Amazon and its sellers need each other.

If you speak with small businesses that sell products online, many will tell you that they chafe under the strong-arm tactics of Amazon and its seller policies.

On the other hand, what’s their alternative?

The reality is that it takes about the same amount of time and effort to run a Walmart or eBay store as it does to run a store at Amazon.

The difference? The sales revenue of a Walmart or eBay store is typically less than 10% of what businesses would generate on Amazon for that same amount of work.  That interesting informational nugget comes from James Thompson, a partner at the Buy Box Experts e-tailing consultancy.

(And for small retailers attempting to run their own e-commerce sites, the revenue stream is even lower.)

But even with Amazon’s ascendancy in the world of online commerce, its retail platform remains a frustration to small sellers due to its level of responsiveness to questions and concerns (low) and its sudden, sometimes inexplicable policy changes.

Consumer advocates would counter-argue that Amazon’s seller policies are focused in the right place:  looking out for the end-user customer. But others contend that Amazon’s actions aren’t even-handed, nor applied equally.

Take Amazon’s policies on dealing with product shipments and defects. When a seller’s defect order rate goes as high as 1%, Amazon deactivates the vendor’s account automatically.  To be reinstated, a seller has to go through an arduous vetting process, during which time Amazon holds all monies due to the seller until every order is shipped and received – even orders that are in dispute.

To make matters even more onerous, the customer service phone number of the seller disappears, making it next-to-impossible for the vendor to clear up any misunderstandings with an end-customer other than by going through the Amazon portal.

Here’s another example:  Without prior notification, last month Amazon instituted a new “Pay by Invoice” policy that allows corporate customers a pay period of 30 days.

While this is a great move from the customer’s point of view, most small businesses are used to being paid in two weeks.  The new invoice payment policy squeezes the resources of smaller sellers, which often operate under tighter cashflow conditions than larger retailers.

It is true that bigger brands make up an increasing share of volume in the world of Amazon sellers. Those brands bring in the most money, but small businesses round out the portfolio and remain an important component of realizing Amazon’s aims of becoming the big behemoth with an “always and everywhere” presence in the world of retail.

Considering everything, it would seem that Amazon and its sellers should recognize each other’s worth and how much they mean to each other. Amidst everything, there has to be a win-win position that can be reached to the benefit of everyone.

In digital retail, there’s Amazon and then there’s … everyone else.

When it comes to online retailing in the United States, Amazon’s been cleaning up for years. And now we have new data from comScore that reveals that Amazon is as dominant online today as it’s ever been.

This chart illustrates it well:

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* MediaMetrix Multi-Platform, US, December 2017. Source: comScore 2018 State of the U.S. Online Retail Economy.

The chart shows that when comparing actual time spent by Americans at each of the Top 10 online retailers, Amazon attracts more viewing time than the other nine entities combined.

Even when considering only mobile minutes, where so much of the growth is happening for digital retailers, Amazon’s mobile viewing time exceeds the combined total digital traffic across eBay, Walmart, Wish, Kohl’s and Etsy.

Pertaining to the mobile sphere, there is an interesting twist that comScore has found in consumer behavior. It turns out, there’s a considerable disparity between the amount of time spent with mobile compared to its share of dollars spent – to the tune of a 40% gap:

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MediaMetrix Multi-Platform and ecommerce / mCommerce Measurement, Q4 2017. Source: comScore 2018 State of the U.S. Online Retail Economy.

In essence, the data show that whereas mobile represents nearly two-thirds of the time spent with online retail, it accounts for only one-fourth of the dollars spent on goods and services.

But this difference is easy to explain:  As the largest player in the field, Amazon fulfills a role similar to what Expedia or Trivago do in the travel industry.

Amazon gives consumers a way to scan the marketplace not only for product details but also for prevailing prices, giving them a sense of the expected price ranges for products or services — even if they ultimately choose to purchase elsewhere.

All those narratives about Amazon? They’re not exactly accurate.

abI doubt I know a single person under the age of 75 who hasn’t purchased at least one item of merchandise from Amazon over the years. And I know quite a few people whose only shopping experience for the holidays is a date with the Amazon website.

Still, some of the breathless stories and statistics that are put forward about Amazon and its business model seem almost too impressive to be true.

I’m not just talking about news reports of drone deliveries (a whole lot of “hat” and far less “cattle” there) or the idea that fully-robotic warehouses are just around the corner – although these stories do make for attention-grabbing headlines.  (Despite the continued need for human involvement, the way that robots are being used inside Amazon warehouses is still quite impressive.)

Moreover, a study published recently by BloomReach based on a survey of ~2,200 U.S. online consumers finds that Amazon is involved in most online shopping excursions, with nine out of ten online shoppers reporting that they check Amazon’s site even if they end up finding the product they want via another e-commerce resource.

More than half of the BloomReach survey respondents reports that they check on the Amazon site first — which is a new high for the company.

But are all of the reports about Amazon as credible?

Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett

Recently Doug Garnett, CEO of advertising agency Atomic Direct, penned a piece that was published in the December 2016 edition of Response Magazine. In it, he threw a dose of cold-water reality on some of the narratives surrounding Amazon and its business accomplishments.

Here are several of them that seem to contradict some of the commonly held perceptions:

“Amazon is a $100 billion retailer.”

Garnett notes that once subtracting Amazon’s non-retail revenue for 2015 (the last year for which financial data is available), the worldwide figure is more like half of that.

In the United States, Amazon’s retail sales are closer to $25 billion, which means it makes up approximately 6% of total retail sales.

That’s still very significant, but it isn’t the dominating presence as it might seem from all of the press hype.

“Amazon is profitable now.”

Yes, it is – and that’s after many years when the company wasn’t. However, approximately three-fourths of Amazon’s profits are due to selling cloud-based services, and the vast majority of the remaining profit dollars come from content delivery such as e-books plus music and video downloads.  So traditional retail hard-goods still aren’t generating profits for Amazon.

It turns out, just as retailers like Wal-Mart, Target and K-Mart have discovered, that replicating a retail store online is almost always a money-losing proposition.

To underscore this point, Garnett references this example of a merchandising campaign in 2016 as typical:

“When one unit was sold on Amazon, eight were sold at the retailer’s website and 80 were sold in the brick-and-mortar stores. The profit is in the store. 

For mass-market products, brick-and-mortar still dominates. Amazon is a nice incremental revenue stream, [but] not a valid alternative when you’re playing in the big game.”

It also means that companies that are looking to Amazon as a way to push their products into the marketplace should probably think twice.

At the very least, they should keep their expectations realistically modest.

Are U.S. warehouse jobs destined to go the way of manufacturing employment?

Even as manufacturing jobs have plateaued or fallen in certain communities, one of the employment bright spots has been the rise of distribution centers and super warehouses constructed by Amazon and other mega retailers to accommodate the steady rise of online shopping.

In my own region, the opening of Amazon distribution centers in Maryland and Delaware were met with accolades by local business development officials, who figured that new employment opportunities for entry level workers would soon follow.

And they have … to a degree. But what many people might not have expected was the rapid rise of robotics usage in warehouse operations.

In just the past few years, Amazon has quietly gone about purchasing and introducing more than 30,000 Kiva robots for many of its warehouses, where the equipment has reduced operating expenses by approximately 20%, according to Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide operations and customer service.

An analysis by Deutsche Bank estimates that adding robots to a new Amazon warehouse saves approximately $22 million in fulfillment expenses, which is why Amazon is moving ahead with plans to introduce robots in the remaining 100 or so of its distribution centers that are still without them.

Once in place, it’s estimated that Amazon will save an additional $2.5 billion in operating expenses at these 100 facilities.

Of course, robots aren’t exactly inexpensive pieces of equipment. But with the operational savings involved, it’s clear that adding this kind of automation to warehousing is kind of a slam-dunk decision.

Which helps explain another move that Amazon made in 2012. It decided to purchase the company that makes Kiva robots — for a cool $775 million.  And then it did something else equally noteworthy:  it ceased the sale of Kiva robots to anyone outside the Amazon family.

Because Kiva was pretty much the only game in town when it came to robotics designed for warehouse pick-and-ship functions, Amazon’s move put all other warehouse operations at a serious disadvantage.

That in turn created a stampede to develop alternative sources of supply for robots. It’s taken about four years, but today there are credible alternatives to Kiva brand robots now entering the market.  Amazon’s uneven playing field is getting ready to become a lot more level now.

But the other result of this “robotics arms race” is the sudden plenteous availability of new robot equipment, which companies like Macy’s, Target and Wal-Mart are set to exploit.

The people who are slated to be the odd people out are … warehouse workers.

The impact could well be dramatic. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are nearly 860,000 warehouse workers in the United States today, and they earn an average wage of approximately $12 per hour.

Not only is the rise of robot usage threatening these jobs, thanks to the sharp increase of minimum wage rates in areas near to some major urban centers is putting the squeeze on hiring from a wholly different direction. It’s a perfect storm the seems destined to blow a hole in warehouse employment levels in the coming years.

Thinking back to what happened to manufacturing jobs in this country, it’s seems we’ve seen this movie before …

Amazon turns the page on yet another publishing maxim.

The publishing industry’s “primary disruptor” will start paying authors based on pages read, not e-books purchased. 

AmazonBeginning next month, Amazon is ushering in its next big change in the world of publishing … and it’s a pretty fundamental shift.

Instead of paying royalties to authors based on how many e-books have been sold, Amazon will start paying authors based on how many pages of their books consumers have read.

For now, the program applies just to self-published authors who are on Amazon’s KDP Select Program — but you can bet that if the experiment plays out well, it’ll likely expand.

Currently, Amazon remunerates its native authors on a monthly bases based on the number of times their e-books are accessed through two Kindle service programs:

The new change will shift away from paying authors based on each book accessed, and instead pay based on each page that readers access (and that remains on the screen long enough to be parsed).

Who will be the winners and losers in this new approach to compensation?  Certainly, some people have criticized the current payment scheme for benefiting authors of smaller books more than those who write longer tomes.  The change may improve matters for the latter because of the additional pages that make up their e-books.

But is that really the case?  Many large volumes are reference-oriented book or fall into other non-fiction categories, such that a reader may be interested in accessing only a few pages within the books in any case.

But on the fiction side, authors may find themselves attracted to writing the kind of “cliffhanger” story lines that keep readers turning the pages.

However it shakes out, one thing seems destined to change.  The old saw that “it doesn’t matter how many people read a book — only how many purchase it” may well be on the way out.

What are your thoughts about Amazon’s new remuneration policy?  On balance, is it good for authors — or for the world of books in general?  Feel free to share your comments with other readers.

World brands: Who’s up … Who’s down?

brand finance logoEach year, the brand valuation consulting firm Brand Finance produces a report on the strength of the world’s Top 500 brands.

It’s an interesting study in that Brand Finance calculates the values of brands using the so-called “royalty relief” approach – calculating a royalty rate that would be charged for the use of the brand name if it weren’t already owned by the company.

In the 2015 report, just issued, Apple remains the world’s most valuable brand based on this criterion.  The Top 10 listing of world brands is as follows:

brand finance global 500 2015#1  Apple

#2  Samsung

#3  Google

#4  Microsoft

#5  Verizon

#6  AT&T

#7  Amazon

#8  GE

#9  China Mobile

#10 Walmart

Of these, all but China Mobile were in the Top 10 listing in Brand Finance’s 2014 rankings.  Of the others, all maintained their rank except for AT&T and Amazon, which rose, and GE and Walmart, which fell.

The most valuable brands differ by region, however.  In fact, Apple is tops only in North America:

Most valuable brand in North America:  Apple

… in Europe:  BMW

… in Asia/Pacific:  Samsung

… in the Middle East:  Emirates Air

… in Africa:  MTN (M-Cell)

… in South America:  Banco Bradesco

As for which brand’s value is growing the fastest, top honors goes to … Twitter?

That is correct:  According to Brand Finance, Twitter’s value has mushroomed from $1.5 billion in early 2014 to nearly $4.5 billion now.

Other social platform firms that have experienced big growth are Facebook (up nearly 150%) and the Chinese-based Baidu (up over 160%).

What about in non-tech or social media sectors?  There, Chipotle racked up the biggest growth in brand value:  nearly 125%.  At the other end of the scale, the McDonald’s brand has lost about $4 billion in value over the past year.

Most Powerful Brands 

In addition to its brand value analysis, Brand Finance also publishes a ranking of most powerful brands based on its “brand strength index” (BSI).  This index focuses on factors more easily influenced by marketing and brand management activities — namely, marketing investment and brand equity/goodwill.

In this analysis, Brand Finance comes up with a very different set of “top brands” – led by Lego:

Lego logo#1  Lego:  BSI = 93.4

#2  PWC (PricewaterhouseCoopers):  91.8

#3  Red Bull:  91.1

#4 (tie)  McKinsey:  90.1

#4 (tie)  Unilever:  90.1

#6 (tie)  Burberry:  89.7

#6 (tie)  L’Oréal:  89.7

#6 (tie)  Rolex:  89.7

#9 (tie)  Coca-Cola:  89.6

#9 (tie)  Ferrari:  89.6

#9 (tie)  Nike:  89.6

#12 (tie) Walt Disney:  89.5

According to Brand Finance, Lego’s brand power stems from it being a “creative, hands-on toy that encourages creativity in kids and nostalgia in their parents, resulting in a strong cross-generational appeal.”  Lego also has a big consumer marketing presence, thanks to its brand activities in film, TV and comics.

Last year’s top brand was Ferrari, which has now slipped in the rankings.  Brand Finance cited the brand’s 1990s-era “sheen of glory” as wearing a bit thin 20 years on.

For more details on these brands and other aspects of the 2015 evaluation, you can review Brand Finance’s 2015 report here.

Do any of the results come as a surprise to you?  Please share your observations with other readers as to why certain specific brands are coming on strong while others may be fading.

Amazon’s (Somewhat) Surprising Shopping Stats

Shoppin on AmazonOver the years, Amazon has branched out greatly from its original focus on books and other media to offer all sorts of other merchandise.

In fact, these days people can buy pretty much anything on Amazon — assuming it’s legal.

Even so, I was somewhat surprised to read the tea leaves on some new findings released by Chicago-based Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.  This research firm surveyed ~1,100 Amazon customers, asking them about their most recent purchases on Amazon.

Categorizing the responses by type of merchandise, CIRP found that books are no longer the most popular products sold on Amazon.

Instead, pride of place now goes to top-ranked electronics products, with ~33% of the survey respondents reporting that those types of products were their most recent purchase on the site.

Books still maintain their high ranking; the category comes in second at ~20% of respondents.  (Incidentally, approximately one-third of those book purchases are e-books.)

Amazon’s Fresh service, which delivers groceries within 24 hours of ordering, has been operating in select West Coast cities for some time now — and it appears that the company has latched onto a winning formula.

In fact, the grocery category ranked third in the survey.

This surprised me:  Call me old school, but I still prefer to select my fresh meats and produce on my own, instead of relying on some anonymous “picker” to do it for me.

What were the bottom three merchandise categories found in the CIRP survey?  Sports-related purchases were low  … and music purchases were lower still (about half of them being music downloads, by the way).

Dead last is the automotive category.  No real surprise here, I don’t think.

Personally, I don’t know anyone who would feel comfortable purchasing a car online.  And since the vast majority of consumers don’t work on their cars either, it seems natural that most of them will continue to rely on their repair shops to procure the replacement parts and consumables they need for servicing their vehicles.

If you have particular merchandise you like to buy through Amazon — or if there is something really unusual that you’ve purchased from the site, please share your experiences with other readers here.