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What is ‘The Amazon Effect’, really?

The phrase ‘the Amazon effect’ brings to mind images of boarded-up shops and retail bankruptcies.

We think of the 2,700 stores that shut or the 80,000 retail jobs that disappeared in the UK in the first half of 2018 alone. E-commerce, and Amazon in particular, is often positioned as the death knell for the high street.

I don’t buy into the ‘retail apocalypse’ narrative, but it must be acknowledged that this is a period of unprecedented change and naturally as spending shifts online, fewer stores are needed.

This isn’t rocket science, it is just about following the customer. Over the past five years, online sales of non-food products in the UK have doubled. Now, nearly 20% of all retail sales take place online. Today, people are ubiquitously connected. They live online. They have access to billions of products right at their fingertips that turn up on doorsteps, often free of charge, the very next day.

Online shopping has become utterly effortless, and that has shaken bricks-and-mortar retail to its core. 2018 was the year that retail chief executives finally pulled their heads out of the sand and acknowledged that there is an oversupply of retail space and there is retail space that is no longer fit for purpose.

Blaming Amazon

Amazon is an easy scapegoat. After all, it’s thought that around a third of UK e-commerce sales go through Amazon’s platform (in the US, it’s closer to the 50% mark).

And, after years of chipping away at the high street, Amazon is now among the top five retailers in the UK. Not many retailers can match ‘the everything store’ on range, convenience and, perhaps to a lesser extent, price. Not many retailers have 100 million customers around the globe willing to fork out roughly $100 annually just for the privilege of shopping with them. Not many have embedded themselves into the shopper’s life – and physical home – in the way that Amazon has; a testament to the strength of its ecosystem.

But it is also true that not many retailers have deep pockets like Amazon – it spends more on R&D than any other American company. It is able to constantly throw ideas against the wall because it has been afforded the luxury of long-term thinking – and not paying a whole lot of tax hasn’t hurt. Business rates account for less than 1% of its sales (for comparison, Debenhams’ bill as a percentage of sales is almost 4 times that amount). The playing field has been tilted in Amazon’s favour since day one and I believe retailers are right to call for legislation to be rewritten for the digital age.

High street woes go beyond Amazon

But the industry’s problems run deeper than Amazon. Retailers continue to grapple with the dangerous combination of rising costs and soft demand which has created considerable pressure and particularly exposed some of the weaker retailers with underlying issues, such as Toys R Us.

Real disposable income growth has been weak for a good decade and now the big unknown that is Brexit is added to the mix. In a similar vein to the weather, Brexit may be a convenient excuse for retailers reporting weak results, but it’s clear that shoppers will rein in spending during times of political and economic uncertainty.

What else is behind the high street’s woes? Although ‘the Amazon effect’ is often cited, what about ‘the Aldi effect’ or ‘the Primark effect’? There are a handful of very agile bricks-and-mortar disruptors that are weeding out the complacent incumbents.

We are at the beginning of quite a fundamental shift in consumer values, as shoppers prioritise spending on experiences over simply acquiring more material goods. Are we perhaps nearing ‘peak stuff’?

In any case, it’s clear we are at the intersection of major technological, economic and societal changes that are profoundly reshaping the retail sector.

Amazon isn’t killing retail, it’s killing mediocre retail

So it’s not all Amazon’s fault. In fact, in many ways Amazon has been a force for good. It has stamped out complacency and made everyone raise their game, all to the benefit of the customer.

What would retail look like if Amazon didn’t exist? In a nutshell, consumers would be more tolerant of mediocre service.

Amazon’s technology roots and passion for invention are what sets it distantly apart from rivals. Many of Amazon’s past innovations can, in fact, be easily forgotten because they have simply become today’s normal. Think back to the late 1990s: online shopping used to be quite a laborious process. Amazon cut the friction out by launching one-click shopping, personalised product recommendations and user-generated ratings and reviews.

Delivery, meanwhile, wasn’t always fast and free. Prime significantly raised customer expectations, leaving competitors with little choice but to invest in their own fulfilment capabilities. Amazon went on to tackle one of the biggest barriers to online shopping – missed deliveries – with the 2011 launch of Amazon Lockers. Today, virtually every major Western retailer offers click-and-collect (though Argos was perhaps unknowingly ahead of its time).

Most of Amazon’s innovations catch competitors on the back foot, leaving them in the undesirable position of reacting to rather than leading change. So what is ‘the Amazon effect’, really?

It’s Tesco rolling out same-day delivery nationwide.

It’s M&S trialling scan-and-go technology, allowing shoppers to skip checkout queues ahead of an impending Amazon Go launch in London.

It’s Waitrose delivering groceries directly into your fridge.

It’s Asos allowing shoppers to ‘try before they buy’.

It’s Zara shoppers collecting their online orders through automated pick-up points in-store.

And this is a global battle. ‘The Amazon effect’ is Ocado finally securing a string of international deals, as the Amazon-Whole Foods acquisition accelerates demand for online grocery shopping.

It’s Carrefour partnering with Google to launch Lea – its answer to Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant. In the US, Walmart offers customers a far superior experience today thanks to Amazon breathing down its neck. The retailer has even had a name change: after nearly half a century as Wal-Mart Stores, in 2018 the world’s largest retailer dropped Stores from its legal name to reflect the new digital era.

Amazon has impacted all aspects of retail, and now everyone is scrambling to either keep up with or distance themselves from the online behemoth. The link may be slightly more tenuous but it could even be argued that ‘the Amazon effect’ is Debenhams adding gyms and beauty bars to its stores. It’s John Lewis sending staff to theatre training and democratising personal shopping. It’s Next putting hair salons and Prosecco bars in its shops.

The opportunity

High street retailers are recognising that for all its perks, shopping on Amazon is still quite a functional, transactional experience. It has taken the touch and feel out of shopping and there is a massive opportunity for retailers to distance themselves from Amazon’s utilitarian image.

There is an opportunity to inject some personality and soul back into their stores, providing an immersive, memorable experience that simply can’t be replicated online. It’s about WACD: What Amazon Can’t Do.

This is why in the future, stores won’t just be a place to buy but also a place to eat, play, work, discover, learn and even borrow stuff. Retail space will be less about retail.

In summary, Amazon is almost singlehandedly redefining retail, at least in the Western world. Yes, there have been casualties and the industry should brace itself for more short-term pain as it reconfigures itself for the digital age.

But this is retail Darwinism, it’s survival of the fittest. It’s evolve or die. Amazon’s existence has weeded out those underperforming retailers who can’t deliver on the basic principles of being relevant to their customers or standing out from rivals. But those left standing will be stronger for having reinvented themselves in the age of Amazon.

Amazon: How the world’s most relentless retailer will continue to revolutionize commerce, by Natalie Berg and Miya Knights, is published this month by Kogan Page.

A version of this article originally appeared in Retail Week

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E-commerce Retail trends Store of the future Uncategorized

The future of retail? Blended. [VIDEO]

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It was a pleasure to work with Dropbox on this future of retail campaign. There’s a lot of doom and gloom out there, but I believe the future is bright for those retailers willing to reconfigure for the digital age. In the future, retail will be more blended in that we’ll see an acceleration of the convergence of physical and digital worlds, but also in the sense that retail space will be less about retail. We’ll see a greater blurring of the lines between retail, hospitality and leisure.

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Amazon E-commerce

Takeaways: Amazon UK Analyst Day

I had the pleasure of attending the annual Amazon UK analyst briefing this morning where we heard from senior executives across various parts of the business. The event kicked off with UK Country Manager Doug Gurr dismissing the broader doom and gloom. According to Gurr, the fundamental basics of retail – selection, price, convenience – haven’t changed. However, the future will be a more blended retail experience. “There’s still no substitute for touching, feeling, seeing the product. We’ll see more merging in the future,” he said.

There was lots to take in but here are my highlights:

Amazon is quietly ramping up its private label portfolio in the UK. The big difference at this event versus last year’s was the sheer amount of AmazonBasics signs plastered around the room. In FMCG, the retailer has brought its Mama Bear, Happy Belly and Wickedly Prime over from the US. In fashion, the well-publicized launch of Find last year has since been followed by Truth & Fable, Iris & Lilly and Meraki ranges. It’s worth pointing out here that Amazon just quietly added new FMCG lines to its US site – Solimo and Mountain Falls (the latter is exclusive rather than owned by Amazon) and I imagine these too will eventually come to the UK as Amazon builds out its global grocery offering. Why the big push into private label? It will help Amazon inch closer to sustained profitability. With its own brands, Amazon can widen margins without raising prices. It gives them greater leverage over suppliers and allows them to sweeten the deal for Prime members, as many own label items are sold exclusively to them. With the sheer amount of customer data Amazon holds, no one is better positioned to understand customer needs and then develop ranges specifically for them.

To disrupt fashion, Amazon must adapt. The big challenge in fashion, according to Head of Apparel, Nick Pope, is “balancing the discoverability and fun of fashion with the practical excellence that Amazon delivers”. For all its perks, Amazon is still a utilitarian shopping experience. Sure, they can shift a ton of socks and underwear (they’re expected to become the largest clothing retailer in the US by the end of this year) but, when it comes to customer perception, Amazon is simply not a fashion destination. Amazon is looking to change that by adding more brands to its site, ramping up private label, introducing a more visual layout, using its Shoreditch photo studio for consistency in imagery, and they’ve just begun integrating video on their UK site (piloted with the Truth & Fable range). 

Higher-margin private label clothing allows Amazon to fill gaps in merchandising while simultaneously boosting the bottom line, which will become all the more important as they move further into groceries. At the same time, more fashion brands are succumbing to Amazon’s platform – they can no longer ignore Amazon’s incredible reach and many also want greater control over pricing and presentation (if their brands are already present on Amazon’s marketplace). In addition to signing on major global brands such as Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, Amazon is working with local brands in each market (ie Coast, LK Bennett in the UK). They’ve taken a similar approach in Italy, France, etc. There was no mention of initiatives like Prime Wardrobe or the Echo Look which are both currently available in the US, but these innovations will play a major role in Amazon’s plan to disrupt fashion so I’d be very surprised if these weren’t launched in the UK within the next 12 months.

Amazon is getting more comfortable with the exclusivity of Prime. At its 2005 launch, Jeff Bezos described Prime as “all-you-can-eat express shipping”. Today, it was referred to as the “gateway to the best of Amazon”. Lisa Leung, Director of Amazon Prime, said that there are now millions of UK Prime members and that the major difference with this year’s Prime Day (details of which I won’t go into here) is that Amazon “wanted to make the benefits come alive”. As such, they’ll host an entertainment extravaganza on 15 July, the evening before Prime Day, with events ranging from a family screening of Paddington 2 to an exclusive Take That gig. Whole Foods Market stores will also get involved in Prime Day this year with special discounts and free instore massages.

Prime Now serves three shopping missions particularly well: crisis, gifting, top-up grocery. I can personally attest to all three! Jason Weston, UK Country Manager for Prime Now and AmazonFresh, said that Christmas Eve is one of the most popular days for Prime Now. He gave the example of a Manchester customer placing an order for women’s jewelry, perfume and a PlayStation console at 10pm on Christmas Eve, which was delivered by 11pm. Meanwhile, cut-off times are getting later and later in a bid to cater to the ‘for tonight’ shopping mission. Today, customers can order by lunchtime and have their delivery arrive by dinnertime. In some postcodes, this can be as late as 4pm. I was surprised to learn that Prime Now covers 30% of the UK, although this is largely limited to cities. I asked Weston if he thought same-day delivery would become the norm in UK grocery (Prime Now has been such a catalyst for change as I describe here in this BBC article). His reply? “Time is becoming a more important commodity for everyone.” I couldn’t agree more.  

Too early for a book plug? My and Miya Knights’ book on Amazon is now available for pre-order here.

 

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Amazon E-commerce

Tesco can’t out-Amazon Amazon

One of the fundamental reasons for Amazon’s success is its unwavering commitment to a vision laid out two decades ago: to relentlessly innovate in a bid to create long-term value for customers. Amazon’s USP is disruption and they continue to finetune it. Every action is guided by a vision that hasn’t changed since Amazon’s inception.

Most publicly traded retailers aren’t afforded the luxury of such long-term thinking, and turnover at the top often brings a change in strategic direction. However, retailers can compete with Amazon by honing in on their own strengths and streamlining anything that does not add value to their core proposition. In this climate, it’s differentiate or die. Being ‘all things to all people’ is no longer an option.

The closure of Tesco Direct is an admission of defeat to Amazon: it was after all designed to compete with the behemoth head on by replicating their marketplace format, extending Tesco’s product range beyond the confines of their superstores. But if there is one rule in retail today, it’s this: you cannot out-Amazon Amazon.

Aside from racking up Clubcard points on big-ticket purchases, there was very little incentive for shoppers to choose Tesco Direct over Amazon. Tesco’s site in comparison was confusing and full of friction. Pricing was inconsistent, it lacked product recommendations and reviews, and the range was neither broad nor compelling enough to make it the go-to destination for general merchandise. Let’s not forget that many shoppers today begin their product search not with Google but with Amazon. Amazon has become the first port of call for even the most obscure products – from silicone wine glasses to cat scratch turntables – which when combined with Prime delivery becomes a very compelling proposition.

Tesco Direct was loss-making and contributed very little to the topline, which sparks a lesson to be learned from Amazon: admitting failure and swiftly moving on. Offering 94 types of treadmills online won’t help Tesco to retain its title as the country’s largest food retailer. There’s no time for costly distractions when Amazon is on your doorstep. Tesco will be far better off to merge grocery and non-food onto one platform, as some competitors did several years ago, and then focus on logical category extensions to mirror what shoppers would find instore.

There is a renewed sense of urgency to strengthen these core non-food categories and it actually has nothing to do with Amazon. A combined Asda-Sainsburys-Argos will create a retailing powerhouse in toys, baby, clothing and home. Tesco needs to up its game fast in these categories and leave everything else to the specialists.

The Direct business joins a growing graveyard of Tesco brands including Giraffe, Euphorium, Harris + Hoole, Nutricentre, Hudl, Blinkbox, Dobbies. What was once considered business-critical diversification is now seen as a pricey distraction. Tesco Direct won’t be the last of Dave Lewis’ and Charles Wilson’s strategic cull as they continue to tighten Tesco’s focus on food by offloading non-core assets. There is, after all, only room for one everything store.

Article originally featured in The Grocer

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E-commerce M&A Store of the future

Sainsburys-Asda: dare we say #amazoneffect?

‘The Amazon Effect’ is one of the most widely used phrases in retail today. High street shops closing? It’s the Amazon Effect. Retailers investing online? The Amazon Effect. Acquisitions, CVAs, redundancies… These days, we can find a way to link, however tenuously, most retail developments to the Seattle-based behemoth.

And for good reason. Amazon continues to spread its tentacles, diversifying into new categories and even sectors. It has its sights set on food and fashion, but also entertainment, shipping, healthcare and banking. It doesn’t just go after share of wallet. It goes after share of life.

This is why the Sainsbury’s-Asda merger is happening now. It’s a pre-emptive move against Amazon. It’s about generating scale and ultimately ensuring survival before Amazon gets serious about UK grocery. Today, despite the acquisition of Whole Foods Market and supply agreements with Morrisons and Booths, Amazon still isn’t a food destination. The infrastructure is in place, but it lacks a compelling range. That will change. It will differentiate in grocery just as it does in non-food: through product choice and convenience. Despite its negligible share of the UK grocery market, Amazon has already been a phenomenal catalyst for change in areas like delivery speed, voice technology and checkout. Its relentless dissatisfaction with the status quo is leading supermarkets to raise their game, all to the benefit of the consumer.

Amazon will revolutionise the way we shop for groceries. Within the next five years, it will have acquired a UK retailer (we can now rule out two) and considerably enhanced the in-store experience.  I believe entire product categories will be removed as Amazon looks to make auto-replenishment a reality. If shoppers run out of bleach or toilet paper, they can press a Dash button or ask Alexa. In the future, this will go even further by being automatically replenished. This will test brand loyalty in a way we’ve never seen before, while also freeing up space to focus on what can’t be done online – fresh food halls, cookery classes, cafés and restaurants. The experience will be highly personalised and utterly frictionless.

The move into grocery is of huge strategic importance to Amazon. If it can convince UK shoppers it’s a credible alternative to the supermarkets, it will have cleared the final hurdle to becoming the ‘everything store’. Capturing that high frequency purchase makes it easier to cross-sell and bait shoppers into its ecosystem. And that is when things get ugly, not just for the supermarkets but all of retail: Amazon shoppers tend to be loyal, lifelong customers.

Joining forces won’t help Sainsbury’s and Asda solve the Amazon problem overnight, but it will certainly lead to better terms with suppliers and consequently lower prices for customers. Also, not to be overlooked in this deal is Argos. An unexpected gem, Argos can now deliver to 90% of the UK population in just four hours. Argos concessions will be rolled out across Asda stores, and possibly internationally through Walmart, giving the retailer an edge over supermarket rivals and more importantly an answer to the mighty Amazon.

Article originally featured in The Grocer

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E-commerce Retail trends Store closures Store of the future

Debenhams: department stores doomed?

Weather. Calendar shifts. Experiential spending.

Retailers have many “dog ate my homework” excuses for when trading is less than stellar, but when a late snowstorm forces you to temporarily shut over half your stores, it’s bound to impact the top line.

While it’s important to acknowledge the impact of the Beast from the East, it doesn’t take away from the fact that Debenhams, like many department stores today, is struggling to stay relevant.

Strategically, Debenhams is doing all the right things, but today’s results highlight the scale of the challenges confronting UK department stores. Not only are they facing a perfect storm of rising costs and subdued demand, but the original concept of a department store – one-stop shopping – has become completely eroded by online retail. Unfortunately for Debenhams, many stores are tethered to long-term leases so there is no quick fix for addressing the shift to online shopping.

Twenty-five stores will be reviewed as their leases come up for renewal over the next five years. In an ideal world, they’d be more bullish but with an average lease length of 18 years Debenhams doesn’t have the luxury of simply closing stores overnight. Instead, the focus will be on reinvention and rightsizing – they see potential for at least 30 stores to be downsized, in a similar vein to competitors like M&S and House of Fraser.

But make no mistake – the department store model is under threat. In the past, it made sense for retailers to dedicate 100,000-plus square feet to these ‘palaces of consumption’, aggregating lots of brands under one roof. But today, shoppers have access to millions of products at their fingertips, so the idea that a bricks and mortar retailer can still offer ‘everything under one roof’ becomes laughable. Department stores must reposition themselves to be less about product and more about experience. Winning in retail today means excelling where Amazon cannot.

Under Sergio Bucher (ex-Amazon), Debenhams is trying to do exactly that. They’ve embraced store reinvention, recognising that the department store of the future will be a place not only to buy stuff, but also to eat, discover, play and even work. Partnerships with brands like Swoon and Maisons du Monde create a point of differentiation, while the installation of gyms and beauty bars and potential collaboration with WeWork allow Debenhams to make better use of excess space while simultaneously driving footfall. Store reinvention’s not cheap but it’s better than standing still.

But amidst all this talk of transformation, it’s easy to lose focus on the basics of retail – price, product, service. This is where Debenhams shoppers have arguably been left feeling underwhelmed. Pricing must be sharper and more trustworthy, range must be simplified (though more compelling) and the overall proposition must become more experiential and service-led. Otherwise, they risk a lot of empty treadmills and brow bars.

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Amazon E-commerce Fulfilment Retail trends Store closures Store of the future

INFOGRAPHIC: 2018 UK Retail Predictions

NBK Retail launches today with an infographic charting the forces impacting retail in 2018.

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Amazon E-commerce Retail trends Store of the future

Day one

After 15 years at two of the world’s leading retail analyst firms, I’m beyond excited to transfer those skills over to my new venture: NBK Retail.

I have always been captivated by retail and the way we shop. I have fond memories interning at a Connecticut shopping mall, where my career in retail started out by counting cars in the parking lot and, on Black Friday, making sure the store managers had access to endless donuts and caffeine ahead of the 6am craze.

Even in the quietest of times, retail is a fascinating sector. It is always evolving, becoming more convenient, more connected, more customer-dictated. But today, the scale and pace of change facing the sector is unprecedented.

A decade ago, Amazon was the 47th largest retailer in the world. Today, they’re number 3 – and could very well become the world’s first trillion dollar company.

A decade ago, online retail was the holy grail. Today, pure-play e-commerce is dead. As technology breaks down the barriers between physical and digital retail, having a bricks & mortar presence becomes vital for both brand engagement and ultimately driving online sales.

A decade ago, multi-day lead times were acceptable. Today, Amazon wants same-day delivery to become the norm.

A decade ago, we put the success of the discounters down to temporary effects of the recession. Aldi and Lidl’s share of the UK market has more than doubled in that time.

A decade ago, click & collect was just something Argos did. Today, virtually every high street retailer offers click & collect, as it enables shoppers to marry the benefits of online shopping – assortment and price – with the convenience of collecting instore.

A decade ago, the purpose of the bricks & mortar store was predominantly transactional. Today, the store is being reconfigured as a hub for both experiences and fulfilment. It must become a place not only to buy but also discover, play, eat, work, and collect.

A decade ago, the thought of food in our cupboards being automatically restocked sounded like science fiction. Today, frictionless commerce is becoming a reality thanks to the rise of voice technology, simplified and auto-replenishment capabilities.

And the list goes on.

I’m looking forward to sharing my views on both UK and global retail via this blog. In the meantime, if you’re attending the Summit E-Commerce Scorecard event this morning, I’ll be there taking part in a panel debate. Please come say hello!