“We hate Amazon. They’ll bully us and do horrible things to us. They’ll use us, we don’t want anything to do with them.” -Iceland Managing Director, 2018
Fast forward five years…
This morning Amazon UK announced that frozen food specialist Iceland will begin selling groceries on its platform. In this episode, Natalie explores the rationale behind Iceland’s shift in strategy and why Amazon is expanding its relationship with third party supermarkets like Morrisons, Co-op and now Iceland.
Amazon may need the grocery industry but does the grocery industry need Amazon? Let’s explore.
It’s Amazon Prime Day and the bargains are flying – but will shoppers bite? What’s new this year and how has the competition responded? In this episode, Natalie also shares her views on Amazon’s latest personalisation efforts. Amazon may be the Everything Store, but it’s not exactly the Inspirational Store. How might personalised deals feeds, liveshopping and Prime Day experiences help Amazon to shift its utilitarian image?
Brittain Ladd, former Amazon executive and one of the world’s leading experts in retail strategy, robotics, microfulfillment, logistics, and supply chain management, joins Natalie to break down what a potential Amazon-Ocado deal might look like. They discuss:
Why Brittain believes that Amazon should buy Ocado.
Why Amazon would want to double down on grocery e-commerce just when shoppers are returning to supermarkets.
Whether acquiring Ocado would be a tech/fulfilment play or a chance to finally accelerate its own grocery ambitions.
Implications for Ocado’s existing global partners (ie. Kroger, Sobeys, Coles, ICA, Auchan etc)
What is Amazon’s end game – does it want to be a grocer or a technology vendor?
How might grocery e-commerce evolve and what role will AI play?
Why Brittain believes that Amazon will still be disrupting by 2030.
In this week’s episode, Natalie shares the highlights from her recent interview with Simon Arora, former CEO of B&M, and delves into Bill Gates’ prediction that AI will lead to the demise of Amazon. “You will never go to a search site again, you will never go to a productivity site, you’ll never go to Amazon again,” Gates said at an event in San Francisco earlier this week. How will the development of an AI personal assistant alter our habits in the future? How might it transform the way we interact and shop online? And who else is predicting Amazon’s demise…?
We often think of Amazon as one of those invincible brands. A bulletproof business. But like a lot of tech companies they thrived during the pandemic and now they’re finding life difficult.
1) General volatility. Like all retailers, Amazon is grappling with unprecedented cost inflation at a time when consumer demand remains sluggish. That’s a dangerous combo for any business but in Amazon’s case it’s exacerbated by the fact that during the pandemic they OVER-HIRED (added half a million workers in 2020 alone – not even Walmart, the largest private employer in the US, has ever added so many employees in a given year) and OVER-EXPANDED (essentially doubled their fulfilment network) to help cope with the huge surge in demand for online shopping and cloud computing.
2) Recalibration: return to IRL shopping. We’ve now had a year of relative normality. The world is far more hybrid than we could have ever imagined pre-2020 but the pandemic has taught us the value of stores in this digital era. Shoppers are abandoning e-commerce and returning to bricks & mortar. They’re looking for value over convenience and delaying those discretionary buys. Important to bear in mind here that e-com penetration rates are still higher vs pre-pandemic levels (both US and UK). But the pandemic has reaffirmed that the future of retail is NOT e-commerce – it’s a blended mix of physical and digital commerce.
As a result, Amazon is looking unusually vulnerable.
And, longer term, I believe Amazon will go from disruptor to disrupted. More on that next time.
A question I often get asked is what is Amazon? Amazon sells everything from nappies to treadmills, but it also produces hit television shows and provides cloud computing services to clients ranging from McDonald’s to NASA. Amazon is also a hardware manufacturer, payment processor, technology provider, advertising platform, virtual tour operator, ocean freight business, publisher, wi-fi system, delivery network, fashion designer, private label business and an airline.
It doesn’t stop there. Amazon is a supermarket (and now officially designated one here in the UK by the Competition and Markets Authority). It also operates America’s largest civilian surveillance network. Amazon is a pharmacy and healthcare provider and has dabbled in restaurant delivery, luxury goods and hair salons. It has even tried to cure the common cold (yes, really).
So, going back to the original question – what is Amazon? Certainly not just a retailer.
In fact, as Amazon continues to diversify its revenue streams, its retail division – as a percentage of sales – becomes less significant. In 2021, Amazon’s global net product sales amounted to $242 billion, representing 51% of Amazon’s total net sales (versus 87% a decade ago). 2022 will be the tipping point when most of Amazon’s sales come from services, not from shifting goods. Amazon is rapidly transitioning from merchant to infrastructure.
So let’s break that down a bit because, with the exception of Amazon Web Services (AWS), its services are heavily intertwined with its core retail operation. Remember, Amazon doesn’t own the majority of stuff that is sold on its marketplace, but instead takes commission on third-party sales and, in many cases, charges for shipping and fulfilment. This is by far its biggest “service” revenue stream: globally, sales from third-party seller services nearly doubled over the past two years to become a $104 billion business.
As third-party sales continue to grow as a percentage of total paid units, Amazon’s stated sales become less reflective of the gross merchandise volume moving through Amazon.
The pandemic has clearly cemented Amazon’s status as the indispensable route to market, as we’ve witnessed a swathe of shoppers, retailers and brands flocking to its platform. And, of course, as Amazon’s marketplace becomes more crowded, the need for visibility becomes more urgent. This has catapulted one of Amazon’s more nascent, but hugely promising businesses – advertising. For the first time ever, Amazon disclosed the size of its advertising business – at $31 billion it is bigger than the online advertising revenues of Microsoft, Snap and Pinterest combined.
It’s also worth comparing advertising to Amazon’s other revenue streams. Advertising, which is growing at around 60% annually, generates more sales than Amazon’s physical stores and it’s even bigger than Amazon’s Prime subscription business.
Prime, which is very much the glue of Amazon’s ecosystem, is a service that is about to get more expensive for shoppers, at least in the US. Amazon recently announced a fee hike of $20 annually, which should help to achieve two things. Firstly, it will soften the blow of rising shipping and labour costs that Amazon and the rest of the industry is grappling with. Secondly, Amazon has been in major spending mode recently, and in relation to Prime, the fees will help to offset Amazon’s extra investment in digital content in addition to some of the more logistically complex promises such as “free” same-day grocery delivery.
Prime fee hikes were inevitable and, in my opinion, are we are likely to see a similar hike here in the UK later this year. It’s a delicate balance at a time when household budgets are being so severely squeezed, but Prime has become a way of life for many. The nature of its bundle proposition has become wildly relevant for today’s shopper – Amazon added over 50 million new Prime members globally throughout the pandemic. We’ll see some attrition of those newly acquired, perhaps more hard-pressed Prime subscribers, but I imagine the vast majority of members are far too wedded to the brand and broader ecosystem to even blink an eye.
Of course, it’s not just the revenues generated from services linked to the success of its core retail division – third-party seller fees, advertising and Prime subscriptions – that are poised for solid future growth. But we have to remember that Amazon is a technology company at heart. AWS may only account for 13% of global sales but it remains the cash cow of the business. Its remarkable growth has been fuelled by the pandemic-driven acceleration of cloud adoption, and there is no sign of this slowing down with further expansion planned in the Asia-Pacific region and Canada.
With Amazon, things are not always what they seem. Amazon is quietly becoming the rails that the retail and many other sectors run on. Its moves are designed to strengthen other aspects of the business. For example, Amazon continues to explore the lucrative world of licensing its Just Walk Out technology to other retailers, such as Sainsbury’s. But its checkout-free systems are naturally underpinned by AWS so an increase in demand for Just Walk Out technology also bolsters Amazon’s most profitable business segment.
So, no, Amazon is not a retailer but a tech company that is becoming increasingly reliant on services as a means of driving topline growth. It just happens to sell a lot of stuff in the process.
With crisis comes opportunity – for Amazon at least. While many retailers muddled their way through the pandemic, Amazon propelled itself into new industries, made blockbuster acquisitions, launched new products and brands, and doubled down on technology. The retailer hired hundreds of thousands of employees, unveiled new store formats, turned disused malls into warehouses, and even added a couple of new markets to its roster. A key theme of this crisis is that the strong will emerge stronger.
“Amazon’s business model may not have been intentionally built for a pandemic, but it has turned out to be highly relevant in such a climate,” said co-author Natalie Berg. “Amazon is seemingly invincible these days. The pandemic-induced shift towards a more digital world has strengthened every aspect of its business – retail, cloud computing, advertising, Prime and Alexa.”
Amazon is now firing on all cylinders. It has woven itself into the fabric of our everyday lives and, in the absence of regulatory intervention, will continue to benefit from post-pandemic tailwinds,” concluded Berg.
The authors argue that the pandemic has afforded Amazon a unique opportunity to tighten its grip on consumers and bolster its broader ecosystem by:
Reinforcing its status as the indispensable route to market
Further embedding itself in consumers’ homes
Accelerating its vision as a technology vendor
Co-author Miya Knights added: “The second edition underlines Amazon’s seismic digitally-enabled impact on the retail landscape. Technology has always moved at breakneck speed, but the added catalytic effect of the pandemic has only spurred Amazon’s ambitions to use its tech advantage to consolidate and grow its dominant market position.”
Knights continued: “This is a crucial time of transition for new CEO Andy Jassy as he is tasked with convincing lawmakers that Amazon’s ubiquity is good for the economy – and for democracy as a whole. His number one job will be ensuring Amazon doesn’t go from disruptor to disrupted.”
The book also advises how retailers can co-exist with Amazon and identifies six key retail trends being accelerated by the pandemic:
The demise of ‘status-quo retail’
Digital transformation: COVID will finish what Amazon started
The digital store: frictionless shopping and no-touch checkout
The store as a fulfilment hub: the future of e-commerce is stores
The democratisation of white-glove service
The shift to conscious consumption
With the first edition now translated into more than a dozen languages, Amazon is an invaluable resource for discovering the lessons that can be learned from the retailer’s unprecedented rise to dominance.
To arrange an interview with Natalie or Miya, or to request a sample chapter, please email email@example.com.
About the authors:
Natalie Berg is a Retail Analyst and Founder of NBK Retail, a consultancy specialising in retail strategy and future trends. Regarded as one of the world’s Top 20 retail influencers, Natalie has led research and given talks on a range of industry topics including: reimagining retail for the post-pandemic digital era, store of the future, the convergence of physical and digital retail, customer loyalty and discount retailing. She is a regular TV and radio commentator and her views on retail have been published in the FT, Guardian, BBC and The Times, among others. Natalie is also a guest contributor for Forbes and Retail Week.
Miya Knights is Global Content Strategist at poq Commerce, with 25 years’ experience as an analyst, journalist and editor specializing in retail enterprise technology use. Based in Sussex, she is the owner and publisher of Retail Technology magazine and has appeared on the BBC, Channel 4 and Euronews and commented in The Telegraph, The Times and The Financial Times among others, as well as regularly speaking at or moderating industry events. She has also been recognised as the 2021 Arts & Media Senior Leader by the Black British Business Awards.
The ultimate frenemy, Amazonhas added another major British supermarket to its roster. Co-op shoppers can now do their full grocery shop on Amazon, with access to the supermarket’s range of 3,000 items and “free” same-day delivery for Prime members. The service will initially be available in the Glasgow area before expanding across the UK in the coming months, as Co-op aims to double online sales by the end of the year.
Co-op joins the likes of Morrisons, Booths and Amazon’s own Whole Foods Marketas supermarket chains now accessible via Amazon’s platform. So why are retailers increasingly content to overlook the huge competitive threat posed by the e-commerce giant? Three reasons: Amazon’s reach, technological prowess and fulfilment capabilities.