When Digital Retail Gets Real (Literally)
Columnist Katy Keim discusses the reasons why Amazon’s rumored move to brick and mortar could redefine the future of e-tail.
What happens when one of the world’s largest e-commerce marketplaces is rumored to be making the leap from digital to brick and mortar? Pandemonium. (Well, not really, but you’d think that were the case given how the market responded to the chatter.)
The honest-to-goodness truth is that when a big e-commerce player like Amazon decides to break new ground (literally!), the industry as a whole will feel the ripples it makes. Why? Because it signals a seismic shift away from the tried-and-true e-tail-only model that has defined Amazon for years.
Amazon’s moving to an online-offline customer experience goes against what most see to be the evolution of contemporary consumer preferences. In fact, many would argue that this “rumored” decision is either unnecessary or inefficient.
After all, why fix it if it’s not broken?
Innovating the customer experience is the rallying cry for many brands and marketers today. However, what seems odd to me is that Amazon, in many ways, has already done just that.
Amazon has revolutionized the digital shopping experience, making consumers’ search for products a quick and easy process, and also shipping them directly to the customer and laying them at their doorstep.
So it leaves me pondering: What the heck is Amazon up to? Here are my thoughts — but feel free to add more on Facebook or Twitter to keep this conversation going.
The Touch, The Feel… Of Amazon?
Sometimes you just want to see, touch and feel a book. Sure, Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature is nice. I personally love it.
However, it’s not a consistent experience across all of the millions of publications in the Amazon store, and it rarely gives you more than a sneak peek. It’s a tease that almost always leaves me wanting more.
So it’s conceivable that Amazon finally caught on, realizing that consumers today, in spite of their obvious digital-skewing tendencies, want and need that (human) interaction.
Sure, you might call it “retro,” but imagine this: beautifully merchandised displays (not bookshelves), comfy sofas and loft-like communal spaces, a hip coffee shop staffed by man-bun- and beard-wearing baristas, farm-to-table food, live music, a bike repair shop and ambient lighting courtesy of the ever-so-popular “Edison” bulbs.
It’s the hipster dream in the making.
All joking aside, the “touch and feel” experience needs to extend far beyond the merchandise itself for Amazon to meet today’s extreme customer expectations — and that, in my opinion, means tapping into every single sensory driver that can satisfy even the most skeptical, discerning or demanding consumer.
Jumping off the digital screen and into the brick-and-mortar space can’t be done in a cookie-cutter fashion. Amazon needs to do more to avoid the proverbial eye roll. Which leads me to my next thought…
To Transact Or Not To Transact, That Is The Question
Experience is paramount. No one is denying that. However, any good marketer knows that user experience doesn’t just come out of thin air. There needs to be a reason or strategy underlying it.
Will these be “traditional” stores where you go to browse, compare and buy? Or will these be “showrooms” (in the likeness of the Bonobos Guideshops) where you can browse freely but still make your final purchase online — with delivery straight to your door?
Or will this merely be an extension of the Amazon brand itself, a place where shoppers immerse themselves in a new, real and very tangible Amazon experience?
What I’m truly most curious about, though, is how they will handle transactions. From the brand’s inception to the present day, when it has very much become a household name, transactions have taken place digitally, through a computer or mobile device.
The inherent human element of a brick-and-mortar transaction has been missing, but let’s face it, Amazon has mastered the digital transaction.
Drone Wars And The Next Distribution Frontier
So now on to my final thought: What if this is Amazon’s way of taking control of the (true) end-to-end customer experience, with a more localized flair?
Just imagine if each store could double as a local distribution center where products could be received and shipped out locally via a stealth fleet of drones.
The possibilities for streamlining the distribution chain — and, to the cheers of customers, making it possible to get products shipped to their doorsteps even faster than ever before — would be the huge upside here.
Obviously, in this scenario, the end customer benefits. Though let’s think for a second about the non-consumer parts of this process, most specifically shipping services.
If Amazon can create a two-in-one local, wholly branded shopping and shipping solution, then what happens to the likes of UPS, FedEx and others? Do they lose the Amazon business in one fell swoop?
Or do they remain part of the equation, though potentially with a more “behind the scenes” role so that Amazon could feasibly create and own a true end-to-end customer experience?
I’m not trying to spell doomsday here, but given all the pomp and circumstance around what Amazon’s brick-and-mortar move could mean for the consumer experience, it’s easy to forget — or simply overlook — how a true localized strategy for the company could alter the operational status quo and impact the other businesses that benefit from the brand’s massive scale.
Let The Guessing Game Begin
Your guess is as good as mine as to what the strategy and execution of these Amazon brick-and-mortar stores might look (and feel) like. A brand’s move from online to offline definitely has its pros and cons — it’s not always a guaranteed slam dunk.
However, knowing what Amazon has already done to both build and continually revolutionize the e-commerce space, I think it’s safe to say that whatever experience it creates around these bookstores will be nothing short of game-changing.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think Amazon is really up to, and how do you think it’ll take shape once the company starts to break ground?