Staples Buys Personalization Startup Runa To Square Up To Amazon In Office Supplies

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Staples is today announcing an acquisition of San Mateo-based Runa, a specialist in e-commerce personalization technology — one of a series of recent moves the company has been making to compete better with Amazon and others in the online sale of office supplies. A spokesperson for Staples confirms that this is the retailer’s first acquisition of a Silicon Valley startup, and it looks like Staples will be using the acquisition to start doing more in the space of e-commerce, and Silicon Valley.

“Runa has a unique platform and outstanding talent with experience in e-commerce and online marketplaces,” said Ronald Sargent, chief executive officer and chairman, Staples, in a statement. “With Runa, we’re adding technology to better serve our customers with personalized items, offers, and delivery estimates, all in real-time. Runa will allow us to tap into the wealth of engineering and e-commerce expertise in the Silicon Valley area.”

Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The news follows another development last week, when Staples announced the launch of Staples Connect, in partnership with smart home tech company Zonoff, to help create a hub for consumers to connect products in their home and control them via a single app.

There have been signs of some growing tension between Staples and Amazon. Last month, Staples, along with RadioShack, removed Amazon lockers from their retail stores, after a year-long trial hosting them. The lockers were there for people to get deliveries of Amazon products that they were not at home to sign for and accept; and the logic had been that those customers would then dip into Staples and RadioShack to buy something there. But with competition fierce between Amazon and the bricks-and-mortar trade, clearly the tradeoff wasn’t worth it for Staples.

And now, Staples is looking to hit Amazon a little harder where it hurts — by trying to improve its own e-commerce experience.

The main idea with Runa, which was founded in 2009, is that it creates personalization algorithms that help draw shoppers in further and also keep them from abandoning their shopping halfway through a site visit — a big problem that e-commerce companies face. And while there has been some controversy around the best way of keeping users netted into the sales process, personalization could be one route to improving the experience in a way that can actually be useful to shoppers.

Specifically, Staples will be incorporating two services developed by Runa: PerfectOffer for automated personalized offers in real-time; and PerfectShipping for real-time delivery estimates and free-shipping offers. Both basically leverage data about what Staples has in its own stock to offer people, and combines that with what people are browsing for and have bought in the past.

“We built Runa with a philosophy of doing more with less, by leveraging the most talented engineers and data scientists in the world, to tackle the most challenging problems in e-commerce,” said Ashok Narasimhan, co-founder, chief executive officer and chairman, Runa. “As part of Staples, we will retain our culture and agility, while gaining the resources to transform the global e-commerce landscape.”

Staples says that adding Runa to its business is a sign of how it is looking to build up its own e-commerce muscle. It looks like this might be the first of more acquisitions to come. “Staples is continuing to invest in e-commerce capabilities,” the company notes in a statement.

Staples says that the Runa facility in San Mateo will serve as the newest Staples Lab, adding to existing locations in Seattle and Cambridge. All staff from Runa are coming on board, and Staples says it’s also now hiring. “Candidates with backgrounds in Clojure programming, deep learning and data science who are interested in applying are encouraged to check Staples’ careers page to view openings,” the company says.

To date, Runa has raised some $10 million in venture funding from Sierra Ventures, Merus Capital and Itochu Technology Ventures. Narasimhan is a repeat entrepreneur who was also the co-founder of July Systems, and the founding CEO of Wipro, among many other roles. He’s also on the board of Rediff.com in India.