Amazon vets behind smart shopping cart startup face a familiar foe — their former employer

Shariq Siddiqui (left) and Umer Sadiq, co-founders of Veeve, with their AI-powered smart grocery cart at the GroceryShop conference in Las Vegas in September 2019. See latest version of Veeve shopping cart below. (Veeve Photo)

With combined experience of nearly two decades at Amazon, startup founders Shariq Siddiqui and Umer Sadiq remain big believers in the tech giant’s mantra of obsessing about customers, not competitors. But it was tough to ignore the giant new rival that entered their market this week.

Amazon’s announcement of a new “Dash Cart” makes the tech giant a direct competitor to Veeve, the Seattle-area smart shopping cart startup that Siddiqui and Sadiq launched in 2018 and unveiled last year. And there are many similarities in their approaches. Customers scan a QR code to log in. Sensors and cameras in the cart identify products automatically as they’re placed inside, automatically tallying the bill as they go, eliminating the need for a traditional checkout process.

But this is not a story of Amazon stomping out a smaller company on its march to market dominance. In fact, at least so far, Veeve is benefiting from Amazon’s move.

Veeve had already seen growing interest in its technology based on the demand for contact-less shopping experiences due to social distancing requirements with the pandemic. Retailers in Seattle and Northern California are testing the Veeve cart. And almost immediately after Amazon’s news on Tuesday, the company saw an influx of additional interest, not just from regional and independent grocers but from some of the top retailers in the country.

Startup founders often like to say that the arrival of a big competitor is a rising tide that lifts all boats — and often it’s not true. But Amazon’s move into smart shopping carts does seem to have quickly validated a market that other retailers might have been wary about before.

Amazon’s Dash Cart will debut later this year at the company’s Southern California grocery store. (Amazon Photo)

“Amazon is clearly the trendsetter when it comes to online shopping, but in the last two years, especially with the acquisition of Whole Foods, the launch of Amazon Go stores, along with multiple other brick and mortar projects, every retailer understands that Amazon’s going to come in and disrupt in-store brick-and-mortar experiences,” said Siddiqui, the Veeve CEO.

The company’s growing influence over physical retail is part of the larger trend of “omnichannel” retail, unifying in-store and online shopping experiences.

In many ways, the startup founders knew it was inevitable that Amazon would enter the smart cart market. They didn’t work on Amazon Go during their time at Amazon, but they were among the first to test the technology, which uses overhead cameras and other sensors around the store to track the items picked up and carried out by shoppers.

At the time, it seemed like a natural next step to them to bring the tracking technology into a smart shopping cart, teaming up with former Google computer vision scientist Faisal Shifayat to launch Veeve. It was only logical to assume that Amazon was thinking in much the same way.

Amazon spent years developing the Amazon Go technology, first rolling out convenience stores before taking it to full-scale grocery locations. It might sound easier to build the technology into a cart than into an entire store, but that’s not necessarily the case, said Sadiq, the Veeve CTO and co-founder.

Veeve’s smart shopping cart. (Veeve Photo)

He pointed to a long list of tech companies, dating back to the 1980s, that tried unsuccessfully to launch their own smart grocery shopping carts.

“There were rumors of Amazon trying this,” Sadiq said. “I don’t think it’s an easier problem to solve. Having a mobile checkout station that you put in the hands of a customer, there tend to be a lot of different edge cases that come up. And if you start into that Whac-A-Mole exercise, it can be a pretty long journey.”

Veeve, which raised $2.1 million in a seed funding round in October 2019, currently employs about 15 people.

So how confident are the Veeve co-founders that they can compete with their former employer? They were careful to point out that they haven’t seen the actual Amazon product, but they said there is one aspect of their cart that they are being purposefully secretive about, that they believe will give them an edge.

As a startup, they believe they’re also in a position to be more nimble than a larger competitor.

“We’re already out there. We’re already collecting a lot of customer data, a lot of computer vision training data. And so hopefully that gives us an edge,” Siddiqui said. “But obviously, we’re dealing with Amazon, so you can never underestimate them.”

Amazon vets behind smart shopping cart startup face a familiar foe — their former employer Amazon vets behind smart shopping cart startup face a familiar foe — their former employer Reviewed by TechCO on 7/19/2020 Rating: 5

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