NEW YORK — In a panel at the NRF's Big Show on Sunday, Chieh Huang, CEO and co-founder of Boxed Wholesale, did not confirm or deny rumors that the e-commerce company could be acquired by Kroger or another major grocer, reports of which broke on Friday.
Huang noted the lack of independent companies left in the online grocery realm, however, and said it was "just natural" for predominantly brick-and-mortar players to acquire online companies, similar to what Walmart has done.
"My personal dream is still to push the button on the New York Stock Exchange, but that's still several years out from now," Huang said. As for the companies who might look to acquire the startup, Huang said he was "close with all these folks and I'll remain close to them, no matter what the press release says."
Online grocery is no longer a sideshow, but a key part of any grocer's experience, he said. And indeed, grocery e-commerce is set to triple over the next four years, according to Packaged Facts, which could make a company like Boxed particularly appealing for a traditional retailer like Kroger, which dominates in the brick-and-mortar arena but is trying to keep up with Amazon when it comes to online sales.
And considering Amazon's acquisition of Whole Foods and Target's recent acquisition of same-day delivery platform Shipt, retailers in the grocery space are getting more aggressive about pairing physical storefronts with an easy and convenient online presence. And with Boxed's tech-savvy moves — from mobile AR capabilities and chatbots to driverless warehouse carts — the company could give a traditional grocer the same kind of innovative kick that Jet gave Walmart.
Whether or not the wholesaler is acquired, the company said that brick-and-mortar stores are "absolutely" in the future, and Huang even made a nod toward some of Walmart's shuttering Sam's Club stores, saying they could be "excellent for us." For Boxed, Huang sees a future with a continued online presence and a fleet of brick-and-mortar fulfillment centers with "a more millennial-focused experience" — something he thinks will be the case for a lot of retailers going forward.
"It's just a race. Will the online folks like us figure out brick-and-mortar retail faster than the brick-and-mortar retailers figure out online?" Huang said. "For us, [physical stores are] definitely, definitely in our future."