COVID-19 forced many retailers and brands to adopt new technologies. Retail analytics unicorn Trax expects that this openness to tech innovation will continue even after the pandemic. The Singapore-based company announced today that it has raised $640 million in Series E funding to expand its products, which combine computer vision and cloud-based software to help brick-and-mortar stores manage their inventory, merchandising and operations. The round included primary and secondary capital, and was led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2 and returning investor BlackRock. Other participants included new investors OMERS and Sony Innovation Fund by IGV.
Before this round, Trax had raised $360 million in primary funds. J.P. Morgan acted as a placement agent to Trax on its Series E, which brings its total funding so far to $1.02 billion. Trax did not disclose a new valuation, but reportedly hit unicorn status in 2019. Reports emerged last year that it is considering a public offering, but chief executive officer Justin Behar had no comment when asked by TechCrunch if Trax is planning for an IPO.
Founded in 2010 and headquartered in Singapore, Trax also has offices in Brazil, the United States, China, the United Kingdom, Israel, Mexico, Japan, Hungary, France, Russia and Australia. The company says it serves customers in more than 90 countries.
Behar told TechCrunch that the new funding will be used to “invest heavily in global [go-to-market] strategies and technology for our flagship Retail Watch solution, as we look for ways to make it easier for retailers and brands to continue their digitization journey. More specifically, we will use the capital to accelerate growth and triple-down on continued innovation across our core vision, machine learning, IoT and marketplace technologies.”
Launched last year, Retail Watch uses a combination of computer vision, machine learning and hardware like cameras and autonomous robots to gather real-time data about the shelf availability of products. It sends alerts if stock is running low, corrects pricing errors and checks if planograms, or product display plans for visual merchandising, are being followed. Retail Watch currently focuses on center shelves, where packaged goods are usually stocked, but will expand into categories like fresh food and produce.
The funding will also be used to expand Trax’s Dynamic Merchandising — a partnership with on-demand work platform Flexforce and Shopkick, the shopping rewards app Trax acquired in 2019 — into new markets over the next one to two years.
“Finally, we see many opportunities to help retailers along their digitization journey and will be expanding into new use cases with products we develop internally and via potential acquisitions,” Behar said.
Early in the pandemic, retailers had to cope with surge buying, as customers emptied shelves of stock while preparing to stay at home. As the pandemic continued, buying patterns shifted dramatically and in April 2020, Forrester forecast COVID-19 would cause global retail sales to decline by an average of 9.6% globally, resulting in a loss of $2.1 trillion, and that it would take about four years for retailers to overtake pre-pandemic levels.
In a more recent report, Forrester found despite spending cuts, nearly 40% of retailers and wholesalers immediately increased their tech investment, in some cases implementing projects in weeks that would have otherwise taken years.
Behar said “the pandemic made it clear the retail industry was not prepared for a sudden change in demand, as consumers faced empty shelves and out-of-stocks for extended periods in key categories. These extreme shifts in consumer behavior, coupled with global supply chain disruptions, labor shortages, changing channel dynamics (such as e-commerce) and decrease in brand loyalty forced brands and retailers to develop new strategies to meet the evolving needs of their customers.”
He expects that willingness to adopt new technologies will continue after the pandemic. For example, to get shoppers back into brick-and-mortar stores, retailers might try things like in-store navigation, improved browsing, loyalty programs and new check-out and payment systems.
Trax’s Retail Watch, Dynamic Merchandising and Dynamic Workforce Management solutions were in development before the pandemic, though “it has certainly expedited the need for innovative digital solutions to longstanding retail pain points,” Behar added.
For example, Retail Watch supports online ordering features, like showing which products are available to online shoppers and helping store associates fulfill orders, while Dynamic Merchandising lets brands find on-demand workers for in-store execution issues — for example, if new stock needs to be delivered to a location immediately.
Other tech companies focused on retail analytics include Quant Retail, Pensa Systems and Bossa Nova Robotics. Behar said Trax differentiates with a cloud-based platform that is “extensible, flexible and scalable and combines multiple integrated technologies and data-collection methods, optimized to fit each store, such as IoT-enabled shelf-edge cameras, dome cameras, autonomous robots and images taken from smartphones, to enable complete and accurate store coverage.”
Its proprietary computer vision technology was also designed specifically for use in retail stores, and identifies individual SKUs on shelves, regardless of category. For example, Behar said it can distinguish between near identical or multiple products, deal with visual obstructions like odd angles or products that are obscured by another item and recognize issues with price tags.
“Like many innovative solutions, our most meaningful competition comes from the legacy systems deeply entrenched in the world of retail and the fear of change,” he added. “While we do see an acceleration of interest and adoption of digital innovation as a result of the ‘COVID effect,’ this is by far our biggest challenge.”
In a press statement, SoftBank Investment Advisers director Chris Lee said, “Through its innovative AI platform and image recognition technologies, we believe Trax is optimizing retail stores by enabling [consumer packaged goods] brands and retailers to execute better inventory strategies using data and analytics. We are excited to partner with the Trax team to help expand their product offerings and enter new markets.”