One of the highest-profile e-commerce startups is in talks to sell.
Online bulk-order wholesaler Boxed has received acquisition interest from grocery giant Kroger and several other major retailers, according to people with knowledge of the situation, with offers already in or expected to arrive next week for the New York-based startup. Should multiple companies make formal bids for Boxed, the company could move through a quick auction process, the people said.
Kroger, the $25 billion market cap chain based in Cincinnati, is one of the most likely candidates to acquire Boxed and one of the first to make an offer, the people familiar with the situation said. Costco, Target and Germany’s Aldi have also been mentioned as possible bidders among others, the people said, adding that initial offers likely range from $325 million to $500 million. Boxed had last raised money in 2016 at a valuation of $470 million, according to a Delaware filing under its corporate name, Giddy Inc.
Some of the companies interested in purchasing Boxed had not yet made formal offers as of Friday afternoon, the people said, and Boxed could still walk away from any deal. Should it stay independent, Boxed plans to raise an additional round of funding, said a source with knowledge of the company’s thinking. Boxed declined to comment and Kroger didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the acquisition talks.
A deal valued near Boxed’s most recent valuation or exceeding it would mean a big win for early investors including Greycroft, First Round, Signia Venture Partners, GGV Capital and DST Global.
Founded out of Huang’s New Jersey garage in 2013, Boxed took off as a digital alternative to stores such as Costco, BJ’s and Sam’s Club, offering about 1,600 different bulk goods from paper towels to potato chips. By signing exclusive deals with brands to only carry one of a certain type of item, Boxed was able to lock in prices more attractive to the company than those many retailers get, allowing the company to shun membership fees and provide free delivery across the continental U.S. on orders of more than $49.
After raising $100 million in January 2016, Boxed has more recently pushed into its own private brands and added a fast-growing business-to-business unit for offices. Box’s private label – something others such as Amazon and Costco have increasingly pushed – currently accounts for about 20% of its about $100 million in sales. With millions of users, Boxed’s average customer purchases between seven and 10 items per order, higher than typical for ecommerce. Its business-facing unit, which accounts for about 20% of sales, has grown at a triple-digit clip and accounts for almost half its new business, with anchor clients including Charity Water, Delta, United Airlines and Snap.
In a previously unpublished interview with Forbes from November, Huang said “the secret was out” on Boxed increasingly turning to business-to-business sales for its long-term growth. “Staples and Office Depot are challenged these days,” he said. “It’s a huge industry and the incumbents are in a weaker position. B2B will be larger than B2C [business-to-consumer] sales.”
That growing office line of business is part of what makes Boxed attractive to Kroger and its rivals. Boxed has its own warehouse and fulfillment capabilities that could be combined with an acquirers’, turning brick-and-mortar stores into distribution centers. And Boxed would provide an instant customer-facing brand for legacy retailers, many of which haven’t yet made ecommerce a meaningful part of their strategies.
In the wake of Amazon’s high profile acquisition of Whole Foods in June 2017, supply chain consultant Brittain Ladd argued in an analysis of the category that one of the big retailers should acquire Boxed or at the least license its technology. “I firmly believe Kroger can take significant market share from Costco and Sam’s Club if they acquire and integrate Boxed into the Kroger ecosystem,” Ladd wrote at the time.
One company that Kroger or a rival who misses out on Boxed could pick up at a discount is Blue Apron, the meal kit company that’s struggled on the public markets since going public in June. Shares of Blue Apron currently give it a market cap under $700 million. While Blue Apron had other factors that led to its turbulent debut, Amazon’s increasing interest in the space loomed large.
Amazon remains the 800-pound gorilla looming over Boxed. “I don’t want to deflect away from the fact that yes, Amazon is in the space in a big way,” Huang said in November. “Amazon is just trying everything everywhere. Anything you use around your daily life, they’ll try to get into over the next five or 10 years.”
A sale of Boxed would be a blow to those who’d like to see a brand successfully defy consolidation and the threat of Amazon. Boxed had emerged as one of the largest and fastest-growing independent companies in retail, a group led by Instacart, the startup valued at $3.4 billion that signed its own partnership with Kroger in recent months. But others have been acquired, including Jet.com, for which Walmart paid $3.3 billion in 2016.
Whichever company wins the potential bidding for Boxed will gain technology that would make Jeff Bezos proud. On a visit to Boxed’s New Jersey warehouse last year, Forbes witnessed custom robots that can fulfill orders autonomously, using LiDAR sensors and Tesla batteries to pick up items from shipping pallets and place them in boxes. After third parties quoted Boxed $30,000 per robot, the startup built its own for one-fifth the cost in 90 days. The facility, which handles about 50% of Boxed’s total volume (other warehouses include Dallas and Las Vegas and it’s been looking at Chicago), can reach 94% of the U.S. population within two days. It’s where Boxed photographs its growing portfolio of products, and where brands like Pepsi have tested “takeovers” to pay to put their branding on Boxed’s packaging.
“Traditional places have more red tape,” Rick Zumpano, Boxed’ vice president of distribution, said during Forbes’ tour. “The team here is more nimble.” If Huang and Boxed decide to sell, they’ll need to work to keep it that way under a new regime.
More Info: www.forbes.com
Categories: Money Matters