Swimming in Amazon Shopping — for the Exotic and Different

Amazon shopping is its own beast. When I moved to Brazil, any mention of “Amazon” immediately conjured up visions of this great river teeming with hungry piranhas, surrounded by nearly impenetrable jungle; one of the last truly wild places on Earth, a great place to visit. But, as the expression goes, you wouldn’t want to live there. That was 19 years ago.

Walking in the Amazon
Credit: Peter J. Rosenwald

Amazon shopping is its own beast. When I moved to Brazil, any mention of “Amazon” immediately conjured up visions of this great river teeming with hungry piranhas, surrounded by nearly impenetrable jungle; one of the last truly wild places on Earth, a great place to visit. But, as the expression goes, you wouldn’t want to live there. That was 19 years ago.

Say “Amazon” today and the 24-year-old behemoth that comes to mind is the largest online retailer in the world, a direct seller and digital marketplace with a piranha’s aggressive appetite. It is said to have chosen its name because the Amazon was “exotic” and “different.” It is both. This year, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and boss, reported that the company had achieved 100 million Amazon Prime subscribers, or 64% of households in the U.S. If any company can be said to have disrupted the retail landscape, Amazon is the one.

Swimming in Amazon
Credit: Peter J. Rosenwald

The unbroken growth of Amazon shopping worldwide demands the answer to the difficult question: which came first, a consumer desire to be able to conveniently purchase a wide range of goods with the convenience, price and choice offered online by Amazon and its principal competitors? Or Amazon’s brilliant marketing, which seduced the consumer away from brick-and-mortar retailers — even shopping malls — to the computer screen and convenient home delivery?

Amazon River
Credit: Peter J. Rosenwald

There is no doubt that sophisticated online shopping appeared at just the right moment in the digital revolution. Whether it will doom retail shopping is an open question.

A recent article in eMarketer Retail provides some clues to the direction where consumers are driving the online business model.

“According to ‘eMarketer’ forecasts, the gap between U.S. first-party sales on Amazon and third-party sales is widening. In 2017, direct sales grew 20.9% to reach $70.40 billion. By 2019, that total will climb to $95.08 billion. By comparison, marketplace sales jumped 41.4% to $129.45 billion last year. And marketplace sales are expected to log growth topping 30% this year and next. “

What is the “marketplace,” other than a digital shopping mall in your home or in your pocket? Why endure the traffic, parking problems, store clerks who frequently know less about the merchandise than you do and all of the bother that comes with it?

The answer would seem to be that consumers still find “shopping” fun, and welcome the live interaction with like humanoids. (What was that great one-liner? Christmas is the time people stop shopping and start buying things.) Last weekend, a visit to a nearby shopping mall found it teeming with happy families, kids and canines in tow, enjoying the experience.

But shouldn’t the generous loyalty programs offered by some online marketers overcome the temptation to go out and shop? It appears not always. Another recent article, also from eMarketer, said:

“Loyalty programs have a serious retention problem. Consumers are quick to sign up, but quick to forget about a loyalty program once they get their initial discount. Members, overloaded with points, miles and free shipping offers, are not necessarily consolidating purchases with one brand in order to accrue rewards.”

There is no simple answer, which is good news for resilient retailers. The many benefits of the Amazon marketplace model appear not to always outweigh the entertainment value of physical retail shopping. Social media is not really very social and you can’t buy the kids ice cream cones on your iPhone.

The piranhas may have to go hungry for a while longer.

humanoids on the Amazon
Credit: Peter J. Rosenwald