This article was originally published January 18th, 2019
We had a good debate in the NRF Visiting Retail Experts Club (not a real thing) around the question ‘Amazon, friend or foe?’ Solid arguments were posited, with both sides of the answer receiving equal support.
Personally, I believe it is dangerously reductive for a retailer to look at Amazon as a foe: a foe has to be fought, or at least tactically disengaged from but neither of those options helps the rival retailer — few can fight Amazon like-for-like and win, and disengaging is another form of placing ones head in the sand.
Surely the productive option is to consider Amazon a friend? It’s possible to learn from friends, to take their successes and apply them to your own contexts. You can work with friends, you can borrow from them and lend to them. Seeing Amazon as a friend to retail opens up the opportunity to benefit from Amazon’s investments in tech and techniques. Their brilliant cashier-less technology, for example, is the grocery equivalent of a friend telling you you’ve got fat and lazy and showing you what getting back to fitness looks like.
Amazon is my friend. I like Amazon and it is with this loving sentiment in mind that I have to act like a good friend and tell my friend Amazon, in the spirit of that friendship; that their Amazon 4-Star concept store is a massive steaming pile of dog shit. Just as New York City’s dog owners appear okay with letting their charges constantly dump brown mines all over the pavements; Amazon, my friend Amazon, has dumped a noxious great big dollop onto the otherwise charming Spring Street.
This sad 4-star white elephant is a terrific symbol for the reality of this store. Why is it here? Why just dumped on a random shelf? Why does it exist? This is the existential crisis of Amazon 4-star written in plaster and broken glass.
I wanted to like Amazon 4-Star because it’s a great modern concept: only stock things that you know are rated four stars and above. From that simple idea it should be possible to build some great curation and themes. What Amazon have done instead is to fart out a jumble-sale assortment with the barest minimum of category or relationship.
At it’s worst, it is very bad and the worst of the lot for me is the almost sweetly rubbish attempt to do a ‘new year, new you’ thing. Underneath the laughably half-hearted signs were a few planners and not much else. It looked like the buffet at Sandbach Services on the M6 when I was a kid. Limp, unappealing and a possible source of gastroenteritis.
Is this really the most inspiring Amazon can be?
Variously we found ourselves describing this retail horror store thus:
- “It feels like Nuneaton Argos in 1981 after a rare English earthquake.”
- “Imagine if The Works dropped all pretence of merchandising standards.”
- “Makes Sears look like the pinnacle of modern experiential retail.”
By now we were beginning to wonder if this whole store was some sort of giant philosophical experiment automatically created by a sentient AWS server farm.
What Amazon 4-Star does is provide the clearest evidence yet that Amazon is a retailer of specific, not general, talents. You want a friction-busting retailer able to create the easiest shopping experiences on the planet? Look no further. You want to create a reward-packed shop that customers are magically drawn to and in which they happily spend a load of cash? You’ll have to look past Amazon, towards the likes of Nike House of Innovation, Glossier, Eataly, Story, Allbirds, CW Pencil Enterprise, Everlane, Warby Parker, Sonos, 3x1, Showfields, and the Starbucks Roastery to name but a small selection and that’s just NYC.
Hell you could also throw in my favorite retailer The Container Store. Not one that features on the innovation tours much but a supreme example of how to create meaningful, curated, aspirational and very convertible customer experiences out of problem solving rather than the product-first Amazon 4-Star approach. You can buy shelves and boxes at much lower friction on Amazon.com but to improve your life through better storage, the place with all the reward is a physical Container Store. That’s where you go for those solutions.
It’s not just that the 4-Star store is weirdly merchandised, it’s that what attempts there are to curate, to add value and to create discovery are flaccid and amateur. Amazon’s data resources are staggering and the two tables that do glister with gold are both direct from that strength: ‘Most Wished For’ and ‘Trending Around New York’ both intrigue the shopper. They feel like a delicious little peek into private thoughts. An Amazon Wish Store; now that could be cool. An Amazon What the World Loves store, loads of opportunities there to have fun and draw in the curious gift and style buyer (ooh look, London loves mid-century lamps I’ll buy one!) Apart from those two data-made oases, the desert in which they sit is filled not with sand but with tomorrow’s yard-sale detritus.
Sometimes there is no substitute for knowing your product. These Sony Mk.II headphones are indeed fantastic, I have them but I use and much prefer the current model, also $350, the Mk.III version. As a customer, 4-Star or not, I would be proper moody if I’d trusted Amazon and bought these as the most current and best option. Which they are not.
Amazon are the gods of low-friction retailing, trying to compete with them on pure friction terms is doomed to failure; you will only ever be not-quite-as-low-friction-as-Amazon no matter what you spend. But find your reward-side chops and Amazon 4-Star proves that you have the upper hand.
Talk to us at Uncrowd about how to surface your real Friction/Reward Indexes and we will show you your Amazon-beating potential. Beating of other competitors is also both available and encouraged!