Back in April, when Via Varejo announced its rebranding to Via, the parent company of Casas Bahia and Ponto (formerly Ponto Frio) explained that the decision reflected the process of breaking barriers between physical retail, e-commerce, and mobile. In addition, it credited the connection with startups as part of its digital transformation process.
One of the largest retail chains of Brazil, Via has over 97 million customers, amasses more than 1,000 stores spread out through the country, and has surpassed 100,000 sellers in its marketplace. This milestone was announced last week.
“We have an eye on growth and digital transformation and another on developing new business units. They both combine, there’s a little bit of feedback in this cycle we are creating”, tells Via’s chief digital officer (CDO), Helisson Lemos, in an interview with LABS.
Having achieved good outcomes for companies such as Mercado Libre and Movile, the executive leads the group’s digital transformation efforts.
Lemos points out that Via’s open innovation plans consider all sorts of relationships with startups: outsourcing, M&As, and Corporate Venture Capital (CVC) investments.
The startups more appealing to the group are developing technology for retail, logistics, financial, and advertising.
Acquisitions reinforce Via’s core business: retail
During the pandemic, the group kept around 70% of its revenue due to the growth in online sales. Third-party sellers were essential to support this recovery, but Via is not the only player to dispute Brazilian customers.
One of those competitors is retail chain Magazine Luiza (Magalu), which has made more than 20 acquisitions since 2020 — and has developed financial solutions for its marketplace partners. Together, Via and Magalu have to face other Asian giants introducing their marketplace business in Brazil: Alibaba’s AliExpress and Singapore startup Shopee.
To distinguish itself, Via hopes to reinforce one of its pillars with a digital strategy: giving access to consumers, wherever they are, offering payment alternatives.
Two examples of this vision in practice are fintech banQi and logistics operator ASAP Log — both startups acquired in 2020.
With over 2 million digital accounts, banQi has obtained authorization from the Brazilian Central Bank for its financial solutions platform to operate under the Direct Credit Society license, offering a personal credit line. Until the end of 2021, the startup will provide BRL 300 million in loans.
As for ASAP Log, it is a last-mile logistics operator, focused on the last stage of the delivery process to customers. According to Lemos, the startup is already responsible for 60% of the group’s online deliveries.
“We want to serve everyone. Obviously, we have some strengths that allow us to serve the whole of Brazil, not just the capitals, and a part of society that does not always get access to credit through banks or credit card”, explains Lemos. For Via’s CDO, this positioning makes the company more relevant.
Investing in the future to renew Via’s culture
Part of this digital strategy is investing in startups. Carried out in partnership with Distrito, an innovation hub that also was funded by Via, the Via Next program aims to invest up to BRL 200 million over the next five years.
For Lemos, corporate venture capital is more strategic than financial. In other words, the group considers the relationship with startups a shortcut for learning how to solve business challenges, how to raise revenue faster, and as a vehicle for discovering new opportunities.
The earning is not easy to measure, but it already set the company “on fire”, jokes the executive.
The process of investing in the future has already begun. In the first week of September, Via announced investments in GoPublic, Poupa Certo and byebnk. The three companies are early-stage fintech, which develops credit solutions, financial education, and trade crypto assets.
The investment in the trio was a convertible debt operation when the loan could convert into a predetermined number of stocks in the future. According to the leader of Via Next, these were the first of many other investments.
The future that Lemos envisions for the company is to go beyond a supe rapp: “We want to be a retail ecosystem and go beyond retail. With retail and marketplace activities, but also an ecosystem of financial and logistical solutions. [We want] them to work in an agnostic way, whether for the consumers or partners”, he says.