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Retail Tech: PTC Updates FlexPLM, Google Debuts Recommendations AI

The weekly Retail Tech Roundup compiles technology news across the supply chain, manufacturing, retail, e-commerce, logistics and fulfillment sectors.

Product discovery

Google Cloud

Google Cloud announced the launch of Product Discovery Solutions for Retail, a suite of solutions built to help retailers enhance their e-commerce capabilities and deliver highly personalized consumer experiences in the first phase of their shopping journeys.

The three new solutions are: Recommendations AI, Vision API Product Search and Google Cloud Search for Retail. Macy’s, Kohl’s, DSW, The Home Depot and Ulta all have tested these capabilities over the past year.

Recommendations AI can help retailers deliver highly personalized product recommendations at scale and across all channels. The solution can piece together the history of a customer’s shopping journey and serve them with customized product recommendations, using Google Cloud’s latest machine-learning architectures, so retailers can dynamically adapt to real-time user behavior and changes, accounting for variables like assortment and pricing.

Vision API Product Search is built to allow retailers to adapt to how consumers are finding product inspiration and discovery, whether that happens from retailer-specific websites or on social media platforms. The feature can allows shoppers to search for products with an image and receive a ranked list of visually and semantically similar items. Vision Product Search uses machine learning-powered object recognition and lookup to provide real-time results of similar, or complementary, items from retailers’ product catalog.

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Google Cloud Search for Retail, available in Private Preview, pulls from Google’s deep understanding of user intent and context to provide retailers with high-quality product search functionality that can be embedded into their websites and mobile applications. Retailers benefit from Google’s advanced search capabilities to provide intuitive search functionalities that are configurable to meet the specific needs of each retail organization. With Google Cloud Search for Retail, retailers can ensure their shoppers find exactly what they’re looking for at every step of their shopping journeys.

Today, Recommendations AI and Vision API Product Search are generally available to all companies, while Google Cloud Search for Retail is in preview mode, with select few clients trialing the feature.

PLM

PTC FlexPLM

PTC has launched the latest version of its product lifecycle management (PLM) software, FlexPLM V12, which offers faster navigation, optimized layouts and an intuitive approach to product development.

The centerpiece of the V12 release is a completely new user experience, with a modernized design to build on FlexPLM’s visibility and speed. It includes all-new layouts and at-a-glance access to critical information, while navigation is streamlined by the addition of universal tabs and action icons. The new interface prioritizes product images and other visual elements including 3D objects and assets, maximizes screen real estate, eliminates scrolling and allows content to reflow to fit different devices including desktops, smartphones and tablets.

“The UX design is second to none,” said a senior manager of product operations for an athleisure wear customer of PTC. “That’s going to revolutionize the lives of our product developers.”

The V12 release also introduces the Visual Line Collaboration app (VLC), which is the first in a series of apps built on PTC’s ThingWorx digital transformation platform, designed to help brands and retailers overcome worldwide disruption and support remote working and digital collaboration through intuitive digitization of their critical processes.

The VLC extends the footprint and functionality of FlexPLM by streamlining the line review process. PTC says that while 80 percent of customers spend two or more weeks preparing for each seasonal line review, the VLC can “virtually eliminate” this prep time.

With the VLC, product management and merchandising teams have access to data to support accurate global and regional assortment decisions, including product design and development data housed in FlexPLM, historical product sales data from ERP systems, product forecast data, and customer review data from e-commerce platforms.

This can ultimately provide brands and retailers with “a viable alternative to flying dozens of regional planners from all over the world for on-site line reviews,” according to Bill Brewster, senior vice president and general manager of PTC’s retail business unit.

VLC also supports 3D assets, and every change made in review can be pushed back into FlexPLM to shape design and development decisions.

PTC says that prior to the launch of FlexPLM V12, the company already had three times more active retail PLM users than any other provider.

Online checkout

Fast

Only four months after launching its flagship Fast Checkout product, Fast announced a $102 million funding round. The Series B investment was led by payments giant Stripe and Addition Capital, with participation from Index Ventures, Susa Ventures, Sugar Capital and Jaren Glover.

The Fast Checkout platform is designed to let shoppers log into websites and check out, without having to enter information more than once. With the product, retailers can offer a one-click purchasing process that takes less than a second, without requiring a password or manually inputting information for every order. Buyers are automatically signed up for Fast after their first purchase, so their information carries over to other websites using fast.

Sellers can place Checkout on individual product pages, enabling buyers to forego the traditional shopping cart process altogether. In one example, Fast says that leather backpack and accessories company Saddleback Leather saw its overall website conversation rate soar by 65 percent for users of the platform after installing Fast Checkout.

With this latest round, Fast aims to double down on product expansion and bring its platform to more sellers through new use cases such as subscriptions and one-click online media purchases. Fast will also move into more markets outside of the U.S.

Additionally, Fast says the funding will enable the company to accelerate its hiring process. The company already has grown from a team of just two co-founders at the start of 2020 to 90 people today and has plans to have more than 200 employees by the end of 2021.

Fast is now available to WooCommerce and BigCommerce sellers, but the company has plans to expand the checkout solution to additional e-commerce platforms and major online retailers in the coming months.

The investment brings Fast’s total funding to $124 million, following its $20 million Series A raised in March 2020 and a $2.5 million pre-seed round from October 2019.

Warehousing

Flexe

Flexe, a “warehousing-as-a-service” company that matches retailers with warehouses that have excess capacity, has secured an extra $10 million that has been tacked on to its December Series C round. Flexe initially raised $70 million as part of the round, with total funding to date now at $144 million.

The company operates a marketplace that gives retailers such as Walmart and Ralph Lauren a way to purchase warehousing space on an on-demand basis. Nearly 2,000 warehouses across the U.S. and Canada use Flexe’s software to bid on various offers, up 50 percent since May 2019.

Flexe doesn’t limit its clientele to enterprise retailers, partnering with digital natives as well. Warehouse providers that list their spaces on Flexe include Geodis, Iron Mountain, DM Fulfillment, WDSrx and ITS Logistics.

It is unknown who was responsible for raising the extra $10 million raise. T. Rowe Price Associates Inc. led the initial $70 million round.

Drones

Wingcopter

Wingcopter, a Germany-based developer, manufacturer and operator of unmanned delivery drones for commercial and humanitarian applications, has secured $22 million in Series A funding. The company will use the funds to strengthen its leadership in drone-based logistics, with a special focus on healthcare-related applications, including the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

The company says it is well-positioned and ready to establish more partnerships worldwide centering on other fully automated delivery applications.

The financing round was led by Silicon Valley-based Xplorer Capital, a key investor in autonomous technologies, and Futury Regio Growth Fund, a Germany-based growth capital fund focusing on investments in globally scalable business models. In addition, Futury Ventures and Hessen Kapital III participated in this financing round.

With the funding, Wingcopter plans to build out a new U.S. facility and further grow its flight testing, certification, production and software development teams.

The current model, the Wingcopter 178 Heavy Lift, provides both one- and two-way delivery, covering distances of up to 120 kilometers (75 miles). Wingcopters are designed to fly autonomously and reliably even in winds of up to 70 km/h (44 mph). The drones can lower a package through a winch mechanism, or land at the point of destination and return to its origin with new payload. To further expand its market reach, Wingcopter is pressing ahead to launch the next generation of its delivery drones.

In addition to selling drones, Wingcopter will expand its drone-delivery-as-a-service offerings. These services give customers the opportunity to benefit from Wingcopter’s technology and its BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) flight operations track record on five continents without having to own and maintain a fleet of drones, hire and train pilots or run operations themselves.

Reverse logistics

Port Logistics Group (PLG)/Happy Returns

Port Logistics Group (PLG), a provider of omnichannel logistics services is adding to its Whiplash partner integration network with its newest member, returns management provider Happy Returns.

The pairing of Whiplash’s integration capabilities and Happy Returns’ nationwide box-free return drop off network is designed to deliver an intuitive and affordable approach to reverse logistics.

The returns process has become a significant touchpoint for consumers in recent years; brand loyalty in e-commerce is increasingly dictated by whether merchants can respond effectively to this less-than-desirable outcome.

Happy Returns provides an operating system for e-commerce returns, including return portal software, a return drop off network and integrated reverse logistics, in which shoppers can return online purchases box free for an immediate refund or exchange at over 2,500 Return Bars nationwide.

All items bulk-ship inside eco-friendly, reusable boxes, leveraging low carrier rates and aggregated shipping to create economies of scale—to Happy Returns’ regional Return Hubs, where they are sorted, dispositioned, and processed. Happy Returns says its full offering average 20 percent cost savings, a 94 net promoter score (NPS), 50 percent program adoption and up to 2X higher exchange rates.

PLG, which offers logistics services including retail distribution, wholesale distribution, and e-commerce fulfillment, acquired Whiplash Merchandising in April 2019. Whiplash’s e-commerce technology brings integration, order management system (OMS) and warehouse management system (WMS) capabilities to emerging brands, and is designed to transform complex retail requirements into failsafe instructions for warehouse employees worldwide.

Data analytics

Talend

Tape à l’oeil, a French children’s clothing retailer founded in 1993, has selected data integration solutions provider Talend to accelerate its digital transformation and optimize and personalize the online shopping experience for its customers.

The retailer is using Talend Data Fabric to speed information delivery and data exchange through APIs to manage their supply chain, and is relying on Talend Stitch to rapidly integrate data from the web and social media platforms and analyze sales performance.

For example, statistics from register receipts are now available within 10 minutes with Data Fabric, but prior to the implementation, took a full day to be made available.

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Tape à l’oeil sought to optimize its online operations as more consumers started making more purchasing decisions online.

“If a product is not available at purchasing time, the sale is lost. There is both the risk that the customer will go to another store and that the product will have to be discounted at the end of the season,” said Guillaume Porquier, chief information officer, Tape à l’oeil. “With Covid-19, some suppliers had to stop their activities, and the real-time monitoring of our supply chain gave us the agility to make the appropriate adjustments very quickly.”

With Talend, the company aims to build a customer-360 approach through the delivery and timely access to trusted data. Internal and external data provides visibility to stores on customer behaviors and buying habits, which can then be integrated into predictive models. With the data collected online using Talend Stitch, the company can also enrich its customer marketing data with customer journey analysis and predictive analytics.

“Stitch enables us to capture digital traffic data from European merchant websites and post KPIs for our management team. We also use Stitch to capture customer feedback through surveys from different angles, such as customer level of satisfaction with a new collection,” Porquier said. “Finally, Stitch retrieves campaign results from Facebook and Instagram to cross-reference them in Snowflake, making all this information available to the various disciplines.”

Self-checkout

Nomitri

Nomitri launched a non-cloud-based, AI-powered automated self-checkout solution in the U.S.

To separate itself from other AI-based self-checkout solutions such as Amazon Go and Standard Cognition, Nomitri brands itself as asset-light, meaning that instead of additional cameras or servers required for a store, the solution leverages customers’ smartphones to monitor who walks in and out of a location.

The decision to go away from cloud servers comes as more concerns about consumer privacy and data collection occur within retail.

Since no connection to a cloud is needed, the technology also operates independent from any internet connection.

The company tags the technology as an “Amazon Go for your pocket” and says it requires no large infrastructure investments.

Nomitri appears to be aiming the technology more toward SMBs, with the company highlighting the “plug-and-play” capabilities of the intelligent shopping assistant.

Retailer-supplier collaboration

Surefront

Surefront has launched what it calls “The Bloomberg Terminal” of the retail industry with its first unified collaboration platform, which is designed to streamline merchandising and product development.

Founded by Dr. Luke Wang, who holds a Ph.D from Caltech, the company aims to solve problems at major retailers that often have to write millions in purchase orders with dozens of suppliers, even though these suppliers still technically may use tools such as emails, PDFs and spreadsheets.

Using the Bloomberg Terminal as a reference, Wang sought to bridge the gap between retailers and suppliers with a range of comprehensive tools built in a single platform, so that these product data, order data and communications could all be unified.

According to Surefront, platform users have reported a 20 percent increase in daily productivity, even while working remotely due to Covid-19.

Jia Home, a supplier to major retailers such as Walmart and Dollar General, is using Surefront’s technology to drive growth during the pandemic.

“We have seen that while other suppliers were greatly restricted by the lack of in-person meetings and opportunities to collaborate with retailers during Covid-19, Jia Home maintained full functionality while working from home, and our sales, in fact, doubled,” said Alex Ernenputsch, vice president of sales at Jia Home.

Omnichannel

Bold Commerce

Bold Commerce, an e-commerce technology provider, has closed $27 million in a Series B funding round led by Omers Ventures.

The technology provider, which currently works with more than 90,000 brands in over 170 countries, operates a modular suite of checkout, subscriptions and price rules solutions that is designed to extend e-commerce platform capabilities. Retailers such as Vera Bradley and Canadian men’s wear brand Harry Rosen.

Current Bold Commerce investors Whitecap Venture Partners and Round 13 Capital also invested in the round. The new investment brings Bold Commerce’s total equity funding to $44 million in two years.

Bold Commerce will be using the funding to empower its solution to help further cater to brands’ growing demand for a headless commerce experience. This means that it is aiming to convert shoppers at their highest point of interest at any point of the commerce journey, such as the online shopping cart or in-store sales terminal, product pages, social channels, in-store kiosks, connected IpT devices or even voice commerce.

The company also will invest in its operations and partner marketplace. The company already has hired Odus “Boogie” Wittenburg, formerly the president of financial services company Q2 Holdings, as its chief operating officer. Additionally, the company will be hiring more than 100 new team members in Austin, Texas; Winnipeg, Man.; and across North America in software engineering, sales, marketing and partnership roles.

In 2021, the company will be expanding its network of payments, tax, fraud, order fulfillment and marketing partners into a comprehensive marketplace of plug-ins and pre-built integrations designed to solve for every aspect of the transaction experience. Currently, Bold Commerce has more than 50 technology partners including companies such as Stripe, Paypal, Vertex and Klaviyo.