Wish wants to be the Amazon for the rest of us; will retail investors buy it?

Most people know Wish as a site that sells throwaway doodads from China, but in anticipation of its impending IPO, the ten-year-old, San Francisco-based company has begun portraying itself as a kind of Amazon for the rest of us.

Judging by what we’ve read and heard from sources in recent months, Wish wants to paint itself as a patriotic alternative to the trillion-dollar juggernaut and is positioning itself as the better option for the estimated 60% of families in the U.S. without enough liquid savings to get through three months of expenses. Such cost-conscious customers can’t afford Amazon Prime and are — at least in Wish’s telling — willing to wait an extra week or three for a product if it means paying considerably less for it.

We’ll know soon enough if public market investors buy the pitch. Wish registered plans this morning to sell 46 million shares at between $22 an $24 per share in an offering that’s expected to take place next week. The current range would value Wish at up to $14 billion, up from the $11.2 billion valuation it was last assigned by its private investors.

Wish has a lot of reasons to feel optimistic about its story heading into the offering. For one thing, people are clearly still discovering its business. According to Sensor Tower, Wish’s mobile shopping app was downloaded 9 million times last month, compared with the 6 million downloads that Amazon’s shopping app saw and the 2 million downloads seen by Walmart. In 2019, across all types of apps, Wish was the 16th most downloaded app.

There’s a lot to discover once potential customers do check out Wish. According to the company’s prospectus, its more than 100 million monthly active users across more than 100 countries are now shopping from 500,000 merchants that are selling approximately 150 million items on the platform.

While many of these are the nonessential tchotchkes that Wish has long been identified with, from tattoo kits to pet nail trimmers, a growing percentage of the mix also includes essential goods like paper towels and disinfectants — the kinds of items that keep customers coming back in reliable fashion.

It’s a bit of an evolution for the company, whose early focus was almost exclusively on cheap items that didn’t weigh much. First, Wish has always worked with unbranded merchants, mostly in China, that don’t have marketing costs built into the products and like the platform because it enables them to reach new customers for free without cannibalizing their existing market.

But Wish — which takes 15% of each transaction —  had also been relying heavily on a partnership with the USPS and China called ePacket that long enabled it to send items overseas to the U.S. for $1 to $2 as long as the items weren’t unusually large or heavy. Yet that changed on July 1, with a new USPS pricing structure that now requires companies like Wish to pay more to ship their goods or else move to more costly commercial networks.

Unsurprisingly, Wish had back-up plans. One of these has involved packing together multiple orders in China based on customers’ locations, then sending them in bulk to the U.S. to a designated location where they can be picked up.

Relatedly, dating back to early 2019, Wish began partnering with what are now tens of thousands of small businesses in the U.S. and Europe that stock its products, trading their storage space for access to Wish’s customers along with a small financial bonus for every in-store pickup. (Wish will pay store owners even more if they can deliver orders directly to customers’ homes.) According to Forbes, these partnerships provided Wish with an “inexpensive distribution network practically overnight.”

It happens to fit neatly into a larger anti-Amazon narrative wherein the Goliath (Amazon), unable to disrupt convenience stores, is now trying to supplant them with its own branded convenience shops, while Wish may be helping them prosper.

It is also a very asset-lite model compared with Amazon.

Of course, none of these developments completely or even mostly address the challenges that unprofitable Wish is still facing, beginning with its scale, which remains tiny compared with the towering giants against which it is competing and Amazon in particular, whose growth has exploded in 2020.

While the company is showing moderate revenue growth, its filings also show steady losses owing in part to its marketing spend. (In 2019, Wish reported revenue of $1.9 billion, up 10% year over year, but it saw a net loss of $136 million.)

The company, which has been making inroads into new geographies around the world, is also still heavily dependent on China-based merchants, even while it has reportedly begun partnering increasingly with more U.S.- and Europe-based retailers, including those with overstocked or returned items that big retailers are looking to offload, along with those looking to sell refurbished electronics.

“We’d love to diversify,” Szulczewski told Forbes this summer.

Wish has always been plagued by quality control issues, too, which it has yet to fully resolve. In fact, there are YouTube channels — some very funny —  focused entirely around what Wish products look in person versus how they are presented to shoppers online. (See below.)

Largely, it’s a cultural issue. For example, at a 2016 event hosted by this editor, cofounder and CEO Peter Szulczewski talked about having to educate Chinese merchants, who aren’t accustomed to thinking about the lifetime value of customers.

“It’s true that consumer expectations in China are very different,” Szulczewski explained at the time. “Like, if you order a red sweater and you get a blue one, [shoppers are] like, ‘Eh, next time.’ So we have a lot of merchants that have only sold to Chinese consumers and we have to educate them that it’s not okay to ship a blue sweater because you don’t have any red sweaters in stock.”

Wish has been working to close the gap, as well as to tackle outright fraud on the platform. Just one of many moves has involved hiring a former community manager at Facebook as its own director of community engagement, a task that reportedly involves organizing Wish users to weed out bad apples. But Wish has surely lost plenty of shoppers burned by their experience along the way.

Whether it is doing enough is something that ultimately the market will decide along with consumers. In the meantime, plenty of private market investors will be watching and waiting. That’s true of the venture capitalists that have provided the company with $2.1 billion in funding over the years, including Formation 8, Third Point Ventures, GGV Capital, Raptor Group, Legend Capital, IDG Capital, DST Global, 8VC, 137 Ventures and Vika Ventures.

Other marketplace experts are also eager to see how this one plays out.

For her part, Anna Palmer of Boston-based Flybridge Capital Partners — who does not have a stake in Wish but who is focused very much on so-called commerce 3.0 — thinks that Wish “serves a different use case and a different customer need” than the Amazon shopper.

“If you look at the strong retail performance of the off-price and discount market —  think of retailers like Dollar General and Dollar Tree — it bodes well for the continued growth of Wish, especially since the discount market has been a tough one to bring online because of the additional logistics costs involved.”

Adds Patterson, “Amazon has dominated on convenience and inventory. Wish has really done a great job of carving out low-cost discovery and competing on price in a way that Amazon can’t get there . . . I’m bullish that Wish has plenty of breathing room to continue to expand.”

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