How Local Businesses Can Take Advantage Of Their ‘Frenemy’ Relationship With Amazon

As large and small retailers head to the NRF’s Big Show this weekend, the question of Amazon as a friend/enemy or “frenemy” will hang over most of the discussions as the industry seeks to find a way to adjust to the e-tailer’s hegemony and influence with consumers.

Earlier this week, Amazon touted the benefits to SMBs during 2017. Among the highlights Amazon pointed to was that more than 300,000 U.S.-based small and medium-sized businesses joined the Amazon Marketplace.

The company also said that more than 140,000 SMBs selling on Amazon surpassed $100,000 in annual sales, while Amazon Lending surpassed $3 billion lent to small businesses on Amazon since the program started in 2011.

“More and more small and medium-sized businesses are choosing to join the Amazon Marketplace and sell right alongside Amazon to reach customers around the world. Entrepreneurs and small business owners are succeeding on Amazon – they sell half the products that Amazon customers buy, and more than 140,000 small and medium-sized businesses surpassed $100,000 in sales on Amazon in 2017,” said Peter Faricy, VP for Amazon Marketplace. “These businesses are reinvesting in their local communities – creating jobs and supporting local suppliers. We are proud of how the Amazon Marketplace helps empower so many small businesses, not just in the US, but around the world.”

Amazon’s Gravitational Force On Retail

The growth of e-commerce and the decline of store sales has largely been blamed on the gravitational pull Amazon exerts on the space.

And stats cited by  Bryan Eisenberg, co-founder of marketing consultancy BuyerLegends and co-author of  Be Like Amazon: Even A Lemonade Stand Can Do It, would seem to suggest that this is not a case of mass paranoia: Amazon captured 89 percent of all online holiday spending in the five-week period beginning on Thanksgiving, according to an analysis of credit- and debit-card transaction data by Earnest Research in New York.

In comparison, Walmart, which purchased Jet .com in 2016 for $3 billion, remained a distant second a 4.4 percent, Eisenberg notes.

Amazon has continued to move aggressively in expanding its promise of near-immediate delivery and physical pick-up options for its online shoppers by rapidly opening up fulfillment centers in major cities. But as Eisenberg suggests, there is a lot that local businesses can do to take advantage of Amazon rather than be crushed by it.

The Instant Pot Model

The first thing retailers need to do is come to terms with the fact that Amazon is determined to reach every city, town, and block with ease over the next few years.

“You can’t even say ‘Amazon dominates,’ because it’s beyond that when it comes to retail and retail search,” Eisenberg says. “When someone wants a product, they’re going to Amazon. It’s their choice to be there or not. I think retailers have to be there. Yes, you can keep them as a ‘frenemy.’ But keep in mind two things.”

The first is that when brands are exceptional, and they behave like Amazon, they can grow massively without having to compete with the e-tail giant.

One example Eisenberg offers is the phenomenal success of the Instant Pot.

While Amazon has been adding its own versions of many products sold on its platform, it isn’t going to compete with Instant Pot for two reasons, says Eisenberg: Instant Pot is priced fairly and has built a cult-like community around it. The latter is something Amazon would not be inclined or able to do.

As a result of all those factors, Instant Pot thrives in Amazon’s world.

Another example Eisenberg points to is Anker, which makes cell phone accessories, which has similarly built its brand through Amazon despite facing  white labeled items sold under Amazon’s banner. Amazon doesn’t slight or mind Anker because it adheres to what Eisenberg says is Amazon’s “four pillars”:

“They take care of their customers, they get the products to them quickly, they’re constantly innovating and creating new products, they price their products fairly, and they sell well,” Eisenberg says. “So if you live by Amazon’s rules, they leave you alone. But if you’re an Energizer or a Duracell that have gauged consumers on batteries, Amazon will create a private-label knock-off and price it to allow it to take over that market.”

The Amazon Advantage

That product proposition can also be applied to local stores, Eisenberg adds, though many of the benefits are still a few years off.

“The advantage to local businesses is – and I don’t think you’re going to see that today — that you will be able to get global reach,” Eisenberg says. “Amazon has out-Googled Google by becoming a better product search engine. They’re also potentially be competitive in retail services such as plumbers and contractors.”

That’s a space that Google, Yelp, and Facebook have been aiming to capture as well. And that competition from Amazon will give those local businesses a good deal of leverage, especially as the marketing battle among voice-activated assistants heats.

“We know that Amazon is betting the farm on Alexa and implanting that beyond Echo devices,” Eisenberg notes. “Alexa will be more deeply embedded on other people’s phones, it will be on watches and wearables, it will be on refrigerators, and most importantly, it will be in cars. It will have an important place in self-driving cars at some point.”

In the not-too-distant future scenario Eisenberg paints, a consumer will be traveling in their autonomous vehicle and decide they need a shirt for a conference they’re attending next week. They’ll tell Alexa to find it. Considering that Alexa knows the person’s size, where you like to shop, and has their payment info, the voice activated assistant will have the details in seconds. After scanning listings near the route, Alexa will ask if it should navigate to a selected store.

The store will get the sale and Amazon will be able to take a piece of that advertising business, while taking another piece through its payment system. And because Amazon can’t do everything itself, it will be a win-win for retailers, Eisenberg says.

“There are more things that Amazon can offer in terms of services that can’t fit into a warehouse or fulfillment center,” he says. “It’s also more cost efficient to rely on a retailer than on its fulfillment center.”

Eisenberg’s view is already borne out by at least two local retailers that shared their stories with Amazon.

“Since selling on Amazon, we’ve been able to grow our business from three to 40 employees, right here in Delray Beach, Florida,” said Michael Dudley, managing director of Salon’s Choice. “We recently launched on Amazon in the U.K., and are now shipping thousands of orders a day through Fulfillment by Amazon to customers around the world.”

“We launched on Amazon two years ago and are now operating in more than seven countries around the world,” said Phil Williams, CEO and founder of Coffee Gator. “2017 was our biggest year on Amazon, with sales growing by more than 100 percent year-over-year, and we expect 2018 to be even bigger.”

Nevertheless, for those retailers who plan to take their chances in terms of opposing Amazon’s local incursions, Euclid Analytics CEO Brent Franson presented his own battle plan that calls for updating co-op data and marketing strategies.

“Building an effective data co-op for retail is challenging – 55 percent of online shoppers start their product searches on Amazon, says BloomReach – but ultimately worth the battle,” Franson wrote on GeoMarketing this week. “More choice will force the industry’s three major players – Amazon, Facebook, and Google – to improve what they offer to marketers. If the competition is better, then the Big Three runs the very real risk of significant losses. Either way, the consumers – in this case, the marketers – win.

“The right co-op structure will yield better personalization based on actual customer needs and intent. It will earn customer trust by balancing privacy concerns with personalization; for example, the co-op should outline clear rules that ensure obfuscation of certain kinds of data (e.g. PII) before sharing with the pool. Finally, it will prioritize optimized marketing for long-term value. This is about building long-term relationships that reward both the retailer and the consumer; it’s not merely about immediate conversions. Each member of the cooperative should believe in, and be working toward, that goal.”

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Amazon To Open Its First Fulfillment Center In New York To Expand Faster Delivery

Amazon is moving aggressively to expand its promise of near-immediate delivery and physical pick-up options for its online shoppers by rapidly opening up fulfillment centers in major cities.

“We are excited to bring our first fulfillment center to New York and work alongside the state’s incredible workforce,” said Sanjay Shah, Amazon’s vice president of Customer Fulfillment, in a statement. “The support of local leaders has been instrumental in our ability to come to New York, and we are grateful for the welcome we’ve received to bring thousands of new jobs with benefits starting on day one.”

The fulfillment center comes a few months after the opening of Amazon opened its first brick-and-mortar bookstore in New York City as a showcase for its online/offline ambitions.

Amazon On The Move

Amazon employees at the 855,000-square-foot Staten Island fulfillment center will work alongside robotics to pick, pack and ship customer items such as household essentials, books and toys.

With the creation of its latest fulfillment center, which is coming to Staten Island, NY, coupled with the closing of its $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods, Amazon’s pressure on established brick-and-mortar businesses’ omnichannel strategies is apt to be felt even more acutely as the holiday season approaches.

Over the summer, Amazon has expanded its discounts and two-day shipping with its Prime membership option, and has just heralded its Instant Pickup option, retailers have turned to one advantage they still possess — at least for the moment — in relation to Amazon: proximity to their customers and known inventory, which makes it possible to offer the ultimate convenience of letting someone click “buy” and then having it brought to them within a few hours.

Meanwhile, Amazon’s instant-pickup has already begun in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Berkeley, CA., Columbus, Ohio, and College Park, Md. Initially, the items available with Instant Pickup include snacks, drinks and electronics, as well as some of Amazon’s most popular devices.

Amazon’s latest offering represents an expansion of the same-day pickup service at the 22 locations it began opening in 2015. These same locations will serve as Instant Pickup depots for Amazon Prime customers.

While available for free to Prime and Prime Student members, the program strikes at the heart of what has so far remained brick-and-mortar brands’ clear advantage over e-commerce: immediacy.

Omnichannel Pressure

New York represents one of its biggest tests.

Rivals like Target have been getting ready for the challenge. For example, Target’s purchase of San Francisco-based transportation tech company Grand Junction last month is designed to better position it against Amazon’s speedy delivery.

Grand Junction’s software platform is used by retailers, distributors, and “third-party logistics providers to manage local deliveries through a network of more than 700 carriers

Target and Grand Junction have currently been working on a same-day delivery pilot program for the Target store in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. By 2018, Target plans to roll out same-day delivery to unspecified major cities, said Arthur Valdez, Target’s executive vice president, chief supply chain and logistics officer.

Target’s move follows similar tests by Walmart. In addition, same-day, app-based grocery delivery platform Instacart has lately been racking up partnerships with Costco, Key Food, CVS, and others.

The trend towards same-day delivery is becoming a wider retail imperative not reserved for discount shopping and food service.

Earlier this month, Office Depot announced  its same-day delivery program. The initiative kicks off on August 28 in Atlanta, Georgia and Los Angeles, California; and on September 6 in Ft. Lauderdale/Miami, Florida.

“With our new same-day delivery and our omnichannel approach, we are utilizing our retail stores as assets and part of our supply chain to give our customers the best possible experience,” said Office Depot CEO Gerry Smith.

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Alexa Poised To Play A Bigger Role This Amazon Prime Day

The third annual Prime Day is set on Tuesday, July 11, with the e-commerce giant promising “hundreds of thousands of deals exclusively for Prime members” with 30 hours of deal shopping starting night before – and new deals as often as every five minutes.

And like last year, many of those deals will be aimed at Amazon Echo owners through the device’s voice-activated digital assistant, Alexa.

In a press release, Amazon singles out “voice shopping”  more “Alexa-exclusive deals” for members with an Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Show, Amazon Tap, compatible Fire TV or Fire tablet.

“Amazon is exclusively targeting its consumers who have an Alexa-enabled device, offering early-bird access to their Prime Day deals,” notes Dina Abdelrazik, Analyst, Parks Associates. “This will mark the second year that Amazon pushes ‘voice shopping’ with Alexa-exclusive deals.”

According to Parks Associates data, 17 percent of Amazon Echo owners use the device to shop for goods and services. We expect Amazon’s newest Echo Show iteration, which features a screen, to increase voice-supported shopping further.

One other change in the way Alexa homes will be able to shop includes the first buyers of the video/voice device, the Echo Show.

Pre-orders for the $299 Echo Show began last month with, promising consumers “everything you love about” its voice-activated assistant, Alexa, along with the ability to watch video flash briefings and YouTube, see music lyrics, security cameras, photos, weather forecasts, to-do and shopping lists, and more.

While the Echo Show has been a top-selling electronics device on Amazon (naturally) for the past month, the numbers of those shoppers will not have a perceptible impact in terms of actual sales numbers on Prime Day.

However, the use of the Echo Show, and Alexa generally, will certainly influence the shape how the mix of voice- and visual shopping grows.

As Google and Microsoft’s Bing expand the power of visual search as yet another way consumers can find and shop for products, the complementary aspects of voice and visual queries to generate specific responses, as opposed to a list of hypertext links, will force retailers of all stripes to further reconsider their omnichannel marketing strategies.

“With a screen, Echo Show users can visually see what items they place in a cart and make choices based on the displayed selection of goods,”Abdelrazik adds. “Amazon’s other Alexa devices lack that ability – a limitation that has hindered some consumers from voice shopping on devices like the Echo.”

 Prime Mystery

Just how big Prime Day really is remains a well-kept secret, notes Deborah Weinswig, managing director of Fung Global Retail & Technology, in a blog post.

Last year, estimates of the day’s sales ranged as high as $2.5 billion, Weinswig says, citing figures from Internet Retailer.

“Amazon reported that orders increased by 60 percent worldwide and by 50 percent in the US on Prime Day,” Weinswig writes. “Even in 2015, Amazon commented that its Prime Day sales exceeded its Black Friday sales in 2014.”

In a comparison of contrived shopping holidays, Prime Day is way below China e-commerce hegemon Alibaba’s Singles’ Day, which saw $17.8 billion worth of gross merchandise volume last year.

“The shopping holiday serves several purposes,” Weinswig says. “First, it offers exclusive deals for Prime members, rewarding them for their membership. Second, it drives Prime membership, as nonmembers are offered free trial memberships.

“Amazon figured out long ago that Prime memberships represent a virtuous circle for the company: signing up Prime members and providing them with exclusive benefits encourages them to renew their membership the next year and encourages others to sign up for the program who will then renew their own membership,” Weinswig says.

The relative success of Prime membership shopping programs could mean that a saturation point is fast approaching. There were 80 million Prime members in the US in March 2017, twice as many as two years earlier, according to Weinswig. That represent 64 percent of US households.

As rivals like Walmart expand its own responses to Amazon’s e-tail dominance, Amazon’s ability to reduce fees and offering more deals and still make the program worthwhile has to hit a wall at some point in the near future.

So as rival retailers at all levels gird themselves for Amazon Prime Day’s onslaught, the time is right to fine-time their own responses and personalized marketing tools.

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