How to Stay Relevant in the Age of Amazon

There’s no question that Amazon has, and continues to revolutionize the retail industry and beyond. While many businesses and the media focuses on fighting Amazon, or the damage that Amazon has done to traditional retail, what we’ve learned from our research and experience is that fearing and fighting Amazon is probably the wrong approach for many e-commerce sites.

While virtually everyone shops at Amazon, it is commonly just one of several ecommerce sites people shop at. What we’ve learned is that people often have a ‘portfolio’ of stores that they shop from, with each store fulfilling a particular need or desire.

For example, someone may go to Amazon for daily goods and basics, but she may shop at Nordstrom for an outfit for a wedding, and then at Etsy for a creative gift. Each of these sites resonate with the customer for a specific need and offer an experience tailored to that need. What this means is that the challenge is not therefore how does one compete against Amazon, but moreso how does one complement the e-commerce needs that Amazon fulfils.

Through creating Mason Park, speaking with independent retailers that have successful ecommerce businesses, and observing consumer behaviour, I’ve found a few ways an e-commerce business may thrive in the face of Amazon.

Here are 3 of them:

Laser focus and crisply communicate your brand

When speaking to shoppers, we noticed they would often have 2-5 e-commerce sites they would shop at and that would come to mind quickly. For each site they would list, the shopper would have a very clear idea of what they could get at the site and there was a clear value the site was providing to them.

Some sites were viewed as authorities in a certain domain, and thus shoppers enjoyed visiting in order to get educated or inspiration. Others sites spoke strongly to a particular aspect of a person’s identity and thus triggering a desire from the shopper to associate with the site.

What we found was that it’s crucial for a site to cultivate a strong brand message and to communicate the message quickly, clearly, and memorably.

A shopper needs to understand the differentiation of the site versus all others, including Amazon. With this clear understanding of the value of the site, consumers can create a link from the site to a need they have. Once the clear link to the need is made the shopper can thus add the shop to their portfolio of sites they go to.

For example, clothing company Cuyana does a great job of articulating their brand message of “fewer, better things.” Shoppers of Cuyana understand clearly the style of the products offered and the ethos behind the products and company. It is with this clear message, differentiation from other sites, and resonance with those who value quality and simplicity, Cuyana can become a shopping destination and added to a shopper’s portfolio of sites they love.

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The “About Us” page is great place to communicate your brand. Cuyana’s does a great job.

An e-commerce site needs to be a holistic experience

With brick and mortar stores, brands often spend heavily to invest in the store experience – from the location of the store, to the layout, to the staff, it all comes together to form a customer experience. Similarly, it’s crucial for businesses to treat their ecommerce sites as a true store, and focus heavily on a high quality, consistent experience. While products are the heart of any store, we found the best e-commerce sites focus not just on the products, but on the whole browsing, shopping, education, and inspiration experience.

Unlike a brick-and-mortar store, where smaller stores may have difficulty matching the might and glamor of high street stores, it can be much easier for a small ecommerce site to produce a high quality storefront. This means it is much easier for any business to create a high quality ecommerce store experience that can stand alongside the giants in the business.

Here are some of the ways ecommerce stores can build a better shopping experience:

  1. High quality photos
    • Shoppers are on an e-commerce site first and foremost to shop for products, and product photography is the key factor in purchase decision. As shoppers are unable to physically experience a product, the product photography fills in this role. The product photography needs to not only display the product in an attractive manner, but it must also communicate all of the relevant information to a shopper. For example, a mere photo of a home decor item such as a bowl can be difficult to discern the size and intended use of the bowl. Therefore, additional photos of the bowl in context of other items can help the shopper understand the true size and intended use of the bowl. No matter how stellar a product is, poor photography can tank its chance of success.
  2. Regularly updated homepage
    • Just like a window display or signage at a brick and mortar store, the homepage of an ecommerce site acts to inform, entice, and guide shoppers. Having a homepage that is constantly updated and with timely information not only adds to the overall experience of shopping a store, but also communicates that the store is maintained and current.
  3. Updated inventory
    • This means keeping inventory refreshed as well as keeping what’s listed for sale inline with what’s actually available. Having updated inventory is especially important for stores with a brick and mortar presence. Shoppers often see something in store and then wish to purchase online, or they might browse online first before going in store.
  4. Consistent look and feel
    • Imagery, site copy, design should all align with the brand and personality. Even little details, such as the favicon, matter as they contribute to the personality and experience of the store.

      Screenshot 2017-07-14 at 12.47.03 PM
      Various elements of the Mason Park homepage were chosen to convey the brand and lead the experience. Thanks to our creative director, we made huge improvements from previous versions.

Nurture your customers

With the ease that customers can shop at various ecommerce sites, it becomes crucial to nurture the relationship with customers. Great customer service is now only table stakes, and the best ecommerce sites we’ve seen maintain ongoing communication with their customers, maintaining mindshare of customers and triggering visits to the site.

Massively popular social media platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest have now enabled not only a faster and more consistent pace of content than email, but also facilitate conversation directly with customers. In our research, customers often welcomed the social media and email content from stores and brands they liked, as the content often entertained, inspired, or educated the customer. The key observation was that the content did a variety of these things, and weren’t just a single type of marketing email communication, such as a sale notification.

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Need Supply does a wonderful job of mixing product photography, lifestyle shots, and user generated content all in a beautiful and enjoyable content stream.

A good customer relationship is like a good friend, you’re curious to see what they’re up to, and they listen to you at the same time.

As with a good friend, the customer needs to feel a connection, value, and respect. The better an e-commerce can nurture this relationship, the stronger the ties the customer feels to the store.

Amazon has certainly raised the bar for all ecommerce sites. Fast shipping, easy returns, large selection, and more have become basic requirements, largely due to the influence of Amazon. However, even as ‘the everything store’, the breadth of Amazon leaves room for ecommerce sites that focus on depth in serving the right need for their customers.

The ‘retail apocalypse’ triggered by Amazon sparks fear in many retailers. However, given the sheer size and strength of Amazon, I believe with many ecommerce sites the fear of Amazon is misguided and rather a focus on adaptation in the age of Amazon is more relevant.

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