Famously described as “The Everything Store” in Brad Stone’s 2013 best-seller; Amazon is more concerned about how it sells a product, rather than what it sells.
When retailers are considering their competitive position in relation to Amazon, they should consider two things:
What they sell:
A retailer’s core reason for being is to merchandise a keenly curated selection of goods, targeted at their ideal customer – appealing to as many as possible, but with a clear target of who they want to reach in mind.
The art of curation is a skill that retailers can exploit to compete with Amazon, where retail has always been about the detail – this is where they can be stronger.
Niche and/or luxury retailers are exploiting their specialist knowledge and expertise, making this part of their brand DNA. This is competing on what they sell. Don’t try to sell everything to everyone; try to sell a few things people want, really well!
How they sell it:
It is harder to directly compete with Amazon on how it is selling products.
Retailers currently lack, more the means, and increasingly less so the will, to compete with Amazon in terms of how it sells.
It is futile for retailers to try and compete with Amazon purely on technology development and digital innovation. Amazon famously outspent Apple, Microsoft and every other US firm technology R&D in 2017 (US$27billion).
However, retailers can take cues from Amazon’s successes by using them, in addition to its failures, as strategic lessons on what works for customers, and being prepared to be a fast follower.
A good example of this is Amazon’s “1-Click” checkout patent, which expired in 2017. Setting the standard for slick and convenient eCommerce checkout, customers now expect to have a checkout experience that’s enabled within one or two clicks if they’re registered with a retailer.
Now, Amazon has gone one step further by introducing “frictionless retail” with their patented “Just Walk Out” technology. Amazon Go has taken the customer experience from one-click, to no clicks! Customers that downloaded and registered with the Go app can literally walk into a physical Amazon Go store, pick up a product off the shelf… and walk out, to be charged automatically as they leave.
This online-to-offline move via mobile is a key example of where retailers need to sit up and take notice of Amazon’s pioneering efforts, and work out how this technology and its consumer adoption could be relevant to their businesses.
Amazon will never invest in something that doesn’t have a clear customer benefit and they are not afraid for their innovations to be misunderstood by the market for long periods of time.
The digital-first players, have all gained an advantage by using technology innovation to remove friction from the customer experience. This has exposed retailers with more traditional business models and customer experience offerings and left them lacking from a service proposition point of view.
Customers vote with their wallets, and are demonstrating that Amazon gives them more of what they want as its sales keep growing. So, retailers need to do the same. While they might not be able to match the pace of innovation of digital-first players, retailers should embrace customer-centred innovation and foster customer-centric thinking and strategy throughout their businesses.
In the book, we talk about “Co-Opetition” (co-operating with your competition), or “working together to stand apart”.
This refers to cases where it is definitely a good idea for retailers to explore working with Amazon – in new markets, or just as equally with branded label as with commodity items. But the general trend that I have seen is that the bigger the retailer is, the less likely they are to want to work with the behemoth as they see themselves more as in direct competition.
Unfortunately though, sometimes the choice can be taken out of their hands-
E.g. Birkenstock refused to sell, or to let their resellers sell, their products on Amazon. However, to combat a grey-market where its shoes were being illegally sold on the US giant’s marketplace, it has now been forced to license resellers to sell via Amazon and has opened a new D2C channel through Amazon Marketplace.
In my opinion, if a retailer doesn’t already have a direct-to-consumer commercial relationship then Amazon represents a quicker route to market where the benefit of collaborating largely outweighs the risks. However, traditional brick-and-mortar retailers and pure-plays, have more to lose by giving Amazon access to their customer data.
Co-Opetition e.g. French grocer, Monoprix – was arguably getting left behind in terms of rapid growth in the urban grocery delivery market – so decided to partner with Amazon by utilising its Prime Delivery offering in Paris.
On the flip-side; Walmart has officially announced its refusal to work with Amazon across all aspects of its business.
A lot of retail IT experts confirm that it can be a real blocker to securing retail clients if you’re a startup and on AWS. This is often a key reason why technology providers choose to host their technology infrastructures using Google’s or Microsoft Azure’s cloud services.
E.g. Monoprix’s parent company Carrefour recently signed a strategic alliance with Google to develop a Google Voice Assistant and Google Shopping capabilities creating an opportunity to compete with Amazon, predicated not just on what it sells but also on how it sells it.
This comes back to how retailers are selling their wares nowadays.
They should either learn from what Amazon has done right and replicate it; or try their hand at innovating in the gaps.
Over the past 30 years; digital, mobile, internet-based technology adoption has increased levels of speed, convenience, relevance, choice and transparency for the consumer. This first happened online with eCommerce – as a result of the global growth in access to the internet – and has since been accelerated by wireless, mobile technologies.
It is precisely this rapid consumerisation of technology that Amazon has taken advantage of in its 25-year history.
Retailers shouldn’t bother to invest in new technology unless they can absolutely prove that its adoption or the resulting changes to their business or operating models, will add value to their customer’s journey and experience.
In this vein, if a retailer is clear on what their customer wants, and how technology can help the business better serve them, then this will help them to subdivide types of tech and digital applications according to the changes they foster in those digitally-savvy consumers who do adopt.
This is why there are three major technology drivers that have impacted retail, as proven by Amazon’s success:
Using mobile as an apex-example of this; levels of ubiquitous connectivity will only continue to increase in the coming years, with the adoption of 5G and more and more economies coming online via mobile-first (China, South America). Last year reached a tipping-point with half the world’s population accessing the internet, with 60% of those accessing it via mobile.
Retailers have started to experiment with more digital screens, signage and labelling across stores. However, some have found that sometimes these screens can act as a blocker, rather than an enabler.
Other experiments include “endless aisles” whereby, if a product is not available instore, a self-serve kiosk or associate can help a customer order directly from the website; enabling an eCommerce capability in the physical sales space – with digitised points of purchase. The challenge is making sure these interfaces are as pervasive as possible. Also, coming into the home is the Internet of Things (IoT), where embedded devices can controlled centrally using an app or voice controls.
Retailers are already really good at automating their back-office operations and have proven themselves more than keen and willing to invest in technology that will drive productivity and efficiency, especially in eliminating tasks – having no problem spending money to save money. Autonomous computing however goes a step beyond automation. Such systems aren’t just about digitising manually intensive and error-prone tasks that take place at checkout or during stocktakes.
E.g. Developing branches of AI, such as Machine Learning or Natural Language Processing, enable systems to make recommendations and potentially act on them with little or no human input or intervention.
A great example of Amazon embracing AI is in its Amazon Go convenience format, which uses “computer vision” AI-based camera software and hardware systems to capture and record a customer’s movements around the store and infer purchase intent from their behaviour. The tech recognises whether customers are putting products in their pockets or bags or not and knows when to charge for payment, enabling a frictionless, digitally enabled and data-driven customer experience.
In the coming years, more and more AI based autonomous computer systems will be used, not only to manage the blending of digital and physical (“Phygital”) shopping experiences, but also to enable efficiencies in the supply chain, and warehousing including: “just-in-time shipping”, “predictive shipping” and “predictive inventory management”.
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