Posts tagged: Borders

Amazon is hunting for you this holiday season

The holidays are hunting season for Amazon, and they’ve got your business in their sights. Over the years, Amazon has consistently proven to be extremely adept at
maximizing their competitive advantages and creating innovations to
shore up their disadvantages. And the holiday season is the time they most leverage their advantages to grab more market share.

But here’s the thing: many of Amazon’s advantages are shared by e-commerce operations of all
types, but Amazon seems to be quicker to recognize and capitalize on
those advantages than everyone else.

This morning, I pulled up the Amazon home page and was greeted by yet
another letter from Jeff Bezos announcing Amazon’s latest brilliant
innovation. This time, it’s “Frustration Free Packaging” – just in time
for the holiday season when those of us who are parents still haven’t healed the scars from last year’s unbelievable frustration with trying to release our kids’ new toys from wicked constraints that would have defied Houdini (all while the kids are jumping up and down with excitement to play with the new toys).

The secure packaging we’ve been fighting with is designed for physical stores to allow for attractive displays while at the the same time preventing theft. You can see all gory details in this patent filing for toy packaging. But the need for that type of packing in an e-commerce warehouse is moot. So, why not push manufacturers for “e-commerce packaging” that is designed to protect items in shipping but allows for easy removal from the package? Amazon’s size probably gives them an advantage in pushing for this type of action from manufacturers, but many of today’s biggest multi-channel retailers certainly have massive pull with manufacturers and probably could have pulled this type of thing off either individually or collectively — had they thought of it.

And, of course, Amazon has been the trailblazer for many of today’s e-commerce innovations, including customer reviews, affiliate programs and recommendations. So, you might say, let them bear the costs of the innovations and we’ll just capitalize on them after Amazon has proven the way.

While that strategy may work sometimes, it’s fraught with risk because Amazon doesn’t often relinquish market share once they’ve gained it (particularly if they hook customers into Amazon Prime), and they tend to gain that market share during the holiday season. Check out their quarterly results in the “North American Media” category over the last 22 quarters in comparison to Barnes and Noble and Borders:

You can see it’s the fourth quarter where they gain market share. They don’t gain much in the other three quarters, but they certainly hold on to a lot of the share they gained the prior holiday season.

So, what can the rest of us do about it?

For starters, we might want to put innovation on the front burner. Yes, there are costs and risks associated with innovation. But the costs of doing nothing or simply following the crowd might be greater. And successful innovations don’t always have to be earth-shatteringly new, whiz bang technology. They simply need to solve problems better than current solutions.

I believe the most successful innovations have at least one of the following characteristics:

  1. They create convenience for consumers
    We love convenience, and we’ll sacrifice quality and spend more money to get it. I’ve talked about this previously in my post “Predicting the Future of Retail.”
  2. They create efficiencies for businesses
    Efficiencies allow us to make more money faster, and we love that. Given the unusual shapes some toy packaging can take, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Amazon’s Frustration Free Packaging is also alleviating frustrations in their warehouse and giving Amazon added efficiency in the supply chain.

It’s important to carefully examine our businesses to truly understand where we have advantages and disadvantages. As is the case with packaging, these advantages might not always be immediately obvious. We really need to dig deep to understand the problems our customers and businesses are facing and then carefully look for ways to solve those problems by leveraging our inherent strengths. In this process, we need to listen hard to our customers to understand their needs. Steve Jobs once famously said, “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” He’s right. Customers often can’t give us the specific solution, but if we listen properly they can describe their problems well enough to give us the basis for developing effective solutions.

Innovation usually takes time and money. What can we do this holiday season?

There are lots of little things we can do to improve the experience for customers who come to our sites this holiday season.

  1. Truly look at our sites from our customers’ perspective.
    Go to Google and click on one of your search terms. Is the experience what a customer should expect? Try taking a different path on your site to a product than you normally do. How is the experience?
  2. Get more product front and center
    Physical stores pack the front of store and end caps with gift ideas. How well does your site parallel this sort of technique?
  3. Review your error messages
    A poorly written error message is a shameful way to lose a sale. Go through your site and intentionally generate errors. Put yourself in your customers’ seat. Are those error messages clear and easy-to-understand?

While it may be too late to implement huge changes for this holiday season, it’s certainly not too late to pay attention to customers’ needs and start thinking about what can be done for next holiday season. We can carefully consider our advantages and think about how we could better leverage them next year. And we can carefully consider our disadvantages and think about how we can better mitigate them next year. I’m confident Amazon’s already actively considering their next moves.

What do you think? What tips do you have for retailers for this holiday season? What types of innovations do you see coming?



The Prizes and Perils of Free Shipping

Shipping charges. As customers, we HATE paying for them, and we LOVE getting them free. In fact, our feelings about shipping charges are so strong that we highly overvalue free shipping. We’ll spend money we didn’t plan to spend on products we don’t need in order to avoid dumping cash into those awful shipping fees, even when that incremental spending is much more than the shipping charge.

So, free shipping promotions are a powerful tool for retailers. But, if we’re not careful, overuse of free shipping offers could lead us down a path where free shipping becomes more an expectation than an attractive benefit. At that point, we’ll be left with the huge costs of subsidized shipping without incremental sales to support those costs. And that ain’t a pretty equation.

That said, strategic use of free shipping incentives can lead to incremental sales and greater brand loyalty. We’re probably all familiar with the various “free shipping when you spend $X” offers that are out there, so let’s consider some of the more innovative strategies in use today for free shipping:

Free shipping as part of the business model

Zappos really uses free shipping on purchases and returns as a key component of their business model. They encourage people to order multiple sizes of the same pair of shoes and return those that didn’t fit (or those they just didn’t like, for that matter). Free shipping removes a key disadvantage Zappos has to physical retailers, and in fact even provides an advantage for customers who can try on shoes in the comfort of their own homes.

Zappos’ CEO Tony Hseih has said Zappos is a customer service company not an e-commerce retailer, and free shipping is a big part of their customer service strategy. He’s also said Zappos looks at customer service as a marketing expense, which I think is an interesting perspective that might help the cost make business sense.

But free shipping both way at all times is not a sustainable business strategy without trade-offs. Zappos is not the low price leader in their category by any means. Even with their higher prices, public filings from the recent Amazon acquisition of Zappos exposed their relatively low profits as a percentage of sales. Zappos has certainly built a powerful brand with a loyal following so it looks to me like they’ve made the trade-offs work, but theirs could be a tough model for others to follow. I’ll be curious to see if the model continues to work within the Amazon business model.

Speaking of which…

Free shipping as a loyalty program

Amazon Prime is one of the more brilliant loyalty program innovations to come along over the last several years. For an annual fee of $79, customers can get free 2-day shipping on many key items and free standard shipping on many more. Again, this is a case of a pure-play e-commerce retailer looking to mitigate one of its disadvantages to physical retail. Amazon sunk some money into this program by giving away a lot of free trials, but they’ve since hooked people in to the fee. A recent Piper Jaffray analysis estimates Amazon Prime’s membership at 2 million people and growing at 24% annually. And once you pay $79 to get free shipping, you’re going to make the most out of it. Piper Jaffray found member spend growing from $400 annually to $900 annually!

But this again is an expensive proposition that wouldn’t be sustainable for most businesses. The $79 will help to defray some of the free shipping costs, but as with most paid loyalty programs that I’ve studied, customers don’t renew their memberships unless they’re getting a positive return on their investments. And Amazon, as a general merchandiser, can provide customers with enough product choices that they can visualize making enough purchases to get their money back and then some. Specialty retailers may not be able to offer a similar program on their own; although, I keep thinking there might be an opportunity for some third party to aggregate a bunch of retailers into a program in a way that might work. (Maybe that’s a future post.)

Free shipping as a store traffic driver

The previous two examples were pure-play retailers using free shipping as a way to mitigate a major disadvantage they have to physical retailers. So how can multi-channel retailers leverage the advantages they have with their multiple channels? Free shipping to stores is one way. When I was at Borders, we offered unrestricted free shipping to our stores as a cross-channel strategy in order to leverage the selection and experience of Borders.com combined with the convenience of picking up the order in our stores. Originally, we thought it would appeal mostly to urban dwellers who didn’t want packages left on their doorsteps, but it turned out to be a hit all around for people who just didn’t want to pay for shipping. Wal-Mart does something similar with their Site-to-Store program. And Borders just took it a step further with their recently announced “in stock guarantee” for their stores that offers free shipping to home for customers if the Borders store is out-of-stock on the item the customer came in to purchase.

But businesses offering free shipping without purchase hurdles often depend on additional future purchases to make the offering profitable. For example, we ran a lot of analysis at Borders on the free shipping to stores offer. We determined we needed X% of people to buy $X more in-store when they picked up their orders for the offer to make financial sense. With the new offering, it appears Borders is counting on pulling some market share from Amazon with the promise of books available right now in their stores.

There can be little doubt that free shipping is a powerful offer, but we have to be careful how we wield it. Someone recently told me that effectiveness of fire lies in prudence and intention. Used in a positive manner, it can provide great warmth and light but when used in a negative manner it can cause great destruction. Since I like overly dramatic metaphors, I’m going to compare free shipping to fire. Let’s be careful out there. :-)

What do you think? Should we be concerned about free shipping becoming an expectation? How do you use free shipping strategically?



Conversion tip: Don’t block the product with window signs

My friend Bryan Eisenberg is always telling retailers, “You don’t have traffic problems. You have conversion problems.” When 95+% of the people who come to a site don’t purchase, it’s a hard point to deny. Could giving customers quicker and better access to the product be one way to start to solve the conversion problem? My experience says Yes.

A quick story

Imagine walking into a store and smacking into a giant promotional banner that stretches from the ceiling to chest level. Below it and to its right hang a series of smaller promotional banners. A few feet behind the banners, you see a series of doors with signs above them that appear to represent different product categories. You push through the banners and open the door under the “Dresses” sign. There you step into a room where a flashy video projected on a large wall highlights stylish dresses and beautiful models and also runs copy about the same promotion you saw on the banner at the front of the store. The wall to the right features several smaller signs for various promotions. The wall to the left is littered with 20 or 30 doors, each with a sign above it for what appears to be a type of dress.

Nowhere in the room are there any dresses.

You pass through the door labeled “Casual dresses” and finally see actual merchandise.

Does that story seem ludicrous? Then why is that basically the experience on so many retail websites?

In brick and mortar retail, we use promotional signs in our windows to draw people into the store, where we expertly display lots and lots of product to customers the moment they walk in the door. We certainly reinforce our promotional messages with signage throughout the store, but we never block the product with the signs. On our sites, our promotions seem to be more important than our products. What message are we sending to our customers about the value of our products when promotions get more prominence than the merchandise?

When customers arrive at our home page, they’ve already effectively entered the store. So, why are our “window signs” blocking the product?

Apparel and department store sites seem to have almost uniformly adopted the experience described above, but most other retail sites that I’ve seen don’t stray too far from “the window sign” experience. Consumer electronics and computer sites often feature a few specific deals or featured products, but otherwise they generally follow a similar approach. In fact, about half of the Internet Retailer Top 25 sites on my recent viewing didn’t show any products on their home pages, and the remainder only displayed a very few select products.

Are we missing conversion opportunities by taking too many pages to get to the products?

Certain retail categories, like apparel, books, jewelry and flowers/gifts to name a few, seem to have large customer contingencies who are prone to browsing to see what’s new. Physical stores in those categories absolutely cater to the desire of customers to check out the latest stuff, but the web sites seem to assume customers are only interested in promotions. Or are the promotions simply the result of our own self-interest? What percentage of customers click on the promo spots versus hitting the search box or clicking into a department or sub-department? If it’s a fairly small percentage, perhaps a different approach might pay off.

A case study

When we launched the new Borders.com last year, we knew that about half our customers came to the store looking for something new to read without a specific book in mind. As a result, we created the Magic Shelf, a virtual and interactive book shelf that housed up to 120 books in an easily browsed application.
And we placed the Magic Shelf in the most prominent position on our home page — front and center. The decision to offer such valuable real estate to this new feature was hardly unanimous, but those of us who supported it won at least enough support to give it a try.

The result? Not only did customers say they loved it, those who interacted with the Magic Shelf converted at a rate 62% higher than those who didn’t. As we dug deeper, we discovered that the reason they converted more was that they viewed about 41% more products than those who didn’t interact with the Magic Shelf. (If you’re interested in more detail, you can download the case study we did with Allurent, the vendor we used to develop the Magic Shelf).

How might the shopping experience change on an apparel site if there was prominently placed virtual rack of some sort that allowed customers to easily browse, on one page, a wide selection of the latest styles? How about virtual jewelry cases or flower bins?

Ann Taylor trendsetting

The new Ann Taylor site design has made some strong strides towards a nice product browsing experience. While they still seem to feature window signs on the home page, their landing pages provide a very nice browsing experience where customers can easily peruse lots of merchandise. The product images are very clean and easy to see, and the page layout lends itself to the ability to occasionally replace one of the product spots with a visible but unobtrusive promo spot. Bravo to Matthew Seigel and the team at AnnTaylor.com!

I’m not sure it’s necessary to replicate a physical fixture to achieve the benefits of great product browsing. To me, the key is giving customers easy access to our merchandise and letting them very easily view lots of different items. That basic concept is something we discovered long ago in the physical retail world. How did we lose sight of it online?

What do you think? What is the thinking at your company? What sites have you seen that do a good job giving access to the product? Or, are the current methods working for you?


Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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