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.

Consumers Still Finding Weaknesses in Brands’ Web Presence

Temkin Group logoThe most recently published Temkin Web Experience Ratings of more than 200 companies across 19 industries reveals continuing widespread disappointment with the quality of the “web experience.”

The Temkin Web Experience Ratings are compiled annually by Temkin Group, a Newton, MA-based customer experience research and consulting firm.  The ratings are based on consumer feedback when asked to rate their satisfaction when interacting with each company’s website.

Temkin ratings are established for companies garnering responses from 100 or more of the ~10,000 randomly selected participants in an online survey conducted by the research firm in January 2013.

Rankings are calculated via a “net satisfaction” score based on a 7-point rating scale from “completely satisfied” to “completely dissatisfied” by taking the percentage of consumers selecting the two highest ratings and subtracting the percentage who selected the bottom three ratings.

Just 6% of the brands earned strong or very strong “net” trust ratings, while ten times as many (~63%) were given weak or very weak scores.

And there’s this, too:  Not much improvement is happening.  More than half of the ~150 companies that were included in both the 2012 and 2013 Temkin evaluations earned lower scores this year than last.

Managing partner Bruce Temkin summarized it succinctly:  “The web is a key channel, but online experiences aren’t very good – and are heading in the wrong direction.”

The latest Temkin ratings give Amazon the top-rank position with a 77% overall rating score.  Other companies ranked near the top include Advantage Rent A Car, U.S. Bank and QVC.

At the other end of the scale, MSN, EarthLink and Cablevision earned the lowest ratings – MSN worst of all.

Indeed, the following industries had composite company ratings that ended up in the “very weak” column:

  • Airlines
  • Health plans
  • Internet service providers
  • TV service providers
  • Wireless carriers

Do any of these industries seem like ones that shouldn’t be on this list?

I didn’t think so, either.

Which ones are the industries that score best in the Temkin analysis?  By order of rank, they are as follows:

  • Banks
  • Investment firms
  • Retailers
  • Credit card issuers
  • Hotel chains

Come to think of it, I haven’t encountered problems online with companies or bands in any of these five industries.

It’s also interesting to consider which companies have improved the most over time.  When comparing year-over-year results for the ~150 companies that were included in both the 2012 and 2013 studies, eight of them showed double-digit improvements in their scores:

  • Blue Shield of California
  • Citibank
  • Humana
  • Old Navy
  • Safeway
  • Toyota
  • TriCare
  • U.S. Bank

On the other hand, a much bigger contingent of 21 companies saw their ratings decline by at least 10 points; the six firms that dropped by 15 points of more were these:

  • Bright House Networks
  • Cablevision
  • MSN
  • ShopRite
  • Southwest Airlines
  • United Airlines

You can view the scores (and trends) for all 200+ companies by clicking here to download the full report.

If you notice any rankings that seem surprising – or that don’t comport with your own online experiences – please share your thoughts and perspectives below.

Retailing Comes Full Circle … Courtesy of Amazon

Amazon’s been busy revolutionizing the world of retailing for well over a decade now. So what’s its latest trick? Bricks-and mortar stores.

Yes, you read that right. Amazon’s going into the physical retail game.

What’s behind this seemingly bizarre turn away from 21st century online retailing back to something that seems almost quaint? It’s pretty fundamental, actually. There are many products that consumers find easier to purchase after being able to interact with them physically and personally.

From apparel to electronics to sporting goods, sometimes there’s no substitute for the visceral, sensory experience. Online images, videos, product ratings and customer reviews all have their place, and Amazon doesn’t see those aspects becoming any less important over time.

Indeed, the Amazon store concept builds on all that, attempting to create a multi-channel retailing structure that truly serves the needs to consumers whenever and however they wish.

If what Amazon is developing is “just another” retail shop, it’ll be much ado about nothing. But it’s more likely that Amazon will try to create a retail experience in the manner of an Apple store – creating an environment that has its own special personality and attracts shoppers because of it.

Amazon may generate a good deal of buzz about its newest venture and the novelty of it all. Good for them. But the Amazon initiative also speaks to a more fundamental truth: reminding us that the marketplace is made up of human beings, not machines. People are social … and sometimes we hunger for more than just looking at an image on a computer screen.

If Amazon can successfully integrate its new physical stores concept with its phenomenally successful online retail business, it’ll be another step forward in the creation of truly integrated, multi-channel retailing.

It’s good to see that people are at the center of the model – literally and figuratively.