A brick-and-mortar player too — with many differences

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Today, Amazon’s success goes far beyond how it has transformed the way we think about and embrace digital shopping. It’s too obvious to talk about how Amazon’s approach to search, click and buy has transformed our definition of convenience and service. Twenty years after it launched as a place to buy secondhand school texts, it is now ingrained in our everyday lives — for shopping, for media consumption, for cloud storage. From a faucet to a favorite movie, from lipstick to a pair of loafers, it is America’s go-to resource. Like it or not.

Wendy Liebmann

It goes without saying that over 20 years it disrupted the retail landscape and forced traditional real-estate-bound retailers to rethink their business models or go out of business altogether.

But then, out of the blue, Amazon determined it didn’t actually plan to eliminate all physical retail, because some shoppers still wanted that experience, at least sometimes. So little by little it has reinvented the physical experience in its own digital likeness to better serve shoppers. And that’s what is so extraordinary two decades on.

One of the most transformative shopping experiences for me in recent years was the first time I walked into one of the first Amazon bookstores at the Time Warner Center in New York City. (An Amazon bookstore?) After Amazon had virtually forced the closure of chain and independent bookstores around the US, it opened a physical bookstore. The store felt like, looked like, even smelled like a bookstore of old. It was organized like a traditional bookstore, with new books and best-sellers at the entrance, merchandised by major subjects around the walls, lots of staff, leather chairs to sit and read in, a children’s area, even regular check stands.

That was just the familiar, to make shoppers feel comfortable. Then it layered on Amazon Web-style additions: books were front faced so you can see the covers (like the website), each had reader reviews and star ratings (like the website). If you didn’t have an Amazon Prime account, you were encouraged to sign up to get a better price (and share your information, of course). Or if you were already an Amazon Prime member you could open the app on your phone, scan the QR code on the book you wanted to buy, click and leave the store and the book was shipped to your home. Or you could take it and go.

There were the little touches. There was the magic dazzle that occurred when you scanned the QR code (like magic fairy dust), the clever cross merchandising of AI product (it was the early days of Alexa), seasonal themes and products merchandised together from Amazon’s broad non-book selection (e.g., New Year-New You featured fitness tech, clothing, water bottles), and localized marketing (e.g., best rated books by New York readers). Learning from the best retail merchants came together with the best of Amazon technology.

And so began Amazon’s foray into transforming physical retail on a large scale. At Amazon Go (my new favorite) you can pick up your New York Magnolia Bakery cupcake, coffee, Colgate toothpaste, or something for lunch and just walk out, like a thief. The cashless technology makes shopping easy, fast and, in these COVID times, safe. There’s Amazon 4 Star, which is like walking into a VR version of the website, where there is an edited selection of all manner of customer favorites — from electronics to home and toys. All reviewed and rated (nothing lower than, yes, 4 stars). Whole Foods now has its Amazon imprint (like it or not) — mostly better prices and easier delivery.

And now, the latest … Amazon Fresh, the new grocery store enabled by Dash Carts that allow shoppers to find what they want, buy it and leave, along with the benefit of Alexa (helpful list making). The first two opened in California, next is New Jersey in late November.

From day one, chief executive officer Jeff Bezos said Amazon’s focus was to deliver the best customer experience, selection, ease of use, low price and customer service. (Sounds a lot like Sam Walton.) He never saw Amazon as a pure internet player. Which raises the issue for retailers who think competing with Amazon today is all about e-commerce. Rather it is about creating and delivering an end-to-end customer-centric experience, enabled by technology but not solely grounded in it.

Word is that other new “retail” ventures are in the works. And with each and every new format the company introduces it is forcing us to think about what retail in an Amazon age really looks like — or should. Pay very close attention.

Wendy Liebmann is CEO and chief shopper of WSL Strategic Retail, a global consultancy focusing on retail strategy and shopper insights, and publisher of How America Shops.


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