will react.”

The mix of a business born in the concept of high-touch customer service, with luxury boutique-style profit margins, but with roots in a very popular technology (messaging) and the potential to bring on even more tech to make it work more efficiently, is the crux of what caught investors’ attention.

“People who are Threads’ customers clearly like to transact like this,” Tony Zappala, a partner at Highland Europe, said. “And both Threads and those customers are getting more responses. It’s much harder to achieve that on a website these days.”

The next stop for Threads will be expanding to more product categories beyond fashion and jewellery — although Hill would not say what — and adding more offices to provide services closer to its customers on both sides of the marketplace. New York and Hong Kong are first on the list.

Coming to a theater near you: Amazon?

It looks like Amazon may be gearing up to make more moves in the brick-and-mortar world. Bloomberg reports that the e-commerce behemoth is putting itself in the running to acquire Landmark Theatres, which claims to be the United States’ largest chain of movie theaters focused on art house (indie and foreign) movies, with a network of 56 cinemas, covering 268 screens in 27 markets.

Bloomberg’s sources say that Amazon is going up against other potential acquirers in purchasing the business from Wagner/Cuban Cos., but that no final decisions have been made.

The companies aren’t publicly commenting on the reports, but it’s an interesting scenario to consider because of all the ways that it seems to fit into Amazon’s wider strategy. 

The company has done an incredible job of making it easy (and cheap) to buy virtually anything you want from it in the digital world, whether it’s necessities like toiletries, books, groceries, clothes and electronics, or digital products like movies, music and cloud storage space for your app or game, in as little as one click. Through its marketplace model — where it is both a middleman between consumers and sellers, and the seller itself of different goods and services — Amazon wants to be wherever people want to spend money.

But there are certain forms of retail that may never translate to the online world. Experiential retail — dining out at restaurants, going to a bar or event, picking a melon that you can smell before you pay for it and, of course, going to the movies — requires that you get up and go somewhere to do it.

Amazon knows this, and so it’s slowly, quietly amassing selective assets that will let people engage in the more physical side of commerce. These have included book stores, and its own futuristic, checkout-free food shops. And of course it spent $13.7 billion to gobble up the natural food leviathan Whole Foods.

The latter of these is very instructive when you consider how a movie theater chain might fit into the Amazon pantheon. Amazon’s Prime Fresh grocery delivery service gives busy users the convenience of skipping the grocery store, but Whole Foods also gives Amazon a way of capturing buyers who might prefer to make trips to a grocery store.

But that’s not all it does. It’s added Whole Foods discounts as yet another sweetener for Prime subscribers; it’s extending its formidable logistics muscle to Whole Foods ordering and delivery (first for Prime subscribers, naturally); and of course it has put in pop-up shops selling its other products, like the Kindle and the Echo, in prime spots when you enter a store.

Amazon owning a chain of theaters spells out a lot of opportunities for it in terms of expanding its interests in film; in experiential, physical commerce; and in leveraging the rest of the pieces in its commercial empire.

The world of movie theaters has been hobbling for years, with droves of consumers these days foregoing increasingly expensive tickets and snacks and opting to watch a slightly smaller screen in the comfort of their own home. But to the disruptive eye, that ageing business model is catnip, and so unsurprisingly, MoviePass has come along, seeing that there was an opportunity to try to revive the cinema experience by offering subscriptions for a flat rate to get more bums on those seats.

Yes, MoviePass is bleeding money, and it looks like a mess for many other reasons, but it’s had an impact, so much so that AMC has taken notice and launched its own competitor.

The world’s largest theater chain almost certainly won’t experience the same sort of pains that MoviePass has, because it both controls the means of distribution and has a sizeable support infrastructure, and of course owns the cinemas.

But if AMC has a safety net, then Amazon — one of the world’s most valuable companies — has airbags, collision sensors, seatbelts, automatic braking and maybe even an Alexa-powered predictive voice to tell you what to do next. If Amazon ran a loss-making chain of cinemas, it would be but a little drop in the bucket for it.

Amazon already has one of the biggest digital subscription businesses in the world, with more than 100 million Prime members, as of April 2018. Tacking a subscription to cinemas on to that, which either made going free or discounted, is a no-brainer.

But wait! You get more for the price of the Landmark Theatres! Amazon, as we know, also has a budding media business, offering movies, TV and music to Prime users. Included in that is its own original content machine, Amazon Studios, responsible for shows like Transparent and movies like Manchester by the Sea.

A theater chain acquisition would further open the distribution channels for Amazon’s own films, and give Amazon a much tighter grip on the costs for that distribution. And with a position covering theatrical, DVD and digital distribution windows, you can bet that will give Amazon more leverage when negotiating screen rights to films that it hasn’t produced itself.

Controlling distribution could also prove useful during awards season — the timing of a film’s release goes a long ways toward determining nominees. (And yes, those screens also become one more place where Amazon can run ads, too, in its budding advertising empire.)

And don’t forget the fact that theaters are, at the end of the day, also retail real estate.

It’s a long-known fact that cinemas make most of their money on concessions, and they have accordingly built out large lobby areas where people can mill about and spend money before and after sitting down in the darkened screening rooms. In addition to selling all the usual concessions (both made by Amazon and its marketplace partners), Amazon could use those spaces as they have with Whole Foods, creating retail experiences for products that might have nothing at all to do with what you came to the cinema for in the first place, but then suddenly seem like interesting places to try out something new.

Is it any wonder that even without Amazon or Landmark responding to Bloomberg’s report, theater chain stocks dropped on word of the news?

The company behind BarkBox is opening an ‘outdoor clubhouse’ for Nashville’s dogs

Bark, the company behind the BarkBox subscription for dog treats and toys, is planning to open what it calls its first BarkPark in Nashville.

It sounds like the goal is to create a space that combines a dog park with a coffee shop or other hangout spot for humans.

“I was out with friends, we’re drinking wine, it’s a really cool restaurant … it was like a poster for people having a good time in the city,” said Bark co-founder Henrik Werdelin said in a company blog post. “But my dog Molly was left out. And I realized: she deserves a space like this. We should be here together.”

At BarkPark, dogs will be able to play off-leash, and also try out Bark toys and treats (a selection will also be available for purchase). Their owners, meanwhile, will get free WiFi, access to a little coffee shop and the ability to ask questions of Bark staff.

Plus, both the dog and their owners will be able to attend weekly dog-friendly programming, like live music and beer tastings.

BarkPark

Day passes cost $19, and you can also buy four-week ($49) or seasonal ($78) passes. The memberships are designed to be dog-centric — while you (the human) will presumably be paying the bill, your dog is the actual BarkPark member, and can be accompanied by any two humans. So if you’re out of town, you don’t need to worry about getting access for, say, your dogwalker or dogsitter.

Bark is currently building out the Nashville BarkPark location (which is why all the illustrations in this story are either renderings or sketches), with plans to open on September 8. And while the company is treating this as a three-month pop up initially, with BarkPark closing for the winter on November 18, the idea could be extended in Nashville and expanded elsewhere.

Why start in Nashville? While the city has many virtues, Bark said it was ultimately because it’s “ahead of the curve” as a pet-friendly city.

“There’s a fast-growing population of modern dog parents who want to take their dogs everywhere – they’re totally obsessed! – which perfectly describes our vision for BarkPark’s membership,” the company said.

Walmart co-leads $500M investment in Chinese online grocery service Dada-JD Daojia

Walmart sold its China-based e-commerce business in 2016, but the U.S. retail giant is very much involved in the Chinese internet market through a partnership with e-commerce firm JD.com. Alibaba’s most serious rival, JD scooped up Walmart’s Yihaodian business and offered its own online retail platform to help enable Walmart to products in China, both on and offline.

Now that relationship is developing further after Walmart and JD jointly invested $500 million into Dada-JD Daojia, an online-to-offline grocery business which is part owned by JD, according to a CNBC report.

Unlike most grocery delivery services, though, Dada-JD Daojia stands apart because it includes a crowdsourced element.

The business was formed following a merger between JD Daojia, JD’s platform for order from supermarkets online which has 20 million monthly users, and Daojia, which uses crowdsourcing to fulfill deliveries and counts 10 million daily deliveries. JD Daojia claims over 100,000 retail stores and its signature is one-hour deliveries for a range of products, which include fruit, vegetables and groceries.

Walmart is already part of the service — it has 200 stores across 30 Chinese cities on the Dada-JD Daojia service; as well as five online stores on the core JD.com platform — and now it is getting into the business itself via this investment.

JD.com said the deal is part of its ‘Borderless Retail’ strategy, which includes staff-less stores and retail outlets that mix e-commerce with physical sales.

“The future of global retail is boundaryless. There will be no separation between online and offline shopping, only greater convenience, quality and selection to consumers. JD was an early investor in Dada-JD Daojia, and continues its support, because we believe that its innovations will be an important part of realizing that vision,” said Jianwen Liao, Chief Strategy Officer of JD.com, in a statement.

Alibaba, of course, has a similar hybrid strategy with its Hema stores and food delivery service Ele.me, all of which links up with its Taobao and T-Mall online shopping platforms. The company recently scored a major coup when it landed a tie-in with Starbucks, which is looking to rediscover growth in China through an alliance that will see Ele.me deliver coffee to customers and make use of Hema stores.

Away from the new retail experience, JD.com has been doing more to expand its overseas presence lately.

The company landed a $550 million investment from Google this summer which will see the duo team up to offer JD.com products for sale on the Google Shopping platform across the world. Separately, JD.com has voiced intention to expand into Europe, starting in Germany, and that’s where the Google deal and a relationship with Walmart could be hugely helpful.

Another strategic JD investor is Tencent, and that relationship has helped the e-commerce firm sell direct to customers through Tencent’s WeChat app, which is China’s most popular messaging service. Tencent and JD have co-invested in a range of companies in China, such as discount marketplace Vipshop and retail group Better Life. Their collaboration has also extended to Southeast Asia, where they are both investors in ride-hailing unicorn Go-Jek, which is aiming to rival Grab, the startup that bought out Uber’s local business.

Amazon launches grocery pickup at select Whole Foods

Amazon today is continuing to make good on its Whole Foods acquisition by introducing a new grocery pickup service at select Whole Foods locations in the U.S. The service, which is available only to Prime members, will initially be available at stores in Sacramento and Virginia Beach, but will expand to more cities through the year. Customers will be able to place their orders using Amazon’s Prime Now app or on the web via PrimeNow.com, then pick up in as little as 30 minutes, Amazon says.

Customers will be able to shop Whole Foods’ fresh and organic produce, bakery, dairy, meat and seafood, floral, and other staples, then pick up their order in an hour from their local Whole Foods Market.

This is the same selection of the thousands of items that customers can order for delivery. The majority of in-store items are available across both pickup and delivery services, we understand.

For orders over $35, the grocery pickup service is free. Under $35, the pickup fee is $1.99.

If customers want to get their order more quickly, they have the option of pay an additional $4.99 for a 30-minute pickup instead.

Once they arrive at the store, customers will park in a designated spot and a Prime Now shopper will then bring the groceries out to their car – the customer can stay in their vehicle. The Prime Now app also has a feature that lets the customer alert the store they’re on the way, so the order will be sure to be ready when they arrive.

The pickup service, like Whole Foods delivery, will be offered from 8 AM to 10 PM.

“Pickup from Whole Foods Market is a perfect option for customers who want to grab healthy and organic groceries at their convenience, all without leaving their car,” said Stephenie Landry, Worldwide Vice President of Prime Now, AmazonFresh and Amazon Restaurants, in a statement about the launch.

Amazon already offers grocery delivery from Whole Foods Market across dozens of cities, but this is the first time it has offered grocery pickup.

The move is a direct challenge to rival Walmart, which has been steadily rolling out a grocery pickup service of its own for years. Today, that service is available at 1,800 Walmart locations in the U.S., with plans to reach 2,200 by year-end, Walmart confirmed to us.

Walmart’s grocery pickup service offers shoppers the same general value proposition as Amazon’s. That is, you can shop online for your groceries, drive to the store, then have someone bring them out to you.  Walmart’s service has been especially well-received by parents with small children, who don’t like the hassle of bringing them into the store for grocery shopping, as well as by others who just don’t have a lot of time to grocery shop.

The service has made sense for Walmart’s more value-minded customers, too. With grocery pickup, shopping can be more affordable because there’s not the overhead of running a delivery service – as with Instacart and Target-owned Shipt, where it’s costlier to use the app than to shop yourself. (Plus, you have to tip).

In addition to not marking up the grocery prices, Amazon notes that Prime members can also receive the same 10 percent off sale items they would otherwise get if shopping in the store, and they’ll enjoy the deeper discounts on select items. These savings are available in-store, or when using grocery pickup or delivery.

Alongside this launch, Amazon is also adding a new way to use Alexa for voice shopping from Whole Foods.

Prime members in supported regions can add Whole Foods Market groceries to their Prime Now cart with simple voice commands. For example: “Alexa, add eggs to my Whole Foods cart.”

Alexa will pick the best available match for your request, considering users’ order history and purchasing behavior of other customers when it adds an item to the cart.

But customers will review these cart additions when they go online later to complete their order and checkout. It’s easy to swap the item in the cart for another one at that time.

A report released this week by The Information claimed that few Alexa owners were actively voice shopping using their Alexa devices, but this data seemed to overlook Alexa’s list-making capabilities. That is, people are more likely using Alexa to add items to an in-app shopping list, which they later revisit when they’re back on their phone or computer to complete the purchase. This behavior feels more natural, as shopping often requires a visual confirmation of the product being ordered and its current pricing.

It’s not surprising that people aren’t using Alexa to transact directly through the voice platform, but it is a bit far-fetched to claim that Alexa isn’t providing a lift to Amazon’s bottom line. In addition to list-making, Alexa also helps to upsell customers on Prime memberships, and its other subscription services, including Prime Music Unlimited, the number 3 music service behind Spotify and Apple Music, as well as Audible subscriptions.

Plus, Alexa controls the smart home, and Amazon has acquired smart home device makers and sells its own smart home hardware. It also offers installation services. Those sales, like music or audiobooks, also aren’t directly flowing through Alexa, but Alexa’s existence helps to boost them.

Amazon’s new Whole Foods/Alexa integration will also capitalize on the more common behavior of list-making, rather than direct check out and purchase.

Amazon declined to say which other markets would receive Whole Foods grocery pickup next, how many it expects to support by year-end, or what factors it’s considering as to where to roll out next. It would only say that it will reach more customers this year.

However, as the grocery pickup and delivery services expand, customers can find out if it’s arrived in their area by saying, “Alexa, shop Whole Foods Market.”

Surprise, no one buys things via Alexa

Some numbers published in a report from The Information reveal that very few owners of Alexa-powered devices use them for shopping. Of about 50 million Alexa users, only about 100,000 reportedly bought something via voice interface more than once. It’s not exactly surprising, but it may still harm the narrative of conversational commerce that Amazon and others are trying to advance.

The Amazon Echo and its brethren are mostly used for the expected everyday purposes of listening to music, asking what the weather will be like tomorrow and setting timers. All of these things are obviously things that phones do as well, but there’s something to be said for having a stationary hub for the more domestic tasks.

But part of the expectation of seeding the home with these devices has been that users would also make purchases using them: “Alexa, order more Oreos,” or “Alexa, buy a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones.” This always seemed rather odd, as people tend to want to look at items before buying them, to check reviews, to shop around for better prices and so on. Who would just buy something by telling their Echo that they want to?

Hardly anyone, it seems. That said, it would be a bit disingenuous to pretend that conversational commerce is anything other than one point in a litany of proposed uses for the likes of Alexa, running the gamut of credibility.

As a hub for increasingly common smart home devices, Alexa is a great choice and a common one. And although groceries and impulse purchases may not be something people do via voice, an Echo is a great seller of subscriptions like Spotify and Audible, not to mention future possibilities from queries like “Alexa, call me a plumber.” And of course there’s the whole behind-the-scenes industry of ads, promotions and clever use of voice data.

Why would anyone use these devices to shop? It’s like using a laptop as a hammer. Possible, but not recommended. The other stat The Information mentions is that a million people have tried buying stuff but only 100,000 continued. It may be that this side of e-commerce is merely not “mature,” that catch-all term that could mean so many things. But it may also just be that it’s not something people want to do.

The greedy ways Apple got to $1 trillion

For being the richest company ever with $243 billion in cash, Apple sure cuts corners in the stingiest ways. The hardware giant became the first trillion-dollar company week. Yet it’s tough to reconcile Apple earning $11 billion in profit per quarter with it still screwing us over on cords and keyboards. The “it just works” philosophy has slipped through the cracks of the money-printing machine. It’s not that Apple couldn’t afford to fix the problems, it’s just ensnared in hubris such that it doesn’t see them as important.

We still turn to Apple because it makes the best core products. But the edges of the customer experience have frayed like the wires of a Lightning cable. The key to Apple’s fortune is obviously selling high margin iPhones, not these ways it nickels and dimes us. But the company has an opportunity to raise its standards after this milestone, and win back the faith that could push it to a $2 trillion market cap.

1. Frayed Charging Cables

Apple gives you that tingly feeling in the worst way. Can it not build Lightning cables and MacBook chargers a little sturdier? If you avoid losing one long enough to put in some serious use, it inevitably ends up splittling where the cord meets your iPhone or exits the laptop power supply. Whether it’s wrapping them in electrical tape or the spring of a retractable pen, people have come up with all sorts of Macgyver methods to make their Apple chargers last. It got so bad that Apple was sued into offering a MacBook charger replacement program, but that expired years ago. If these are what allow us to play with the fancy devices it invents, shouldn’t they get the same quality of industrial design?

Image via Sophia Cannon

2. Buried iTunes Subscriptions Cancellation

Want to cancel your Apple Music subscription or some other service you got roped into with a free trial? It’s SUPER easy. First, click the totally unlabeled and generic circle with a blotch in it that’s supposed to be a profile picture icon. You should see a “Manage Subscriptions” option…but you don’t. Instead, you’ll have to know to tap “View Apple ID”. Once you auth in with the same face or thumbprint that opened your phone in the first place you’ll find the option to cut them off. And as thank you for this convenience, you’ll get to pay 30 percent extra on some subscriptions if you pay through Apple. It’s clearly exploitative dark pattern design.

3. Keyboard Claptrap

The MacBook keyboard is the on-ramp to the information superhighway, yet a single grain of sand can cause a pile up. Renowned Apple pundit John Gruber called it “one of the biggest design screwups in Apple history”. The new butterfly key design Apple rolled out in 2016 can get jammed by dust, requiring a lengthy disassembly process often requiring a professional to fix. Suddenly your work grinds to a halt. Apple wouldn’t always cover this repair, even under warranty. It took a lawsuit and tons of public backlash for Apple to offer free fixes, and that still typically leaves you without a laptop for a few days. I’m typing this article on a cracked-screen 2013 MacBook Pro because I refuse to upgrade until they make the keyboard design more resilient.

4. Killing Affiliate Fees Blogs Rely On

Apple benefits from a legion of blogs obsessing over its hardware and software, hyping up everything it sells. Just this week it returned that favor by announcing it will cut off one of their core sources of revenue. Websites would previously earn a 7 percent commission from Apple in exchange for affiliate link clicks leading to purchases on the App Store. But over the past few years, Apple has begun to sell ads inside the App Store too, competing for advertisers with those external blogs. It’s also built up its own editorial team that curates what’s featured, and apparently doesn’t want competition in being a king-maker. So in October Apple is shutting down the affiliate program that app review sites like TouchArcade and AppShopper depend on, potentially spelling their doom.

5. Dongle Hell

What’s the opposite of “it just works”? Paying extra to lug around a slew of gangly cord connectors you need just to plug things into your laptop or phone. Dongles are the emblem of Apple’s abandonment of the user experience. A Thunderbolt 2 to Thunderbolt 3 dongle runs $50 while it will cost you $9 to plug in any pair of headphones from the past half-century once you’ve inevitably lost the Lightning dongle you’re allocated. Apple loves pushing us towards its vision of tomorrow, like Bluetooth headphones (that it sells) and USB-C fast-chargers (that it sells). But ditching headphone jacks and old school USB ports makes Apple’s latest devices incompatible with sanity. Even its own commercial shows musician Grimes struggling with her dongles. Sorry you can’t pass me the aux cord. I’m from the future.

Image via Notebookcheck

[Featured Image via Instructibles]

JetLenses aims to save you a bunch of money on your contacts

A Y Combinator-backed startup, JetLenses, is taking on the major contact lens e-commerce sites, like 1-800-Contacts, Lens.com, and other online ordering systems offered by major retailers, such as Walmart. The startup’s goal is to bring down the cost of prescription products by automating the overhead associated with these businesses, in areas like prescription verification, order tracking, compliance and fulfillment, then pass those savings on to customers.

The company also promises fair and transparent pricing, so there aren’t surprises at checkout, and offers customers free shipping on their orders.

JetLenses was founded by Dhaivat Pandya, the son of an eye doctor who studied Statistics and Computer Science at Harvard. His background allowed him to identify the market inefficiencies in this business, in order to develop a new solution, he says.

“It was a space where doing this kind of work – engineering and data science – would have an immediate impact that I could see on a day-to-day basis,” Pandya explains as to why he decided to target the prescription lenses market. “A lot the reason why contact lenses are so expensive is just overhead,” he says.

Around 20 percent of the time, the online sites run into issues when verifying customer prescriptions. For example, the eye doctor may have relocated their practice, and their phone and fax numbers changed.

This ends up eating away a lot of time in terms of human labor, as staff has to research if the practice still exists and locate their new contact information before they can proceed with the verification. JetLenses, meanwhile, will instead try to first match the doctor’s information to a data set it maintains of existing practices to find a match, then locate the new phone number and fax automatically

It also automatically faxes the office to verify the prescription, and processes the doctor’s office response.

The company is leveraging data science around the logistics of order fulfillment, too, in order to determine which fulfillment partner to use for each incoming order.

These sorts of engineering tasks may already be common to larger e-commerce shopping sites, but haven’t really been put to work in the prescription lenses market, Pandya says.

He says JetLenses’ lower pricing comes from these improvements – it’s not just slashing prices to attract customers.

“Our margins are basically identical to others in the space,” he notes. “The goal is not to alter the business by just selling [lenses] for cheaper.”

While not a comprehensive review, I tried out online ordering on JetLenses before speaking to the company, to see how it compared with my usual site, 1800Contacts.com. I was fairly surprised to find that a 6-pack of my Acuvue Oasys for Astigmatism lenses were $32.99 on JetLenses, compared with the $51.99 I usually pay. (1800Contacts encourages shoppers to buy 4 boxes per eye at once, to get a $40 rebate on these lenses. But that’s a lot to spend all at once.)

JetLenses will honor the manufacturer rebates, too, and works with customers’ vision insurance plans.

The website itself is a little wonky in parts, but it’s only been online since the fall. You’ll need to know your lens brand and do a search rather than try to browse your way. as the site navigation is somewhat lacking, I found. But to save nearly $20 a box? Worth it.

JetLenses isn’t the only contacts lens e-commerce startup out there right now. Another, Hubble, raised $73.7 million last year for its own brand of daily disposable lenses, sold on subscription. That’s the not route JetLenses is going.

Instead, it aims to apply these data science techniques to other prescription businesses, like dental products or prescription creams.

For now, the startup is focused on raising a seed round following Y Combinator’s Demo Day to scale the business more quickly.

Fanatics exec chairman Michael Rubin to speak at Disrupt SF 2018

Even as the wealth of Jeff Bezos balloons and Amazon eats everyone’s online retail lunch, there are still a few other e-commerce entrepreneurs faring rather well.

In 2011, eBay purchased GSI Commerce for $2.4 billion, at the same time divesting wholly from the sports merchandise business in Fanatics and significantly from the sites ShopRunner and Rue La La, which together were set up under a new holding company named Kynetic that was put under the control of GSI CEO Michael Rubin.

Seven years later, Rubin is worth an estimated $3 billion from his online shopping empire that has dialed in on key niches thanks to high-profile partnerships rather than a spiderweb network of other retailers, a strategy the company is hoping will protect it from Amazon’s growing land grab.

Today, Fanatics helps leagues and teams sell their official sports merchandise directly to consumers.

The sports merchandising space relies heavily on partnerships with major organizations, and the MLB and NFL have both directly invested in Fanatics as a direct avenue for getting jerseys onto fans. In addition to selling gear, Fanatics is manufacturing much of it itself. The company acquired Majestic sportswear early last year, which has been behind much of the MLB’s merchandise for years, as it strikes to build out these operations.

How big of a business is all of this? Well, the company was valued at $4.5 billion one year ago, raising $1 billion from Softbank which, after betting big on Alibaba, is placing Fanatics as one of its strongest Vision Fund bets to be the next commerce hit.

Rubin will be joining us onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt to discuss his path as an entrepreneur and what’s next for his commerce empire. He will join other commerce-focused speakers, including executives from Glossier, Warby Parker and Adidas.

The full agenda is here. You can purchase tickets here.

Amazon may soon let you collaborate with others on Wish Lists

Amazon may soon be adding a feature consumers have wanted for years: collaborative wish lists. A number of people using Amazon.com and its mobile app recently spotted the option to “invite others” to their wish lists. This offers a URL that can be shared via text messages, email, social apps and more. Once clicked, the invitees can then both add and remove wish list items, alongside the wish list’s original owner.

The feature, while relatively minor, is something Amazon shoppers have been clamoring for. Parents want to be able to co-manage wish lists for their kids, while others – like friends, couples, party planners, family and friends – have also wanted to team up on lists of gift ideas for special occasions, such as birthdays, holidays, and various celebrations.

But there’s been some confusion over whether the feature was something Amazon was only testing, or if it was in the early stages of a rollout to all users.

Amazon declined to comment on its plans specifically, but did tell us this is a test with a “small number of customers.”

As one report from MacRumors noted, there are some Wish List features not everyone has, even if they’ve been opted in to the new collaborative lists test. For instance, some people will also see a conversation icon on the right side of the list’s page that allows list members to discuss items on the list with one another. Another ellipsis icon lets the original list creator manage the list’s membership.

So far, the feature has been spotted on the Amazon.com desktop and mobile website, and on iOS but not Android. It’s common for Amazon to launch new features on iOS first, however. That’s the case with the recent debut of Part Finder, which has launched publicly, but only on iOS to start.

Image credit: MacRumors