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Birchbox has held acquisition talks with several retailers, including Walmart

  • One potential acquirer who has spoken with the beauty subscription startup is Wal-Mart, sources tell Recode.
  • Wal-Mart has been on an acquisition tear of late.
  • Meantime, Birchbox has raised more than $80 million from investors since its 2010 founding, plus previously undisclosed venture debt that the startup secured in 2015, according to sources.
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Birchbox has recently been discussing a potential sale with several retailers, multiple sources told Recode.

One potential acquirer who has spoken with the beauty subscription startup is Walmart, these people said, with conversations taking place between Walmart's U.S. e-commerce chief Marc Lore and Birchbox co-founder and CEO Katia Beauchamp.

It's not clear how far along any of the talks are or whether they will result in a deal. Walmart has been on an acquisition tear under Lore, snatching up digital-first retailers like Bonobos and ModCloth, and continues to meet with other startups in the space.

Birchbox and Walmart declined to comment.

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Birchbox has raised more than $80 million from investors since its 2010 founding, plus previously undisclosed venture debt that the startup secured in 2015, according to sources.

That debt is coming due in early 2018, but Birchbox has multiple offers on the table to restructure it, sources say, which is expected to alleviate any pressure to sell that may have been related to the debt.

The discussions come as Birchbox has been working to steady its business this year following a rough 2016 that included two rounds of layoffs and a mad dash to reach profitability after the company was unable to secure a large new investment.

The startup, which generates about $200 million in annual sales, had previously been prioritizing growth over profitability, like many e-commerce startups. It ended up getting a $15 million lifeline from its existing investors last summer.

A person familiar with the company's finances says Birchbox has been profitable on an Ebitda basis — a measure of operating profit that excludes items like interest and taxes — in 2017. It's not clear, however, if Birchbox includes stock-based compensation in its calculation.

Birchbox's executive team led by Beauchamp believes the company's move toward profitability, coupled with the debt restructuring, gives it a good shot at remaining independent and potentially raising more capital, according to sources. Still, several people close to the company told Recode that they believe a sale is more likely.

Birchbox became a pioneer in subscription commerce when it launched its service in 2010. The idea was that women would pay $10 per box to discover several new beauty products, and hopefully go on to make a full-priced purchase from the startup.

Today, around 35 percent of Birchbox's revenue comes from full-priced sales on its website and in its two brick-and-mortar stores, and the startup has added a men's box to its offering, too.

Over time, dozens of clones have popped up to challenge Birchbox's model. One competitor in particular, Ipsy, has significantly overtaken Birchbox in head-to-head market share in the U.S., according to data from Second Measure, a startup that analyzes anonymized debit and credit card data.

Some Birchbox boosters would likely counter these stats by saying that the two services are going after different customers: Ipsy for the beauty-product lover, and Birchbox for the person who's not obsessed with beauty. That, in a way, is part of Birchbox's pitch to brand clients: We're connecting you with incremental, new customers, not ones that are already your biggest fans.

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