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PayPal makes its ‘Happy Returns’ service free with PayPal Checkout, expands to 5,000+ locations

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PayPal is expanding access to the returns service it acquired last year, Happy Returns, by making it available to PayPal Checkout merchants at no extra cost. The payments company said on Monday that merchants would now be able to use the Happy Returns return and exchange portal software free of charge, and it has additionally partnered with Ulta Beauty to roll out Return Bars to more than 1,300 Ulta locations across the U.S.

The Ulta Beauty expansion will begin with select retail stores initially, then reach more locations throughout the year.

This is the first major effort PayPal has made with Happy Returns since its 2021 acquisition of the software and logistics service.

Since then, the number of Return Bar locations has almost doubled from 2,600 at the time of the deal to now over 5,000, with the inclusion of Ulta Beauty. These Return Bars are available across the U.S., and PayPal notes that 78% of Americans now live within a 10-mile radius of one of these locations.

To use the returns service, customers don’t have to visit a separate website. Instead, if a retailer supports Happy Returns, the customer will begin the return process directly on the retailer’s website. In doing so, they’ll receive a QR code they can bring to their nearest Return Bar location along with their item. They don’t need to package the item or bring a box or label. When their QR code is scanned, customers receive an immediate refund. The item is then placed in a reusable tote alongside other returns at that location. This tote is picked up and sent to a processing facility, which reduces the number of shipments that need to be made, PayPal explains.

Happy Returns retail partners will display in-store signage at the store entry and at checkout to alert customers about the service. Plus, after returning the item, the customers receive a coupon from the location’s retail partner to incentivize them to make a purchase while in the store. The process is similar to how Amazon returns work at its own retail partners, like Kohl’s.

Use of the service has been gaining adoption over the past year, as adoption of online shopping continues to grow. PayPal says in-person returns at its Happy Returns Bars were nearly 4 times greater in February 2022 than in February 2021, for example. It also doubled the number of retailer partners from 2020 to 2021, which now includes Everlane, Rothys, Gym Shark, Mack Weldon and others. In addition to Ulta Beauty, shoppers can take their returns to supported retail locations like Staples, FedEx, PaperSource, Cost Plus World Market and more.

For PayPal merchants, Happy Returns will now be available at no extra cost, but PayPal’s Checkout fees will still apply. Merchants can also opt to use the software and portal to manage their returns and exchanges, without also using the Return Bars network across the U.S. Those who do will pay additional Return Bar fees, but will save through aggregated returns shipping and discounted carrier rates, the company says.

“Though consumers have increased their frequency of online shopping, returns are commonly an ‘in person’ experience and are costly and challenging for merchants,” said David Sobie, Vice President, Happy Returns by PayPal, in a statement. “Our partnership with Ulta Beauty widens our in-person drop off network and gives online shoppers more options to complete returns—Return Bars bring new customers into stores and give merchants a more cost-effective and practical way to manage their reverse logistics.”

PayPal didn’t disclose how much it paid to acquire Happy Returns, but noted in an SEC filing it was one of four acquisitions in 2021, not including Paidly, which together had totaled $542 million. PayPal had earlier been a strategic investor in the company, which had been valued at $55 million after its 2019 B round, per Pitchbook data.

Happy Returns’ service is designed to make it easier for smaller merchants to compete with e-commerce giants like Amazon and Walmart, both of which enable easy returns for their customers by way of their brick-and-mortar footprints — Amazon with its Whole Foods’ locations, its other retail stores, and various partners, and Walmart with its own stores. The potential foot traffic that comes from offering an Amazon returns desk or locker system in-store has since led retailers like Kohl’s and Stein Mart to embrace the enemy by catering to shoppers with Amazon returns in their own stores.

Ulta had piloted the Happy Returns service before today, and similarly reported it was “encouraged” by the increased store traffic and in-store engagement it saw as a result.

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Amazon-owned MGM makes a viral video show with surveillance footage from Amazon-owned Ring

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MGM (which is owned by Amazon) is making a viral video show based on footage from Ring security cameras (also owned by Amazon). The syndicated television show, “Ring Nation,” is poised to be a modern-day, surveillance-tinged spin on “America’s Funniest Home Videos” with Wanda Sykes as host.

According to a report in Deadline, the show will feature Ring footage of “neighbors saving neighbors, marriage proposals, military reunions and silly animals.” Ring is also known for activities like accidentally leaking people’s home addresses and handing over footage to the government without users’ permission.

Between January and July of this year, Amazon shared ring doorbell footage with U.S. authorities 11 times without the device owner’s consent. Ring has been critiqued for working unusually closely with at least 2,200 police departments around the United States, allowing police to request video doorbell camera footage from homeowners through Ring’s Neighbors app. Like Citizen and Nextdoor, the Neighbors app tracks local crime and allows users to comment anonymously — plus, Ring’s police partners can publicly request video footage on the app.

An Amazon-owned police surveillance network is bad enough, but Neighbors users have also faced repeated safety and security issues.

An executive at MGM, Barry Poznick, praised the new show: “From the incredible, to the hilarious and uplifting must-see viral moments from around the country every day, Ring Nation offers something for everyone watching at home.”

But perhaps what viewers at home really want is data privacy.

Ring only started disclosing its connections with law enforcement after fielding demands for transparency from the U.S. government. In a 2019 letter, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) said that the company’s relationship with police forces raise civil liberties concerns.

“The integration of Ring’s network of cameras with law enforcement offices could easily create a surveillance network that places dangerous burdens on people of color and feeds racial anxieties in local communities,” Sen. Markey wrote. “In light of evidence that existing facial recognition technology disproportionately misidentifies African Americans and Latinos, a product like this has the potential to catalyze racial profiling and harm people of color.”

Amazon bought the smart video doorbell company in 2018 for $1 billion, then bought MGM for $8.5 billion earlier this year. Now, these two investments — which seemingly have nothing to do with each other — are merging to create a late-capitalist dystopian spectacular that we couldn’t have imagined in our worst nightmares. Amazon also just spent $1.7 billion on iRobot, maker of the Roomba vacuum, but we will not dare to imagine how that acquisition may one day inspire a horrifying TV show.

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Aramco’s Prosperity7 powers AI drug firm Insilico’s $95M round

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Hong Kong-based drug discovery and development company Insilico has secured fresh capital at a time that its CEO described as a “biotech winter.”

The firm has raised $35 million on the heels of its last tranche in June, bringing its total Series D investment to $95 million. The new round was “oversubscribed”, the firm’s founder and CEO Alex Zhavoronkov told TechCrunch, declining to disclose the company’s valuation.

Prosperity7, the venture capital arm of Saudi Arabia’s state oil company Aramco, led the new capital infusion. The fund has been actively scouring for opportunities in and around China that can scale globally and particularly in the Middle East.

Insilico, which operates R&D teams across Hong Kong, Shanghai, and New York, seems to be a good fit for Prosperity7.

“Prosperity7 inspired us to look into sustainable chemistry,” said Zhavoronkov. Insilico uses machine learning to identify potential drug targets and eventually create the drug. The same technology can also be applied to find novel and useful molecules for sustainable chemistry, an emerging area to which Aramco has devoted much effort, the founder explained.

Sustainable chemistry, as defined by OECD, is “a scientific concept that seeks to improve the efficiency with which natural resources are used to meet human needs for chemical products and services.” It “encompasses the design, manufacture, and use of efficient, effective, safe and more environmentally benign chemical products and processes.”

Other investors from the round include an unnamed “large, diversified asset management firm on the U.S. West Coast,” and an assortment of financial and strategic investors like BHR Partners, Warburg Pincus, B Capital Group, Qiming Venture Partners, Deerfield, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, BOLD Capital Partners, and Pavilion Capital.

Zhavoronkov himself also invested in the Series D financing.

When asked why the company straddles China and the U.S., the founder compared the drug discovery space to the early semiconductor industry where research was done mostly in the U.S. while hardware production happened in China.

AI drug discovery relies on a massive amount of investment in so-called contract research organizations (CROs), which provide support to pharmaceutical or medical device companies in the form of outsourcing. China, exemplified by cities like Wuxi, has in recent years emerged as a popular CRO hub for international pharma companies.

The founder was also keen to speak about the company’s new dual-CEO structure. He recently promoted GSK veteran Dr. Feng Ren to be his co-CEO, who is now overseeing Insilico’s R&D and drug business, while Zhavoronkov focuses on the firm’s AI platform.

“Ren generates a lot of proprietary data for us to train AI to do better than humans. We can use this internally for drug discovery and then export this tech to the rest of the industry,” Zhavoronkov said.

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Egyptian startup Convertedin raises $3M, caters to e-commerce brands in MENA and Latin America

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Convertedin, an Egyptian startup that operates a marketing operating system for e-commerce brands, has raised $3 million in a seed round led by Saudi Arabia-headquartered Merak Capital.

Other participating investors include 500 Global and MSAS. The company, in a statement, said it plans to utilize the funds for strategic hiring and further development of its platform.

When brands shift to e-commerce sales, they operate with vast amounts of fragmented data that need to be unified to drive informed decisions and growth. As such, platforms like Convertedin become essential because it caters to brands and businesses with one, some, or all of these objectives: drive personalized and scalable campaigns, convert customers, achieve measurable results and grow revenue.

CEO Mohamed Fergany founded the company with Mohamed Atef and Mustafa Raslan in 2019 after working with several brands in companies such as Speakol Ads and Vodafone. His time as an employee opened his eyes to the opportunity of helping offline stores retarget and retain their customers online while finding new ones to shop at their stores offline.

“If you work into IKEA and they take your phone number down. After that, our engine works to find a similar product you might buy and we retarget you online. If you went back to IKEA for that product, we can calculate the cost of online conversion,” the chief executive said in the interview. “This was the main idea at this time as we saw a huge problem where there was no analytics platform for the offline store or a retargeting mechanism.”

As the pandemic hit and offline stores were forced to close their doors, many of these brands turned to e-commerce, and as a result, Convertedin took its business online too.

Fergany argues that though online brands use CRM software to gather data, they do not utilize most of it. So Convertedin offers a solution where they can use their data best. It plugs into more than 10 major e-commerce platforms and ad networks — and brands, once connected, can place customers into different segments such as high- and low-value and categories like those looking for specific products and use these insights to create personalized multi-channel marketing and drive various campaigns on social media, SMS, email, search and other channels while having the ability to track and attribute revenue conversion.

Convertedin says SMB e-commerce marketers that use its platform increase their return on ad spend (ROAS) by 2x and reduce customer acquisition costs (CAC) by 40%. So far, the company partners with media buying and advertising agencies and works with over 100 local and multinational brands across Africa, the Middle East and South America in the automotive, healthcare and technology industries. Convertedin’s revenues from these businesses have been growing in “double-digits” month-over-month, Fergany said.

The three-year-old Egypt-headquartered company also has offices in Saudi Arabia and Brazil; it just recently opened one in the latter. The South American market is enormous, with e-commerce revenues reaching $160 billion by 2025 from over 200 million users. As a result, Convertedin plans to make its services available in Portuguese — in addition to English and Arabic — for brands in Brazil and also Mexico, another South American market. Fergany also said Convertedin is eyeing South Africa and India too.

“We focus on emerging markets and if you look at it from healthy unit economics, we can sell easily in those countries because there is low competition there,” said the CEO on the expansion to five new markets, including Saudi Arabia. “And customer acquisition cost is low compared to the U.S. or Europe markets.” The new investment will help Convertedin with this expansion in addition to R&D and hiring.

In a statement, Ahmed Aljibreen, partner at lead investor Merak Capital, addressing his firm’s investment, said the ever-changing landscape of digital marketing platforms adds a new layer of challenges for e-commerce companies — and that Convertedin solves that. Hence, the reason why Merak Capital backed the firm. “We are excited to back Convertedin, a martech company that has built a state-of-the-art platform to simplify digital marketing, improve customer acquisition and drive growth for its clients. Convertedin is led by a world-class team in which we have tremendous confidence as the company embarks on its next stage of growth in MENA and Latin America.”

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