Minding the Gap: How Amazon Mastered the Market by Being Physical

This week, two would-be challengers to Amazon’s e-tail crown were humbled in one fell swoop. When Walmart pulled their products off Google Express – the position of Amazon as the undisputed owner of online sales was further consolidated.

When Google introduced Express in 2013 and then expanded the delivery service to the primary US metro areas in 2014, they were aiming directly at Amazon’s Prime service. But in the past 5 years, Prime has flourished and Express – well – appears to be expiring. It may join a growing list of other shuttered Google projects: Google Plus, Google Glass, Google Waves, Google Buzz – you get the idea.

Walmart, for its part, has certainly grown their online sales – thanks to a buying spree to help beef up it’s online marketplace – but according to the most recent numbers I could find (July of 2018) Amazon owns 50% of all Retail ecommerce sales compared to just 3.7% for Walmart. What is probably even more discouraging for the Big Box from Bentonville is that Amazon’s Year over Year growth kept pace with theirs, so they weren’t able to make up any lost ground.

Why is Amazon dominating? In my humble opinion, this is not about technology or online platforms. This is about what happens on your doorstep. Amazon knows the importance of the Customer Moments of Truth.

The First Moment of Truth, as they were laid out in 2006 by the former CEO of Proctor Gamble, A.G. Lafley, is the moment a customer chooses a product over the other competitors’ offerings

The Second Moment of Truth was when the customer makes the purchase and gets their hand on the product for the first time.

The Third Moment of Truth is when the customer shares their experience through feedback or – today – through social media.

Since Lafley first defined these moments of truth, there have been a few others added that I will get to in a minute, but let’s focus on Moment One and Moment Two for now. Remember, a marketplace is really just a connection between producers and consumers. It is the home of the Moment One and Two – especially Moment Two. This is where Amazon is re-imagining the Marketplace.

Amazon has out “Walmarted” Walmart at their own game. It has been all about logistics and consumer convenience in the Second Moment of Truth. Amazon has assembled a potent consumer offer that is very difficult to compete against – based on making the gap between Moment One and Moment Two as seamless as possible.

That brings us to another addition to those Moments of Truth – The “Actual” Moment of Truth – as defined by Amit Sharma, CEO and founder of Narvar. According to Sharma, this is the gap in online retail between when you hit the buy button and when the package hits your doorstep. Sharma has some street cred in this department. He helped engineer Walmart’s next generation supply chain before heading to Apple in 2010 where he oversaw the shipping and delivery experience.

Why is this gap important? It’s because it is the black hole of customer intent – a pause button that has to be hit between purchase and physical fulfillment.  It’s this gap that Amazon has grabbed as their own.

Google hasn’t been able to do the same. Why? Because Google failed to connect the physical and digital worlds. Amazon did. They reinvented the marketplace. And they did it through branded fulfillment. That was the genius of Amazon – getting brown boxes with the ubiquitous Amazon Smile logo on your doorstep. Yes, they also ushered in the long tail of product selection, but that is an ephemeral ground to defend. It’s their branding of the moment of delivery that has made Amazon the most valuable brand in the world. And now they can extend that into new areas – seemingly at will.  This is not so much a pivot as a sprawl. It’s a digital land grab.

The final moment of Truth is the ZMOT – The Zero Moment of Truthdefined by Jim Lecinski who was with Google at the time. According to Jim, the Zero Moment of Truth is “the precise moment when they (the customers) have a need, intent or question they want answered online.” This is – and will continue to be – Google’s wheelhouse. But it remains firmly anchored in the digital world, far on the other side of the Actual Moment of Truth.

For Amazon, winning in online retail is all about Minding the Gap.

Sharing a Little about the Sharing Economy

In the last week, I’ve had first hand experience with the sharing economy, using both Uber and Air BnB. I – not surprisingly – am a sucker for disruption and will gladly adopt new technologies. I appreciate the rational logic of a well thought out platform that promises to be a game changer. I push my wife’s comfort level to the breaking point, trying mightily to maintain the balance between delightful discovery and that cold stare that means I’ve completely messed up this time. It is in that spirit – and with the admitted bias of being a sample of one – that I share some of my macro-level observations.

Creating an Opening for Innovation

To me, using the term the “sharing economy” doesn’t quite cut it. That only explains one aspect of this disruption – the supply side. What is really happening here is the democratization and fragmentation of a previously verticalized market, where the platform creates a new type of one-to-one market connection. That spreads the market horizontally, which in turn opens a wide door for participation at all levels. And that, inevitably, spurs innovation. When you allow everyone to be creative – rather than just a few within a vertically integrated chain who have it in their job description – the pace of innovation can’t help but accelerate.

Disruptive Platforms and Network Effects

Innovation is a good thing, but there is another side to this. If you allow for rampant innovation and facilitate one-to-one connections at all levels of the market, you are going to have network effects. Markets become more chaotic and less predictable. The rising tide of innovation will eventually raise all boats, but it also means the waters can get a little choppy on the way. Disruptive platforms strip away traditional control systems – corporate oversight, traditional forms of consumer protection and legislative regulation. All faith – on both sides of the market – is placed on the design of the platform to ensure self-correcting regulation. There’s just one problem with that…

Compression of Pendulum Markets

When you depend on self-correction in a dynamic market, you forego stability that typically comes from vertical oversight. Not only do you remove the oversight but you also remove predictability. There are new players entering and exiting the market all the time. And even if the players stabilize, experience has limited value in a marketplace that may not do tomorrow what it did yesterday.

All sharing platforms – Uber and AirBnB included – depend on market feedback to ensure self correction. In these two cases, they have well thought out market control mechanisms but feedback is – by necessity – a reactive rather than a proactive device. You can anticipate with reasonable confidence in a stable, controlled market but you can’t in a dynamic, networked market. All you can do is respond. This creates a pendulum effect. Constant connection to the platform means that feedback is fast, but the physics of a pendulum mean that the volatility of the swings back and forth are greatest at the beginning and stabilize over time.

This creates what I would call the Bubbles and Backlash phenomenon. As markets open up, new suppliers jump on the bandwagon. Some are great, some are horrible, some are mediocre. But it will take the platform and it’s self-correcting mechanisms some time to sort them out. Also, we have to hope the mechanisms are reasonably robust against suppliers who want to game the system. I think both Uber and AirBnB are working their way through this particular pain point right now. I find ratings artificially high on many suppliers which whom I’ve had personal experience. There could be a number of reasons for this, including the psychological bias of reciprocity, but I think most platforms have some tweaking to do before the user ratings provide a reasonable frame of expectations.

Inevitable Gaps in the User Experience

Finally, because the travel market is moving from a vertical orientation to a horizontal one, it leaves it up to the user to navigate her way through the various horizontal layers that stack together to create her individual user journey. When you’re in a layer – taking Uber to the airport for example – you’re probably okay. But it’s moving from layer to layer that places a little extra demand on the user. The previous players who inhabited the niches within the vertical ecosystem are understandably reluctant to share their niches with new, disruptive players. Where, for example, do you catch the Uber at the airport?

But All’s Well that Ends Well

In the end, it comes down to a matter of taste. I am an early adopter, so I will always choose disruption over the status quo. For those of a different bent, the vertically integrated path is still open to them. But for all of us, I believe disruption has created a travel marketplace that is more diverse, authentic and rewarding than ever before.

 

The Decentralization of Trust

Forget Bitcoin. It’s a symptom. Forget even Blockchain. It’s big – but it’s technology. That makes it a tool. Which means it’s used at our will. And that will is the real story. Our will is always the real story – why do we build the tools we do? What is revolutionary is that we’ve finally found a way to decentralize trust. That runs against the very nature of how we’ve defined trust for centuries.

And that’s the big deal.

Trust began by being very intimate – ruled by our instincts in a face-to-face context. But for the last thousand years, our history has been all about concentration and the mass of everything – including whom we trust. We have consolidated our defense, our government, our commerce and our culture. In doing so, we have also consolidated our trust in a few all-powerful institutions.

But the past 20 years have been all about decentralization and tearing down power structures, as we invent new technologies to let us do that. In that vien, Blockchain is a doozy. It will change everything. But it’s only a big deal because we’re exerting our will to make it a big deal. And the “why” behind that is what I’m focusing on.

For right or wrong, we have now decided we’d rather trust distribution than centralization. There is much evidence to support that view. Concentration of power also means concentration of risk. The opportunity for corruption skyrockets. Big things tend to rot from the inside out. This is not a new discovery on our part. We’ve known for at least a few centuries that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

As the world consolidated it also became more corrupt. But it was always a trade off we felt we had to make. Again, the collective will of the people is the story thread to follow here. Consolidation brought many benefits. We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for hierarchies, in one form or another. So we willing subjugated ourselves to someone – somewhere – hoping to maintain a delicate balance where the risk of corruption was outweighed by a personal gain. I remember asking the Atlantic’s noted correspondent, James Fallows, a question when I met him once in China. I asked how the average Chinese citizen could tolerate the paradoxical mix of rampant economical entrepreneurialism and crushing ideological totalitarianism. His answer was, “As long as their lives are better today than they were yesterday, and promise to be even better tomorrow, they’ll tolerate it.”

That pretty much summarizes our attitudes towards control. We tolerated it because if we wanted our lives to continue to improve, we really didn’t have a choice. But perhaps we do now. And that possibility has pushed our collective will away from consolidated power hubs and towards decentralized networks. Blockchain gives us another way to do that. It promises a way to work around Big Money, Big Banks, Big Government and Big Business. We are eager to do so. Why? Because up to now we have had to place our trust in these centralized institutions and that trust has been consistently abused. But perhaps Blockchain technology has found a way to distribute trust in a foolproof way. It appears to offer a way to make everything better without the historic tradeoff of subjugating ourselves to anyone.

However, when we move our trust to a network we also make that trust subject to unanticipated network effects. That may be the new trade-off we have to make. Increasingly, our technology is dependent on networks, which – by their nature – are complex adaptive systems. That’s why I keep preaching the same message – we have to understand complexity. We must accept that complexity has interaction affects we could never successfully predict.

It’s an interesting swap to consider – control for complexity. Control has always offered us the faint comfort of an illusion of predictability. We hoped that someone who knew more than we did was manning the controls. This is new territory for us. Will it be better? Who can say? But we seem to building an irreversible head of steam in that direction.

Fat Heads and Long Tails: Living in a Viral World

I, and the rest of the world, bought “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” last Friday. Forbes reports that in one weekend, it has climbed to the top of the Amazon booklist, and demand for the book is “unprecedented.”

We use that word a lot now. Our world seems to be a launching pad for “unprecedented” events. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s black swans used to be the exception — that was the definition of  the term. Now they’re becoming the norm. You can’t walk down the street without accidentally kicking one.

Our world is a hyper-connected feedback loop that constantly engenders the “unprecedented”: storms, blockbusters, presidents. In this world, historical balance has disappeared and all bets are off.

One of the many things that has changed is the distribution pattern of culture. In 2006, Chris Anderson wrote the book “The Long Tail,” explaining how online merchandising, digital distribution and improved fulfillment logistics created an explosion of choices. Suddenly, the distribution curve of pretty much everything  — music, books, apps, video, varieties of cheese — grew longer and longer, creating Anderson’s “Long Tail.”

But let’s flip the curve and look at the other end. The curve has not just grown longer. The leading edge of it has also grown on the other axis. Heads are now fatter.

“Fire and Fury” has sold more copies in a shorter period of time than would have ever been possible at any other time in history. That’s partly because of the  same factors that created the Long Tail: digital fulfillment and more efficient distribution. But the biggest factor is that our culture is now a digitally connected echo chamber that creates the perfect conditions for virality. Feeding frenzies are now an essential element of our content marketing strategies.

If ever there was a book written to go viral, it’s “Fire and Fury.” Every page should have a share button. Not surprisingly, given its subject matter,  the book has all the subtlety and nuance of a brick to the head. This is a book built to be a blockbuster.

And that’s the thing about the new normal of virality: Blockbusters become the expectation out of the starting gate.

As I said last week, content producers have every intention of addicting their audience, shooting for binge consumption of each new offering. Wolff wrote this book  to be consumed in one sitting.

As futurist (or “futuristorian”) Brad Berens writes, the book is “fascinating in an I-can’t-look-away-at-the-17-car-pileup-with-lots-of-ambulances way.” But there’s usually a price to be paid for going down the sensational path. “Fire and Fury” has all the staying power of a “bag of Cheetos.” Again, Berens hits the nail on the head: “You can measure the relevance of Wolff’s book in half-lives, with each half-life being about a day.”

One of the uncanny things about Donald Trump is that he always out-sensationalizes any attempt to sensationalize him. He is the ultimate “viral” leader, intentionally — or not — the master of the “Fat Head.” Today that head is dedicated to Wolff’s book. Tomorrow, Trump will do something to knock it out of the spotlight.

Social media analytics developer Tom Maiaroto found the average sharing lifespan of viral content is about a day. So while the Fat Head may indeed be Fat, it’s also extremely short-lived. This means that, increasingly, content intended to go viral  — whether it be books, TV shows or movies — is intentionally developed to hit this short but critical window.

So what is the psychology behind virality? What buttons have to be pushed to start the viral cascade?

Wharton Marketing Professor Jonah Berger, who researched what makes things go viral, identified six principles: Social Currency, Memory Triggers, Emotion, Social Proof, Practical Value and Stories. “Fire and Fury” checks almost all these boxes, with the possible exception of practical value.

But it most strongly resonates with social currency, social proof and emotion. For everyone who thinks Trump is a disaster of unprecedented proportions, this book acts as kind of an ideological statement, a social positioner, an emotional rant and confirmation bias all rolled into one. It is a tribal badge in print form.

When we look at the diffusion of content through the market, technology has again acted as a polarizing factor. New releases are pushed toward the outlier extremes, either far down the Long Tail or squarely aimed at cashing in on the Fat Head. And if it’s the latter of these, then going viral becomes critical.

Expect more fire. Expect more fury.

Why I Go to a Store

I hate shopping. Let me clarify. I hate the physical experience of shopping. I find no joy in a mall. I avoid department stores like the plague. If I can buy it online, I will.

Except..I don’t, always.

Why is that? I should be the gold standard of e-commerce targets. And most of the time, I am. Except when I’m not. Take home improvement stuff, for instance. I still drive down to my local Home Depot, even though I can order online.

As prognosticators of the online space, we’ve been busy hammering the nails in the coffin of bricks and mortar retail for a while. In a recent story in the Atlantic, E-tail was called the perfect match for the emerging sloth of the first world consumer: “E-commerce is soaring and food-delivery businesses are taking off because human beings are fundamentally lazy and they don’t want to leave the couch to buy stuff.”

That makes sense. But while the smart bets seem to be placed on a consumer stampede heading towards e-tail, Amazon just invested 13.7 billion in buying Whole Foods Market. So if bricks and mortar retail is dead, why the hell did Amazon buy almost 500 more physical stores? That same Atlantic article does a pretty thorough job of answering this question, offering three compelling reasons:

  • To dominate the food delivery market
  • To create an instant fulfillment network
  • To broaden Amazon’s footprint within the consumption habits of affluent Americans

I can buy that. The second point in particular seems to make eminent sense. If I know something is in stock at my local store and I need it right now, I’ll make the trip. And Amazon is currently struggling to deliver the last mile of fulfillment. But I keep going back to my original question: why do I – a man who detests the physical act of shopping – still decide to go to a store more often than I probably want to?

There has been various strategies put forward for the salvation. In a recent post on Mediapost, Mahesh Krishna said Personalization was the answer – use data to tailor an in-store experience. I myself wrote something similar in a previous post about Amazon testing the waters of a bricks and mortar retail environment. But there’s nothing personalized about Home Depot. I’m anonymous til I get to the till. So for me, anyway, that doesn’t seem to explain why.

Experiential shopping is another proffered recipe for the salvation of retail. A recent article from Wharton cited an Italian culinary themed retail success story: “Another experiential success… is Eataly, a chain of Italian marketplaces that combines restaurants, grocery stores and cooking schools. It capitalizes on the appeal of Italian culture and sophistication. ‘It all works together like a little universe,’ she says. ‘There’s a nice synergy there; you can taste the foods in the restaurant … you might then go to the grocery store to buy it so you can make it at home.’

But how much “experience” do I really need in my shopping? The answer is not a lot. As undeniably fantastico as Eataly is, for me it would be a 3 to 4 times a year visit. And let’s face it – the retail niches that suit this over-the-top experiential approach are limited. No, there needs to be a more pragmatic reason why I’ll actually drag my butt away from a screen and down to the local mercantile.

I realized, when I really examined the reasons why I usually go to the store, they all had to do with risk. I go to the store when I’m afraid that stuff could go wrong:

  1. When I’m unsure what I need
  2. When I’m afraid I may have to return what I bought
  3. When I have to ask a question about use of something I want to buy

For me, bricks and mortar shopping is usually nothing more than a risk-mitigation strategy, pure and simple. And I suspect I’m not alone. Apple Stores are often cited as an example of experiential shopping, but I believe the real genius of this retail success story is the Genius Bar. The jigsaw puzzle integration of the All Things Apple universe can be a daunting prospect. Having an actual human to guide you through the process is reassuring, and reassurance is most effective when it’s face-to-face. That’s why I go to a store.

 

Will We Ever Let Robots Shop for Us?

Several years ago, my family and I visited Astoria, Oregon. You’ll find it at the mouth of the Columbia River, where it empties into the Pacific. We happened to take a tour of Astoria and our guide pointed out a warehouse. He told us it was filled with canned salmon, waiting to be labeled and shipped. I asked what brand they were. His answer was “All of them. They all come from the same warehouse. The only thing different is the label.”

Ahh… the power of branding…

Labels can make a huge difference. If you need proof, look no further than the experimental introduction of generic brands in grocery stores. Well, they were generic to begin with, anyway. But over time, the generic “yellow label” was replaced with a plethora of store brands. The quality of what’s inside the box hasn’t changed much, but the packaging has. We do love our brands.

But there’s often no rational reason to do so. Take the aforementioned canned salmon for example. Same fish, no matter what label you may stick on it. Brands are a trick our brain plays on us. We may swear our favorite brand tastes better than it’s competitors, but it’s usually just our brain short circuiting our senses and our sensibility. Neuroscientist Read Montague found this out when he redid the classic Pepsi taste test using a fMRI scanner. The result? When Coke drinkers didn’t know what they were drinking, the majority preferred Pepsi. But the minute the brand was revealed, they again sweared allegiance to Coke. The taste hadn’t changed, but their brains had. As soon as the brain was aware of the brand, some parts of it suddenly started lighting up like a pinball machine.

In previous research we did, we found that the brain instantly responded to favored brains the same way it did to a picture of a friend or a smiling face. Our brains have an instantaneous and subconscious response to brands. And because of that, our brains shouldn’t be trusted with buying decisions. We’d be better off letting a robot do it for us.

And I’m not saying that facetiously.

A recent post on Bloomberg.com looked forward 20 years and predicted how automation would gradually take over ever step of the consumer product supply chain, from manufacturing to shipping to delivery to our door. The post predicts that the factory floor, the warehouse, ocean liners, trucks and delivery drones will all be powered by Artificial intelligence and robotic labor. The first set of human hands that might touch a product would be those of the buyer. But maybe we’re automating the wrong side of the consumer transaction. The thing human hands shouldn’t be touching is the buy button. We suck at it.

We have taken some steps in the right direction. Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen predicted a death of branding in their book Absolute Value:

“In the past the marketing function “protected” the organization in some cases. When things like positioning, branding, or persuasion worked effectively, a mediocre company with a good marketing arm (and deep pockets for advertising) could get by. Now, as consumers are becoming less influenced by quality proxies, and as more consumers base their decisions on their likely experience with a product, this is changing.”

But our brand love dies hard. If our brain can literally rewire the evidence from our own senses – how can we possibly make rational buying decisions? True, as Simonson and Rosen point out, we do tend to favor objective information when it’s available, but at the end of the day, our buying decisions still rely on an instrument that has proven itself unreliable in making optimal decisions under the influence of brand messaging.

If we’re prepared to let robots steer ships, drive trucks and run factories, why won’t we let them shop for us? Existing shopping bots stop well short of actually making the purchase. We’ll put our lives in the hands of A.I. in a myriad of ways, but we won’t hand our credit card over. Why is that?

It seems ironic to me. If there were any area where machines can beat humans, it would be in making purchases. They’re much better at filtering based on objective criteria, they can stay on top of all prices everywhere and they can instantly aggregate data from all similar types of purchases. Most importantly, machines can’t be tricked by branding or marketing. They can complete the Absolute Value loop Simonson and Rosen talk about in their book.

Of course, there’s just one little problem with all that. It essentially ends the entire marketing and advertising industry.

Ooops.

To Buy or Not to Buy: The Touchy Subject of Mobile ECommerce

A recent report from Akamai indicates that users have little patience when it comes to making purchases on a mobile device. Here are just a few of the stats:

  • While almost half of all consumers browse via their phones, only 1 in 5 complete transactions on mobile
  • Optimal load times for peak conversions ranged from 1.8 to 2.7 seconds across device types
  • Just a 100-millisecond delay in load time hurt conversion rates by up to 7%
  • Bounce rates were highest among mobile shoppers and lowest among those using tablets

But there may be more behind this than just slow load times. We also have to consider what modes we’re in when we’re interacting with our mobile device.

In 2010, Microsoft did a fascinating research project that looked at how user behaviors varied from desktop to tablet to smart phone. The research was headed by Jacquelyn Krones, who was a Search Product Manager at the time. Search was the primary activity examined, but there was a larger behavioral context that was explored. While the study is 7 years old, I think the core findings are still relevant. The researchers found that we tend to have three large buckets of behaviors: missions, explorations and excavations. Missions were focused tasks that were usually looking for a specific piece of information – i.e. looking for an address or phone number. Explorations where more open ended and less focused on a given destination – i.e. seeing if there was any thing you wanted to do this Friday night. Excavations typically involved multiple tasks within an overarching master task – i.e. researching an article. In an interview with me, Krones outlined their findings:

“There’s clearly a different profile of these activities on the different platforms. On desktops and laptops, people do all three of the activities – they conduct missions and excavations and explorations.

“On their phones we expected to see lots of missions – usually when you use your mobile phone and you’re conducting a search, whatever you’re doing in terms of searching is less important than what’s going on with you in the real world – you’re trying to get somewhere, you’re having a discussion with somebody and you want to look something up quick or you’re trying to make a decision about where to go for dinner.

“But we were surprised to find that people are using their mobile phones for exploration. But once we saw the context, it made sense – people have a low tolerance for boredom. Their phone is actually pretty entertaining, much more entertaining than just looking at the head in front of you while you’re waiting in line. You can go check a sports score, read a story, or look at some viral video and have a more engaged experience.

“On tablets, we found that people are pretty much only using them for exploration today. I had expected to see more missions on tablets, and I think that that will happen in the future, but today people perceive their mobile phone as always with them, very personal, always on, and incredibly efficient for getting information when they’re in mission mode.”

Another study, coming out The University of British Columbia Okanagan, also saw a significant difference in behavioral modality when it came to interacting with touch screens. Assistant Professor Ying Zhu was the principal author:

“The playful and fun nature of the touchscreen enhances consumers’ favour of hedonic products; while the logical and functional nature of a desktop endorses the consumers’ preference for utilitarian products,” explains Zhu.

“Zhu’s study also found that participants using touchscreen technology scored significantly higher on experiential thinking than those using desktop computers. However, those on desktops scored significantly higher on rational thinking.”

I think what we have here is an example of thinking: fast and slow. I suspect we’re compartmentalizing our activities, subconsciously setting some aside for completion on the desktop. I would suspect utilitarian type purchasing would fall into this category. I know that’s certainly true in my case. As Dr. Zhu noted, we have a very right brain relationship with touchscreens, while desktops tend to bring out our left-brain. I have always been amazed at how our brains subconsciously prime us based on anticipating an operating environment. Chances are, we don’t even realize how much our behaviors change when we move from a smart phone to a tablet to a desktop. But I’d be willing to place a significant wager that it’s this subconscious techno-priming that’s causing some of these behavioural divides between devices.

Slow load times are never a good thing, on any device, but while they certainly don’t help with conversions, they may not be the only culprit sitting between a user and a purchase. The device itself could also be to blame.