Amazon reportedly removes the most obvious promotions for its private brands from search results

If it feels like your Amazon search results have been overwhelmed with promotions for their private-label brands, like Amazon Basics, Mama Bear or Daily Ritual, that may be changing. As lawmakers pay more attention to the most powerful tech companies, Amazon has begun quietly removing some of the more obvious promotions, including banner ads, for its private-label products, reports CNBC, which spoke to Amazon sellers and consultants.

Amazon’s aggressive marketing of its own private brands, with ads that often appear in search results above listings for competing items from third-party sellers, have raised antitrust concerns. The company’s increasingly strong gripe on the U.S. retail market has been under scrutiny for years, but pressure intensified last month when Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential primary candidate Elizabeth Warren announced that breaking up tech giants Amazon, Google and Facebook (and other companies with an annual global revenue above $25 billion that provide marketplace, exchange or third-party connectivity as “platform utilitilies”) in order to reduce their economic dominance will be a major part of her platform. This means that Amazon Marketplace and Basics would be split apart, and acquisitions including Whole Foods and Zappos would be spun out.

While there isn’t a banner ad, products from an Amazon private label brand, Daily Ritual, still dominate results for “black jersey tunic”

Amazon’s private brands quickly became a major threat to third-party sellers on its platform, increasing from about a dozen brands in 2016, when some of its products began taking the lead in key categories like batteries, speakers and baby wipes, to a current roster of more than 135 private label brands and 330 brands exclusive to Amazon, according to TJI Research.

While Amazon benefits from higher margins, cost-savings from a more efficient supply chain and new data, third-party sellers often suffer. For example, they may have to cut prices to stay competitive, and even lower prices may not be enough attract customers away from Amazon’s promotions for its own items, which show up in many search results.

Other recent measures Amazon has taken to ward off antitrust scrutiny include reportedly getting rid of its price parity requirement for third-party sellers, which meant they were not allowed to sell the same products on other sites for lower prices.

TechCrunch has contacted Amazon for comment.

Google Maps takes on Facebook Pages with new ‘Follow’ feature for tracking businesses

Google Maps has been steadily rolling out new features to make its app more than just a way to find places and navigate to them. In recent months, it’s added things like group trip planningmusic controls, commuter tools, ETA sharing, personalized recommendations, and more. Now, it’s introducing a new way for users to follow their favorite businesses, as well – like restaurants, bars, or stores, for example – in order to stay on top of their news and updates.

If that sounds a lot like Google Maps’ own version of Facebook Pages, you’re right.

Explains the company, once you tap the new “follow” to track a business, you’ll then be able to see news from those places like their upcoming events, their offers, and other updates right in the “For You” tab on Google Maps.

Events, deals and photo-filled posts designed to encourage foot traffic? That definitely sounds like a Facebook Page competitor aimed at the brick-and-mortar crowd.

Businesses can also use the Google Maps platform to start reaching potential customers before they open to the public, Google notes.

After building a Business Profile using Google My Business which includes their opening date, the business will then be surfaced in users’ searches on mobile web and in the app, up to three months before their opening.

This profile will display the opening date in orange just below the business name, and users can save the business to one of their lists, if they choose. Users can also view all the other usual business information, like address, phone, website and photos.

The new “follow” feature will be accessible to the over 150 million places already on Google Maps, as well as the millions of users who are seeking them out.

The feature has been spotted in the wild for some time before Google’s official announcement this week, and is rolling out over the next few weeks, initially on Android.

The “For You” tab is currently available in limited markets, with more countries coming soon, says Google.

Shelf Engine uses machine learning to stop food waste from eating into store margins

Shelf Engine’s team

While running Molly’s, the Seattle-based ready meal wholesaler he founded, Stefan Kalb was upset about its 28 percent food wastage rate. Feeling that the amount was “astronomical,” he began researching how to lower it — and was shocked to discovered Molly’s was actually outperforming the industry average. Confronted by the sheer amount of food wasted by American retailers, Kalb and Bede Jordan, then a Microsoft engineer, began working on an order prediction engine.

The project quickly brought Molly’s percentage of wasted food down to the mid-teens. “It was one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done in my career,” Kalb told TechCrunch in an interview. Driven by its success, Kalb and Jordan launched Shelf Engine in 2016 to make the technology available to other companies. Currently participating in Y Combinator, the startup has already raised $800,000 in seed funding from Initialized Capital, the venture capital firm founded by Alexis Ohanian and Gerry Tan, and is now used at more than 180 retail points by clients including WeWork, Bartell Drugs, Natural Grocers and StockBox.

Shelf Engine’s order prediction engine analyzes historical order and sales data and makes recommendations about how much retailers should order to minimize waste and increase margins. The more retailers use Shelf Engine, the more accurate its machine learning model becomes. The system also helps suppliers, because many operate on guaranteed sales, or scan-based trading, which means they agree to take back and refund the purchase price of any products that don’t sell by their expiration date. While running Molly’s, Kalb learned what a huge pain point this is for suppliers. To alleviate that, Shelf Engine itself buys back unsold inventory from the retailers it works with, taking the risk away from their suppliers.

Kalb, Shelf Engine’s CEO, claims the startup’s customers are able to increase their gross margins by 25 percent and reduce food waste from an industry average of 30 percent to about 16-18 percent for items that expire within one to five days. (For items with a shelf life of up to 45 days, the longest that Shelf Engine manages, it can reduce waste to as little as 3-4 percent).

The food industry operates on notoriously tight margins, and Shelf Engine wants to relieve some of the pressure. Running Molly’s, which supplies corporate campuses, including Microsoft, Boeing and Amazon, gave Kalb a firsthand look at the paradox faced by retail managers. Even though a lot of food is wasted, items are also frequently out of stock at stores, annoying customers. Then there is the social and environmental impact of food waste — not only does it raise prices, food rotting in landfills is a major contributor to methane emissions.

A store manager may need to make ordering decisions about thousands of products, leaving little time for analysis. Though there are enterprise resource planning software products for food retail, Kalb says that during store visits he realized a surprisingly high number still rely on Excel spreadsheets or pen and paper to manage reoccurring orders. The process is also highly subjective, with managers ordering products based on their personal preferences, a customer’s suggestion or what they’ve noticed does well at other stores. Sometimes retailers get stuck in a cycle of overcorrecting, because if customers complain about missing out on something, managers order more inventory, only to end up with wastage, then scaling back their next order and so on.

“Americans want selection at all times, we get furious when a product is sold out, but it’s a really hard decision to make about how much challah bread to stock on a Monday,” says Kalb. “Yet we are doing that ad hoc.”

When retailers use Shelf Engine’s prediction engine, it decides how many units they need and then submits those orders to their suppliers. After products reach their sell-by dates, the retailer reports back to Shelf Engine, which only charges them for units they sold, but still pays suppliers for the full order. As time passes, Shelf Engine can make more granular predictions (for example, how precipitation correlates with the sale of specific items like juice or bread).

In addition to providing the impetus for the creation of Shelf Engine, Molly’s also helped Kalb and Jordan, its CTO, build the startup’s distribution network. Kalb says Shelf Engine has benefited from the network effect, because when a retailer signs up, their suppliers will often mention it to other retailers that they serve. Kalb says the startup is currently hiring more engineers and salespeople to help Shelf Engine leverage that and spread through the food retail industry.

“It’s a world I got to know and I came into the world fascinated with healthy food and making delicious grab-and-go meals,” says Kalb. “It turned into a fascination with this crazy market, which is so massive and still has so many opportunities to be maximized.”