People

Chewy might just be a retail company that uses tech exceptionally well

If a company has to fill my mailbox each week with coupon mailers to use their "tech," I would have to say not really.

A dog in a Chewy box under text that reads "Is this tech?"

Things 100% age out of being tech every day.

Photo: Chewy/Unsplash

Is Chewy tech? From poaching tech talent in Beantown and breaking ground on its first automated fulfillment center to using its Chewy Innovation Blog to wax poetic about the company's "platform experience," the ecommerce site catering to our furry friends has certainly been building a resume for itself.

As Biz Carson wrote in last week's pet-centric Pipeline (Pupline? OK everyone's booing me nevermind), VCs are hungry for investments in the pet space. But is VC enthusiasm enough to brand the pet retailer tech? Some could also point a paw (I'm getting booed again) at the strength of Chewy's ecommerce system, but as we've discussed before, just using tech for retail might not be enough when everyone's doing it.

Chewy's foray into telehealth with its Connect with a Vet offering might be something to consider, and like our muse last week, Chewy is endeavoring — and kind of succeeding! — in taking on Amazon in its niche.

But now it's time to let our intrepid team put it to a vote and see whether the ecommerce good boy can fetch the tech tag it's been barking for (I'm being thrown out of the Protocol office like DJ Jazzy Jeff).

This conversation has been edited slightly for clarity and length.


Becca Evans: Is Chewy tech?

Kate Cox: Chewy the online pet-supply-order company?

Becca: you know it

Issie Lapowsky: read this prompt, thought it was about granola bars and threw my hands up in dismay

Owen Thomas: This is kind of a stand-in for a broader question on whether ecommerce generally is tech, right?

Kate: I was out last week, did the room decide Walmart is tech?

Sarah Roach: maybe we should ask the pets themselves

Ben Pimentel: So not Chewbacca? I think Star Wars is tech

Owen: I submit for your consideration Chewy's GitHub page

Owen: That's a lot of tech right there but

Tom Krazit: @Ben Pimentel I think the preferred nomenclature is "Chewie"

Tomio Geron: is pet food tech?

Owen: Ramona likes deliveries of treat packages but barks at the mailman. I'm not sure what that means for tech.

Kate: I think Chewy is neither more nor less tech than any other ecommerce brand that doesn't also make half the web run.

Owen: It raises the question: Is Amazon's core retail business tech? Or is it just retail that requires a lot of tech to run? Where's the line?

Owen: If we accept Amazon's retail business as tech, which other retail businesses are or aren't tech and why?

Kate: The serious answer is: Amazon is different because it is also a third-party platform and it collects and uses vendor data in a lot of ways — some of which are under investigation — and I think that kind of scale changes the equation.

Kate: The less serious answer is: Was the Sears catalog tech?

Ben Brody: I feel like I'm playing @Owen's song here, but: how I think about Chewy springs a bit from Pets.com. Like, it was considered the ultimate folly that supposedly should have told us the dot-com bubble had gone too far. This debate isn't new!

Ben Brody: Ha, maybe not as far back as that, Kate

Owen: The Sears catalog absolutely used cutting-edge technology of the time — the railroad.

Owen: It created products designed to be shipped by rail and it marketed those same products via the U.S. Postal service, whose reach and speed was being greatly accelerated by the development of railroads.

Kate: Right. And now instead of using the USPS, retailers use the web/apps. There's a reason I reached for catalogs, hehe.

Tom: Was the Roman Empire tech?

Joe Williams: The personalized painting campaign is uber cute.

Tomio: Is fire tech?

Ben Brody: Thanks Tom, now I'm just doing the "what have the Romans ever done for us" scene from "Life of Brian" in my head

Owen: What I'm trying to figure out is what Chewy did differently from Pets.com, or if it just had way better timing.

Ben Brody: I mean, things can age out of being tech?

Kate: Things 100% age out of being tech every day

Owen: Ironically, the same company bought the Pets.com domain name and later bought Chewy.com — PetSmart.

Ben Brody: Right! Pets.com=PetSmart=Chewy hardly looks hubristic today!

Kate: That's not ironic IMO, that's predictable. Niche retailer want to succeed in reaching more people. Use the internet, which reaches all people. Try again, when online shopping is a thing everyone does, instead of when it's weird

Kate: (I bought some books for class off Amazon in 1999. The general consensus among friends, family, and professors was, "You bought them... where?!")

Owen: Weirdly, though, the private equity firm that now owns PetSmart split up the businesses — so now they're just two companies that share an owner.

Biz: There's definitely a ton of appetite for VCs to fund pet tech companies right now. I just wrote my whole Pipeline column on it last week because we're seeing doggie DNA companies like Embark raise money, telemedicine vets, a whole bunch of DTC fancy food brands. It's a $110 billion industry

Owen: I think this goes back to a recurring question — does venture investment in a sector make that sector tech?

Biz: but as we've talked about before — just because a VC funds it, it doesn't mean its tech. although it could put it on a path of having tech-like business multiples

Biz: you read my mind owen

Owen: Exactly. I think VC and tech are often conflated, though historically VC has invested in many sectors, including new consumer/retail brands.

Megan Rose Dickey: if amazon is tech, chewy is tech

Owen: When I talked to investors in the '90s who were funding ecommerce startups, they viewed them more as consumer investments than tech in many cases, and played up their familiarity with funding consumer brands as an advantage.

Biz: i think there was a point where ecommerce was tech because it was using technology to have an advantage over incumbents in a field (and then hopefully delivering greater returns because of it). But I think I continue to argue that having a website, using technology, etc. is just table-stakes for a retail player in 2021, and I don't consider it a tech company. Just a retail company that uses tech exceptionally well

Kate: Investment in pet everything is hot right now, because Americans are spending a metric buttload of money on their (our) furry friends. I covered a bunch of pet food and product acquisitions in the 2017-2019 world

Megan: ok but chewy delivers ridiculously fast

Megan: if that's not innovation, idk what is

Owen: Ah, Megan, I think you're getting to a question at the heart of this series:

Owen: Is innovation tech?

Biz: Innovation: is it tech

Owen: Biz stop reading my mind, that's CREEPY

Megan: lolol

Kate: Does Chewy do their own logistics, @Megan, or is it UPS or FedEx delivering?

Owen: It's good to have a healthy writer-editor relationship but installing a telepathic implant in my brain is a little beyond

Karyne Levy: Fedex delivery

Tomio: can something low tech be innovative?

Biz: the electric wine bottle opener is life-changing

Owen: Absolutely, Tomio. For example, Brex underwrote corporate cards based on startups' financial prospects rather than the founders' individual creditworthiness. There's nothing tech about that, it's just a business-model shift that had considerable appeal to an underserved sector of the market.

Tomio: yes!

Owen: But Chewy sure acts like a tech company. For example, it added an office in Boston to attract more technical talent. (Don't tell all the Miami-heads that South Florida's technical bench isn't that deep!)

Biz: is hiring an engineer the definition of a tech company now?

Biz: i think the only company i've voted yes for in this series as a tech company is peloton. so i'm going to stick with chewy in the no camp for me

Owen: I can tell you from glancing at Chewy.com's job listings that it has some pretty ambitious ideas around pet health. Imagine tying together ecommerce, vet telemedicine, and pet wearables …

Owen: It's clear that Chewy has to do something besides fast shipping and really great customer service to stay ahead of Amazon. And that may mean incorporating tech more directly into what it does.

Chris: If a company has to fill my mailbox each week with coupon mailers to use their "tech," I would have to say not really

Owen: Direct mail is an underrated marketing technique … and may have a comeback especially as more privacy and data regulation falls into place!

Owen: Is direct mail tech?

Ben Brody: not that you asked, but the direct mail industry has a surprisingly robust lobbying presence

Becca: ok let's put it to a vote

Becca: emoji react to this if chewy is tech

☝️ 4

Becca: and react to this one if you think it's not tech

☝️ 7

Megan: owen

Megan: you can't vote twice!

Chris: wait, are the dog emojis tech?

Owen: Periodic reminder that I will make your pet a petmoji on request

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