Will 2018 be the year of Amazon (again)? The first week of the year is always filled with predictions, and there’s a good chance that most serious business predictions for 2018 will include some version of a call for businesses to respond to, react to, or create a new business model in order to compete in this age of Amazon. Because the truth is, if you think that non-retail businesses are exempt from this challenge, you are wrong.
While Amazon may have started as an online bookseller, it is so much more than that now. It is, among many things, a cloud computing powerhouse, an award-winning original content producer and streaming content platform, a top-selling fashion house, a gamer’s paradise, the leader in AI and voice technology innovation, and the largest world marketplace for third-party sellers.
The company has innovated in pricing and subscription models, delivery systems and on-demand technologies and scared the heck out of those who previously thought their little corner of commerce was exempt from Amazon’s notice. No one is safe.
When Amazon enters a new industry or vertical — which the brand does with disquieting regularity — it changes the game for consumers and for businesses across segments and industries, challenging everyone and everything we thought we knew about consumer needs and how to sell stuff. Its impact is felt all along the business chain from suppliers and providers to adjacent businesses and directly to the consumer.
Amazon’s expansion plans and willingness to take risks, its consumer experience obsession, logistics expertise, consumer access and deep pocket investments have broad implications across categories. In 2017 alone, Amazon expanded through acquisition in non-retail directions including grocery stores (Whole Foods), cyber security (harvest.ai), gaming (GameSparks) and analytics presentation (Graphiq). And all these moves are strategically designed to strengthen its core offerings and consumer ties.
Amazon’s advantages also include a ubiquitous consumer presence in U.S. homes, (64 percent with Amazon Prime membership according to Forbes). This translates into tremendous data and insights into shopping patterns, price elasticity, promotion and offer value and critical consumer search patterns. And because it freely sells competing products, its marketplace supplies the company with nearly complete information on competitor strengths and weaknesses in not only sales data, but also consumer reviews.
This is in conjunction with the fact that it controls the marketplace and can therefore work the home-field advantage to highlight its own brands or those products that deliver the most value. In short, Amazon has a direct way to translate its big data into big dollars. This is increasingly important as Amazon aggressively expands its catalog of private label categories and products. Other key strengths include its forays into voice search, in-home electronics, alternate ordering methodologies and sheer operational excellence.
In terms of Amazon’s future endeavors, the brand has made recent investments, as well as public statements to include more acquisitions in AI and machine learning — maybe even in healthcare/genomics. And it’s probably safe to assume that we will see more proprietary devices like the Echo and Kindle that streamline consumer connections and reduce any friction in commerce while further building Amazon’s data advantage in the guise of consumer convenience and innovative experiences. Numerous patent applications in logistics, cyber security and cloud computing attest to its attention to the backbone that reliably delivers the Amazon experience.
Learning the Ways of Amazon
So how should marketers respond to such an intimidating competitor? I often think of Amazon as a wholly different planet filled with a lot of attractive consumers in active search mode for my products, but with its own set of customs, rules and laws. In order to commercially navigate on this planet, I have to familiarize myself with the environment and make some key adjustments.
- My consumers may exist simultaneously in traditional sales channels and on planet Amazon as well as move frequently between the two. Therefore, I have to maintain a certain amount of consistency in experience and product as well as pricing unless I can distinguish an Amazon-only offering.
- Amazon is built to provide consumers with easy access to a lot of competitive, comparative information. I better absolutely believe in the value and quality of my product before I enter this environment.
- I must be ready to deliver at the potential scale and speed of the demand or otherwise risk a decrease in ratings and consequently, a downward sales spiral. This may require supply chain changes.
- Planet Amazon competes directly with me and it has unfair advantages. I need to safeguard my margins to avoid giving them away.
- The rules that helped me succeed in online marketing outside of Amazon may not help me succeed in optimizing search visibility or conversion rates within this proprietary world. I need to dedicate myself to learning the ad marketplaces, tools and options and be prepared for a dynamic environment that requires constant investment and learning.
- I need to understand consumer expectations within this environment and work to achieve positive WOM and reviews/ratings to fuel sales.
- I need to rethink my brand strategy within this saturated, pricing and ratings-driven marketplace.
- I need to review my pricing strategy — including sales bundling — in light of the dense competitive field.
- I need to carefully execute on CRM and other strategies I can control to build and develop sustainable direct connections with consumers outside of Amazon.
So by all means, plan your trip to planet Amazon, but do so carefully as it favors those that not only know its language and terrain, but also are willing to go at it with a full-fledged strategy.