Wednesday, September 19, 2012

We've Moved to PAULDRYDEN.CO

Dear Readers,

I've been writing in too many different places, so I decided to consolidate everything into one website organized by a variety of topics that satisfy my far flung interests. 

This morning I launched the eponymous (Why not ".com" you may ask. Because the "m" cost too damn much.) I've moved most of my content over there and it will henceforth be the gathering spot for all future posts. 

I hope you choose to continue following my meandering thoughts there.

Many thanks, 


Monday, September 10, 2012

Amazon and the Showroom Effect

The Little App That Caused So Much Trouble

I have this little app on my smartphone called Amazon Price Check. I can take it into Target, scan the bar code of any item I’m thinking of buying, and Amazon will check its catalog to let me know if it offers the same thing at a better price. If so, I make an instant decision whether to walk out of Target with purchase in hand or wait for Amazon to deliver it to my doorstep, exercising some patience in exchange for saving a little cash. 

This is a ruthless test of how well stores are maintaining the protection of the convenience barrier; how well “have it now” is holding up against the customer decision to delay gratification and wait for delivery. 

The real melee from this little app came last Christmas when Amazon went right for the stores’ jugular. Not only could you conduct the price check, but Amazon would subtract an additional five percent of the purchase price if you bought it from them on the spot. Vicious! 

The promotion created a maelstrom, turning Amazon into a political punching bag as even U.S. Senators weighed in on how this little app might usher in an online retail dystopia. They conjured images of abandoned shopping centers blighting the landscape with legions of unemployed cashiers rattling tin cups for donations as everyone turns to online retailers to buy their stuff. 

The grandstanding brought, of course, loads of media attention which – to Amazon’s resounding pleasure – provided what was sure to be millions of dollars in free publicity for the app, leading to more downloads and wider usage during the holiday season. 

I used it. It made me feel a little sheepish. I would glance furtively around as I scanned some potential gift for my daughter, fearing the judging glare of some Target associate watching me erode some tiny sliver from her means of earning a living. It seemed almost immoral. But the more I did it, the easier it became. The less guilt I felt. Amazon knows this. Amazon understands how habits are formed.


The practice has been dubbed “showrooming.” Shoppers use the shelf space at Best Buy, Target, or any another traditional store to look at a product, touch it, turn it over in their hands, try it on for size, and then order it for less at Amazon. The store becomes a testing ground for all sorts of merchandise, but never wins the sale. 

It’s been happening for a while, but it’s only with the introduction of simple little apps like Price Check that the practice has become nearly frictionless. Where shoppers used to plan their showroom tours in advance - collecting product and price information online in preparation for their store visits – now they do it without the effort of premeditation. 

All traditional stores have been forced to consider their tactical responses. Target has been most aggressive in its response, treating Amazon’s Christmas promotion as an act of war (which it was). It responded first by pulling the Amazon Kindle line of products from its shelves. And sensing that it’s fighting for its life (which it is) it then upped the ante. Target pulled a page from the Lowe’s vs. Home Depot battle plan and adapted it for the showrooming battle.

Target Learns from Lowes 

Amazon wants to set the agenda for how much selection is presented by retailers and the price at which it’s offered. They want complete, universal selection, and they want the lowest prices. This will bring the shoppers. It’s the low-cost, low-price strategy for winning the patronage of the broad middle of the market. 

But the retail wars do not take place on a fixed field of battle. The players move constantly; the tactics evolve; the momentum swings. The industry is such a brutal place to compete because everyone can see what everyone else is doing. Once a new tactic works, your opponent either adopts it for himself or counteracts it with his own maneuver, negating whatever benefit it provided. 

For example, have you ever felt perplexed by the never-ending tug-o-war between Lowe’s and Home Depot? Both make some form of a low-price guarantee, making assurances you won’t find their competitors offering the same product for less money. If you do, they’ll match the price and perhaps throw in an additional discount to boot. These programs have all the hallmarks of a war of pricing attrition. (Think back to our pricing game theory discussion here.) The consumer certainly benefits, but at what cost to the businesses? 

But these retailers are a cunning bunch. Their price match guarantees are legitimate, but they have taken great pains to offer very little overlapping merchandise. They are masters of stocking items that count as functional equivalents but not exact matches. They get big manufacturers to build special models, or entire product lines, just for them. Lowe’s version is very similar to Home Depot’s, but it’s rarely the same thing. 

Because of their size, the volume of sales they drive for manufacturers, and the sophistication of their merchant operations, the home improvement giants can make demands for tailored products. The practice creates a sort of d├ętente in their ongoing battles. They fight over plenty of other things, but they’ve figured out how to avoid doing grievous harm to each other on the pricing front. 

Target executives are no dummies either, and they have plenty of muscle to throw around with manufacturers. They’ve demanded that suppliers provide them with exclusive items unavailable at any other retailer, most notably Amazon.  I’ve noticed this for some time when looking at, for example, Sesame Street toys for my daughters. An increasing number of the Elmo products come in packaging with the distinct Target bulls eye stamped prominently on the front with the words “Only at Target.” 

These items brings with them unique barcodes. Using the Price Check app or not, you won’t find this Elmo in the Amazon catalog. Much like the price guarantees with the home improvement stores, there won’t be an exact match to spark a pricing war.

Fighting Showrooming By Playing a Different Game 

Expect more and more of this from Target and other traditional retailers. Because they move such high volumes of product for all the national brands, they can exert some pressure to get help in the showrooming war with Amazon. 

Target is a grizzled veteran in fighting companies with wider selection and better means of offering lower prices. They’ve managed to co-exist with Walmart (not as happy neighbors mind you, but they co-exist nonetheless) despite the latter’s firm commitment to what I’ll call the Glass Doctrine…that statement of intent from former Walmart CEO David Glass: 

We want everybody to be selling the same stuff, and we want to compete on a price basis, and they will go broke five percent before we will.

If Walmart wants to commoditize everything and sell it for less, Target (in addition to pushing its “upscale discount” corporate brand approach that we featured in an article here) will source alternatives to the nationally branded products. It will (and has) invest heavily in its own store brands, price them for less, and give shoppers a choice. It won’t be able to beat Walmart on the price of Tide detergent on a day-in, day-out basis, but it will provide its Up & Up alternative at a nice discount. 

As an aside, this can be a tremendously effective approach to differentiate your selection from the competition, escaping the deep wounds suffered in toe-to-toe pricing battles. Think Trader Joe’s. Its entire business is built on the idea that a store can be stocked almost exclusively with its own brands. Trader Joe’s IS the brand. It doesn’t carry Tide, Oreo’s or Wheat Thins, so customers can’t make direct comparisons on price against national brands. This has proved an effective way to avoid the Glass Doctrine altogether. Just refuse to play the game by another retailer’s rules. 

Perhaps this becomes the model for fighting the showrooming effect…Don’t play their game; make up your own rules. 

Back to Amazon 

Amazon will continue its push toward universal selection and cheaper prices. It will find brilliant tactics to help consumers compare its offers against the same items being offered at stores. But don’t expect the stores to cede their advantages without a major fight. 

They will work hard to impede Amazon’s attempts to commoditize everything, to offer everything at a lower price, to adopt the Glass Doctrine as its own. There’s a long history of fighting the selection wars this way, and Target is leading the defense now. 

Expect retailers to look for similar ways to frustrate Amazon’s attempt to offer universal selection and win on price.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Third Party Sellers and Amazon’s Drive for Universal Selection

Amazon has stated over and again that it wants to be THE place where shoppers can find anything being offered on the internet. It wants to go as far down the long tail of selection/demand as it possibly can, offering products even in the deepest niches being purchased by the fewest customers. 

The objective is clear: Amazon wants no excuses for shoppers to go to competitive sites to peruse potential purchases. And if Amazon can press its growth levers to the extreme – offering the best convenience, the widest selection, and the lowest prices – why would shoppers even bother looking somewhere else? For that matter, why would they even bother running a Google search when they can just go straight to Amazon and save an extra step? 

In short, Amazon wants to be ubiquitous. 

Having the widest selection possible is crucial to achieving ubiquity. Amazon can offer a wider selection than Walmart by virtue of escaping the tyranny of physical space. Well, mostly escaping that tyranny anyway. It can pack a wider selection into its 70 or so fulfillment centers than a traditional retailer could ever imagine stocking in its stores. But those warehouses – as big, efficient, and cheap to run as they may be – are still constrained by their four walls. 

Third Party Sellers = Amazon’s Freedom from Tyranny of Physical Space 

So Amazon turned to third party sellers to escape the confines of the four walls; to expand its item catalog. These sellers are a motley crew of merchants, ranging from established store-front retailers to product manufacturers; from grizzly wholesalers to small-time entrepreneurs. They bring their wares to this marketplace to gain access to some 200 million customer accounts Amazon offers. And, in return, Amazon gets to embellish its catalog with the additional selection, all of which comes at no direct inventory cost to the web giant. 

This is the secret to pushing one’s selection far down the long tail of demand without running afoul the tyranny of physical space: let others source, stock, and ship the inventory for you. 

It has been a booming business for Amazon. 

Scot Wingo, CEO of ChannelAdvisor – a business providing software and services to help these third parties organize their selling activities on Amazon, eBay and other marketplaces – writes an excellent blog about the Amazon retail business. It’s at, and I recommend it highly. Scot tracks the portion of Amazon’s overall unit sales that can be attributed to third parties. Amazon’s retail sales are growing at an impressive clip, and third party unit sales are growing even more quickly. As of the end of Amazon’s second fiscal quarter 2012, the company reported that 40 percent of all unit sales came from outside sellers. 

(You can find the above chart here.)

For the privilege of selling in its marketplace, Amazon takes an average toll of about 13 percent per transaction. Analysts estimate about 80 percent of that is gross margin. Not a bad business for Amazon to be in, especially considering how little investment it has to make (in terms of buying inventory and running the risks of it not selling quickly enough) to earn those margins. 

As such, many observers have concluded that Amazon’s long-term goal is to expand this line of business; to keep growing its third party sales. That may be true. But as we’ll explore further below, there’s plenty of evidence that should give the sellers pause about tying their destiny to Amazon’s wagon with too tight a knot. 

Platforms & Marketplaces…A Predictable Amazon Model 

Part of what makes Amazon such an interesting company to follow is its tendency to find a premise that works and push it to an absurd extreme. So if you identify that premise, understand how the model works, it’s not unreasonable to extrapolate the pattern into the future. Despite its cloak of mystery, Amazon hides many of its secrets in the wide open. 

For example, Amazon tends to cling to the following playbook as it grows its operating businesses (retail, digital media, web services): 

Step 1. Create a base of customers. Offer something compelling (i.e., in high demand) at a low price point to bring the customers in. Once you earn their business, be fanatical about keeping them. This is where the price, selection, convenience growth levers come in, but it’s also about anticipating what customers want and innovating on their behalf. 

Amazon treats this base of customers as its most valuable asset. And it is. 

Step 2. Build a platform around these customers. For retail the platform is comprised of 70 fulfillment centers to store and process its inventory along with that of some third party sellers (those participating in “Fulfillment By Amazon”); the software and technology powering the familiar user interface and background functions with which we customers are so comfortable (customer reviews, 1-click checkout, quick search, etc.); and all the software and technology that runs in the background to let third parties add their items to the catalog, manage customer orders, and even use Amazon templates to build their own web stores. 

Amazon makes the platform extensible and highly scalable. It’s built for growth, to always allow more customers to join in and also to welcome more sellers to the party. Its scalability means Amazon can continue offering access to it at lower prices as more players decide to participate. 

Step 3. Establish a marketplace. The platform then powers a marketplace, that meeting place for sellers and buyers to swap money for goods. Amazon opens access to its most cherished asset (the customer base) provided sellers follow strict rules of engagement, all of which are designed for the benefit of customers. The rules tend to make products less expensive, services better, and delivery cheaper. 

Step 4. Ruthlessly disintermediate middlemen and inefficiencies. Steps one through three tend to happen quickly as Amazon acts swiftly and cleans up the messes here in step four. It improves the operations of its fulfillment centers, allowing it to move a much higher volume of inventory for the same costs. It channels more work through its employees by building technology that makes many processes systematic or more efficient. Its employs a methodology by which it roots-out errors in the operations and fixes them at their core. 

But, most significantly, it ruthlessly chases down and cuts out middlemen that slow things down or otherwise increase the cost of doing business. More on that in the next section… 

The Amazon Credo & Disintermediation 

We’ve talked about the Amazon Credo before. It works like this: 

The world is composed of three types of entities. 

First, you have creators. They write books. They invent things. They code software. They record music. They program video games. They design and manufacture products. These people and entities are the basic unit of innovation and productivity in the world. They are to be empowered. 

Next, you have customers, the consumers of the output from creators. They are the buyers, the readers, the end-users, the watchers, the listeners, and the players. They are the core asset of Amazon. They are to be invested in. They are to be defended. 

Finally, you have middlemen. These are the people and entities that stand between the creators and customers. Oftentimes they have a purpose. But when they become gatekeepers that prevent access to the market by creators...or when they become toll-takers, charging fees to creators or customers in excess of the value they generate, they are the enemy of Amazon. They are to be disintermediated. 

Amazon operates on a pretty straightforward credo. It goes something like this: 

Fidelity to the customer; Fraternity with the creators; and Contempt for the Middlemen

The problem becomes understanding what a middleman is. It’s a fungible concept to Amazon. The cherished partners of today are often the middlemen of tomorrow. There are all these shades of gray to deal with. 

Let’s consider the third party sellers. A seller is not a seller is not a seller. Amazon wants to get as close to design and manufacturing source as it can. These are the creators, the originators, with which Amazon feels a certain fraternity. The marketplace-platform diagram might be better presented with this additional detail: 

The sellers exist on a continuum, and the value of each is measured by how far removed it is from the original design and manufacturing of the product being sold. That source is the creation, and the further removed you are from the creator the more likely you are to be deemed a middleman. Maybe not quickly, but the closer Amazon can get to the source, the more danger you’re in of being disintermediated; of falling victim to step four in its playbook. 

Let’s now consider the case of a third party seller being disintermediated. 

The Threat…Competing Directly With Amazon 

In July I wrote a post referencing a Wall Street Journal article by Greg Bensinger. (See Amazon Sellers Competing with Amazon…On Amazon.) Greg featured an Amazon seller that specialized in NFL-theme pillow pets. His business had been building momentum, when all of a sudden Amazon started selling the exact same products for much, much less. 

It’s no easy task competing with Amazon on Amazon. It’s a fool’s game. 

Amazon, notoriously tight-lipped, does not comment on its business practices. But I think we can make some fair assumptions while Seattle remains quiet. 

Even if it can charge the pillow pets seller a nice 13 percent commission for using the marketplace, Amazon’s average gross margin is about 23 percent. That means it stands to get a lot more cash per transaction from sourcing, storing, and selling items itself than by handing that off to third parties. Sure, it has all that overhead to pay for – it’s not cheap hiring buyers to source products – but when the teams are all ready in place (say, a toy buying group), you can leverage their operating efficiency. You can get more output from your overhead by folding more products, like pillow pets, into their selling mix. They can handle it. 

But what about the inventory risk? Well, there’s not too much risk in sourcing and selling pillow pets when you’ve been able to watch how supply and demand play out by peaking into the performance of your third party partners. 

What Sellers Are Safe from Distintermediation? 

Amazon is striking a delicate balance here. It does want to grow its third party seller business. It’s the most efficient way to extend down that long tail of the demand curve; offering wider selection without taking the inventory risk in doing so. 

But there’s more money to made working back toward the product originators on the seller continuum. The gross margins from direct sales are better than the commissions from third party sales. 

It will be interesting to watch how Amazon manages the natural tension that exists between the desire for wider selection and the urge to get rid of the middleman and earn more profits. 

After my post on the WSJ article, I got an interesting call from an Amazon third party seller. We bandied about thoughts about what sellers might be safe from Amazon stealing their business as it did to the pillow pets guy. How can you make sure you don’t get labeled a middleman? Here are a few of the conclusions we reached. 

First, operate in a low-demand product line with low margins. Amazon has only so many resources to put into its growth. It must prioritize, and so it goes for the biggest bang for its buck. It wants items that move quickly off its shelves and create cash from customers before Amazon has to pay the bill to the originator. 

To be able to operate a low-demand, low-margin business, you must be doing something right. Third party sellers who can do this likely have some edge that is hard for Amazon to disintermediate. They’re probably safe. 

Second, operate in products outside the scope of Amazon’s current in-house merchant operations. If Amazon has a store through which it sources and sells inventory directly, the infrastructure is in place for it to expand that in-house merchandise selection. I’ll bet top dollar that Amazon consistently trolls its third party seller data to see what low hanging fruit is ripe for plucking; what items show enough demand and enough margin for Amazon to take it internal. 

Third, sell products to which you have some sort of protected access to the originator; products that Amazon can’t easily procure. When Amazon can step in between you and your supplier, it will. If you have your supplier locked-up with exclusivity, because of material scarcity, or some form of business arrangement, Amazon won’t be able to disintermediate you by going directly to the source. 

Finally, sell products that require a high level of expertise and sophistication to merchandise them effectively. For most product categories, Amazon wants to apply technology to interpret the demand and satisfy it with the right supply at the right price. If the economics of your market make for high volatility in supply and demand that a computer can’t easily identify and programmatically address (in other words, it requires human skill and intelligence), Amazon is unlikely to operate very well in this market. Amazon likes markets in which it can fix problems with technology solutions rather than people expertise. 

If You Have Stories to Share 

The stories from the third party seller trenches are fascinating in and of themselves and illuminating of Amazon’s approach to growing its business. If you have good information to share, I’d love to hear it. You can contact me at I will always honor confidentiality and will not share information that you want to withhold from readers of this web site.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Selection, Demand and Amazon’s Long Tail

The Long Tail 

Chris Anderson of popularized this metaphor with a thought-provoking piece in 2004, The Long Tail. He followed it up in 2006 with a well-received business book of the same name. Both are worth reading. 

(We introduced the idea in the last article, Walmart’s Selection and Long Tails.)  

The key points are these: 

1. Store-based retailers fall victim to what Chris calls the “tyranny of physical space.” They are limited by real estate location and a finite amount of shelf space. As he puts it: 

An average record store [for the young readers, this breed went extinct about two months after Chris wrote his article] needs to sell at least two copies of a CD [likewise extinct] per year to make it worth carrying; that’s the rent for a half inch of shelf space…retailers will carry only content that can generate sufficient demand to earn its keep. But each can pull only from a limited local population – perhaps a 10-mile radius for a typical movie theater, less than that for a music and bookstore…

2. Web-based stores, by contrast, are “demand aggregators.” They don’t have that 10-mile radius limitation for drawing shoppers. When you pull from a national (or international) market of customers, you effectively pull together all potential buyers for a particular product or piece of content. 

3. Although it’s fractured into tiny individual sales, there is still tremendous demand for products even as you push into the narrowing part of the long tail. Chris uses the following example, pitting Barnes & Noble against Amazon in a story with which we’ve all become very familiar: 

The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. Consider the implications if the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market of books that are not even sold in the average book store is larger than the market for those that are…the biggest money is in the smallest sales.

That long tail demand – fractured as it may be – makes for a good business opportunity for web retailers. Their lower operating costs allow them to turn a profit offering products in lower demand that consumers won’t find in a traditional store. 

The Long Tail in Perspective 

Retailers attempt to match their selection to the demands of their customers. Despite all the statistics and MBA-level analytics at their disposal, the process of picking a store’s assortment is as much an art as it is a science. There remains a vibrant market for hiring retail buyers that possess that mystical merchant touch; those employees able to divine the desires of shoppers and put together the right mix of assortment to pry open their wallets. 

Walmart has dedicated itself to being the one-stop shopping destination by offering the widest array of merchandise of any traditional retailer. Its supercenters stock, on average, about 150,000 unique items meant to draw customers that want to consolidate their weekly shopping excursion from multiple store visits to just one. They know that Walmart will have the vast, vast majority of what they want to buy. 

And when compared to Costco, for example, Walmart satisfies that goal. Costco offers somewhere in the ballpark of 4,000 items per store. It clings tightly to the narrow-selection, high-demand portion of the curve. 

4,000 to 150,000 is a big difference, and that delta brings a lot more customers through Walmart’s doors than Costco’s. Walmart’s wide selection makes up for Costco’s lower per-unit prices and earns the retail giant a much larger chunk of that broad middle of the shopping market. 

But that difference in selection is dwarfed when you introduce Amazon into the mix. I haven’t been able to track down a good source for the number of items Amazon offers in total, but I’ve pieced together some thumbnails to come up with what I believe to be a very conservative guess…two million. (If any readers have a better number they can provide from a trustworthy source, please share!) 

I think Walmart would love to offer much more than 150,000 items. It is committed to being the one-stop shopping destination, but it must balance that with remaining realistic about the limits of its economic model. It is constrained by, to borrow Chris’ term again, the tyranny of physical space. If something cannot sell quickly enough, Walmart simply cannot justify renting out its shelf space to that product. And its potential customer market for selling that product is limited to (I’m guessing here) a 25-mile radius around its supercenter. 

Even though Walmart dominates the selection game for store-based retailers, its 150,000 SKUs can’t hold a candle to what Amazon is able to do. Not only does Amazon aggregate demand by providing access to any couch-surfing shopper with a tablet on his lap, but it also has significantly lower operating costs in offering those products. You can run build and run a fulfillment center at a much lower cost per item sold than that required to operate an extensive network of retail stores. 

The Best Place to Buy, Find and Discover any Product 

The economics of Amazon’s model allow it to move aggressively down that long tail curve; to build its selection to meet the most niche demand; to realize the potential that all those individual low-demand transactions – when aggregated – amount to a lot of sales…for the company whose economic model allows them to chase after it. 

Amazon has not been shy about stating its intentions on the selection front. Amazon has stated loud and clear for many years that: “The Company’s objective is to become the best place to buy, find, and discover any product or service available.” (From it's 1998 10-K filing.)

Friday, August 31, 2012

Walmart’s Selection and Long Tails

Walmart has pressed hard on the selection growth lever, packing upwards of 150,000 individual items in each of its supercenters. Its ideal is getting you in the door for that one thing you want, and loading you up with a shopping cart full of stuff you didn’t know you needed…until you came through the doors. 

And that’s priority number one for Walmart: get shoppers through those doors. 

Castro-Wright’s Folly or Walmart Hits the Limits of the Pareto Principle 

Eduardo Castro-Wright, former CEO of U.S. Stores, perpetrated a great folly by reducing Walmart’s selection in an attempt to improve the aesthetic experience for the shopper and thereby compete with Target for upscale discount customers. 

His strategy made sense in theory. I’m sure his analysts poured through the data and saw clear patterns demonstrating some derivative of the Pareto Principle, something that pointed to 20 percent of the inventory generating 80 percent of the sales. You can fiddle with the ratios however you please – perhaps it was 40 percent of the inventory driving 90 percent of sales or 60 percent of the items responsible for 75 percent – the point is that the data highlighted a glut of slow-moving items. If you could just reduce the low-demand inventory you could simultaneously make the stores more spacious and stock shelves with items that sell quickly. 

And there’s a strategy an MBA could love! 

But that which sounds good in theory, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, often has a secret dark side in practice. Yes, your statistical models have blind spots. They show that you’ll create more space getting rid of those garish holiday sweaters, but it didn’t show that the lady buying those sweaters was also loading up on pallets of cat food for those dozen felines sharing her home. By reducing that part of your selection, even though the sales it generated looked miniscule in your data sets, you drove away a customer who would have otherwise filled her cart with plenty more stuff. She’s now shopping elsewhere. 

The Long Tail of Selection 

If a retailer could satisfy its druthers, it would stack high and deep only those products with the highest demand, quickest rate of consumption, and fattest margins. Everyone would sell Coke, Tide detergent, Pert Plus shampoo, and Old Spice deodorant. They would spend all their time restocking shelves because the demand for these consumables would keep the products flying out the doors. Selection would be thin, product mix easy to figure out, and all the retail battles would be waged over price. 

Alas, that is not retail reality. 

As we assume Walmart’s Castro-Wright figured out in his ill-fated tenure as U.S. stores chief, a minority of products are responsible for the majority of sales…that Pareto Principle. The curve for demand versus selection looks something like this: 

Most of the demand stacks up with a few products and then tapers dramatically into a long tail where the rest of the selection just doesn’t sell very much. 

When it comes to pressing the selection lever, Costco – with its 4,000 or so SKUs in any given store – only competes in the highest demand, fastest moving inventory items. It clings tightly to the left-hand side of the demand curve, sells in bulk, and competes on price. It’s been a good business, resonating with plenty of shoppers. (See the article, Costco and the Paradox of Choice here.) 

Walmart followed a different path and won the patronage of many more consumers by extending itself much further down the demand slope. It offers about 150,000 unique items in its supercenters. Because of this, it can’t offer the cheapest per unit price like Costco, but the tradeoff it makes with such a wider selection is that shoppers are more likely to pick Walmart as the one-stop place to take care of all their shopping needs. They go in for a festive sweater and load up their carts with everything else they need (or vice-versa). And the prices – while not the cheapest – are cheap enough that they don’t bother adding a Costco stop to their shopping errands this week. 

Why Lose Money on Groceries? 

It’s the reason Walmart introduced groceries to its product mix in the 1990’s. This is a notoriously hard business to be in, requiring a much different, more complex supply chain for sourcing, distributing and selling perishable goods (as opposed to those that can sit in a warehouse for months at a time without spoiling). The logistics of transporting ice cream are orders of magnitude more difficult than those for Old Spice deodorant. 

And it’s not like Walmart sells groceries at a premium, ringing up big margins on the sale of each bag of apples or gallon of milk. To the contrary, Walmart’s prices tend to be 15 percent cheaper* than regular grocers like Kroger. It’s even possible that groceries are a loss leader for the company. 

So why would a business invest so heavily in constructing new additions to its stores, handing over valuable floor space, and increase the complexities of its supply chain on merchandise that loses money? 

Because groceries are the ultimate consumable. People have to buy them. And if Walmart’s best competitive advantage is being the one-stop place to shop, you have to do groceries to get people in the door. 

Offering groceries was the clearest sign of Walmart’s commitment to offering the widest selection. 

As Castro-Wright discovered with his folly, this commitment creates a cascade effect with customers. The wide selection gets shoppers through the doors looking for that low-demand, slow-moving item. They then fill their baskets with more of the high-demand, fast-moving stuff. 

But if you get too fancy with your analytics, stripping out the inventory further down the long tail of the demand curve, the cascade can flow in the opposite direction, too. When shoppers can’t find that esoteric item you pulled from inventory, they might just take their entire shopping cart elsewhere. 

Stores Can Only Have So Much Selection 

But even Walmart, with its nearly 200,000 square feet of supercenter selling space stacked high and deep with 150,000 SKU’s, can only go so far down the demand curve when determining its ideal product mix. It can fit only so much in the confines of those four walls. 

This makes shelf space a valuable commodity. It cannot stuff it with slow-moving items that sit for days or weeks just waiting to be purchased. Its own feedback loop – the productivity loop – depends on high velocity selling…making a bunch of inventory turns to keep up the volume of sales and help press costs down. 

But Castro-Wright came to understand that one cannot be too aggressive in cutting out those slow-moving products either. He pushed too hard, customers left, and he soon followed. 

This is the nature of the selection game for store-based retailers. It’s defined by physical constraints. They can only stock so many items; go so far down the long tail of the demand curve. It requires constant evaluation to find the right balance of products at the right time to keep customers satisfied. Even for mighty Walmart and its commitment to providing the widest selection, it involves trade-offs in deciding what products go on the shelves and which are left out. 

These challenges do not exist for Amazon. We’ll explore that next. 

* The 15 percent estimate is pulled from Charles Fishman’s excellent 2006 book, The Wal-Mart Effect.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

When Walmart Gets Target Envy…A Selection Debacle

With the sales tax story, equating Amazon to Brer Rabbit begging the fox to spare him from the briar patch, we put a fork in our review of the convenience growth lever. We’re now onto Selection, that second of three growth levers in which Amazon – by virtue of its web-based business model – has a clear and distinct advantage over traditional retailers.

But as I’m prone to do, we’ll pick some more on Walmart (the embodiment of traditional retail success) en route to making the larger points about Amazon’s business. 

Back to the Broad Middle 

So far we’ve approached discussions of the broad middle exclusively from the left-hand entry point. This is where the right combination of investments in the growth levers (price, selection, convenience) will earn a retailer access to that middle part of the market. This is where the vast majority of customers reside, and it’s where they balance their overarching desire for low prices with their preference for convenience and a wide selection of products from which to choose. 

Retailers that press the right combination of those levers win the patronage of the broad middle, increase their sales, and grow their businesses. 

But there’s more than one way into the broad middle. There’s also a right-hand entry point. I’m saving the bulk of that topic for explaining the ways Zappos and Quidsi posed a serious threat to Amazon, but we’ll go ahead and take a sneak peak here to setup the Selection discussion. 

Price is the lowest common denominator of the growth levers, so when all other variables are equal, we (the shoppers) tend to buy the lowest price option available. But most of us will spend a bit more if a store offers better convenience or wider selection. This defines the left-hand entry point to the broad middle. 

The right-hand entry appeals to the consumers who are far less price sensitive. They’re willing to pay a higher price for better customer service, a tailored shopping experience, or because they identify better with the brand of the store. For example, many of the consumers who wear high-end fashion are notoriously price insensitive. They’re at the extreme right of this bell curve. They have lots of money to spend, and they’re willing to pay premiums. They will pay an absurd markup to buy a handbag with the Gucci logo or sunglasses that say Chanel. 

When a retailer can offer these products and simultaneously sport economies of scale – allowing it to operate at a lower cost and pass some price savings on to customers (another feedback loop) – this creates another mix of levers in which a retailer can invest to gain access to the broad middle. 

Consider that a teaser. We’ll go in much more detail in future articles. 

How Target Competes with Walmart 

Think Walmart versus Target. Walmart earned its way into the fattest chunk of the broad middle via the left-hand side. It pressed the hardest on price but also offered a wide selection of products and enough stores to be a convenient shopping destination for much of the consumer market. Its success is undeniable, and no one would succeed by challenging Walmart on that turf. 

At some point in its history, Target came to understand this. It could not go toe-to-toe with Walmart on price and selection, but it could earn the patronage of less price sensitive customers by pressing on the right hand levers. And on brand in particular. While it will never be as big as Walmart, Target has built a strong business doing discount merchandising in its own way. 

During times of economic hardship, price sensitivity increases, pushing the fat part of the curve even further to the right (i.e., more customers begin making buying decisions based on low price). These have traditionally been good times for Walmart, bringing more bargain hunters into its doors. 

But during this most recent recession, Walmart fumbled the opportunity badly. Instead of opening its arms to the rush of new shoppers, the company decided to reverse its normal strategy, easing its investments in the selection levers and putting that cash into branding like Target. The goal seemed to be capturing more of the upscale-discount (yes, the sort of oxymoron term you get so frequently when slicing deep in the market segmentation game) shoppers. But in the process it chased its core customers into the open doors of the dollar stores. 

Eduardo Castro-Wright Gets Target Envy 

Eduardo Castro-Wright had success presiding over Walmart’s Mexico and then international divisions, overseeing tremendous growth during his watch. He was rewarded in 2005 with the plum assignment of CEO, U.S. Stores. 

In that role he developed a serious case of Target envy. He grew tired of Walmart’s reputation as the dingy bargain basement; that place where consumers hold their noses, foregoing a more pleasant shopping experience in exchange for cheap stuff. 

“Tar-jay,” on the other hand, has cachet. It is a brand that evokes some pleasant sense from customers. Though it too is a discounter, people actually don’t mind saying they shop there. Castro-Wright wanted that for Walmart. 

And so he pushed Walmart into investing billions to revitalize supercenters, to update the store-front facades, to make cheerier signs, and (most significantly) to take out inventory so aisles could be wider for moms pushing carts and lines of sight less cluttered. To achieve this, he significantly reduced selection. Targeting those items that his data analysis identified as low-demand, slow sellers…that stuff which clogged up valuable shelf space for far too long. 

For example, Castro-Wright thought Walmart should be able to sell fashionable clothes. This required no small set of changes. Rather than offer, say, garish holiday sweaters, a favorite of that elderly lady customer that shares her home with a dozen feline companions, he cleaned out that rack and decided to sell stylish skinny jeans instead. This would attract the middle-class teenage girl and her mom, introducing Walmart to a new – more affluent – demographic that would come to buy clothes and stick around to fill up her cart with all sorts of goods. Most importantly, he would be taking the shopper away from Target. 

This is not how things unfolded. No one wanted skinny jeans from Walmart. The fashion items (which Walmart sourced from a new, chic New York City office and promoted in the pages of magazines like Vogue) failed to produce new customers. Worst yet, they chased out the cat lady who could no longer get that Frosty the Snowman sweater she so desperately loved. As Walmart failed to move upstream and steal Target customers, it also sent existing customers downstream to more convenient dollar stores. The cat lady, it would seem, took her business – not just the sweaters, but all those cans of cat food as well – to Dollar General. 

This was a double-whammy failure for Castro-Wright and Walmart. Under his watch, U.S. stores had their worst decline in same store sales. Walmart had for years stood tall on the premise that its supercenters were the place for one-stop shopping; that place where a mother could reduce the burden of shopping errands by replacing her stops at several stores with one big-basket Walmart run. By reducing that selection (even though Castro-Wright thought he was only discarding low-demand, low-turn items), he was forcing all the moms and cat ladies to go elsewhere to satisfy their shopping needs. Walmart was no longer meeting their one-stop criteria. Some were leaving Walmart altogether, others were just buying less. 

The results for the business were terrible. By abandoning its commitment to carrying the deepest selection, Walmart was straying from the path that had always brought it so much success. Off in a Bentonville cemetery, Mr. Sam was rolling in his grave. 

Well, Walmart abandoned that strategy after too many consecutive quarters of poor performance. They sent Castro-Wright* over to run the much smaller e-commerce business and put Bill Simon, a retired naval officer, on a mission to get this ship back on its previous course. 

Simon was quick to bring back the selection, returning Walmart’s U.S. stores to the time honored tradition of investing hard in the levers of lowest price and widest selection. The renovations initiated by Castro-Wright have stopped, and the aisles are getting packed again with hard-to-resist bargains. 


Next: Even with all that selection coming back to its shelves, Walmart can still only fight Amazon with one arm tied behind its back. Walmart is constrained by the four walls (though large they may be) of its supercenters while Amazon brings selection down the long tail of the demand curve. 

*Eduardo Castro-Wright, it should be noted, is no longer with Walmart. He was systematically stripped of responsibility in his new role and finally ushered out the door as the New York Times exposed a history of corrupt practices in Walmart de Mexico that occurred under his watch. Don’t feel too bad for him. While his ego is bruised, financially speaking he’s quite comfortable in retirement.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Amazon’s Inflection Point and Lessons from Brer Rabbit

To close out our discussion of Amazon’s convenience infrastructure, we turn now to current events and consider how collecting sales tax might be the biggest boon to Amazon’s retail business, a body blow to the stores, and the end of the convenience barrier. 

Of Inflection Points 

Andy Grove’s excellent 1996 memoir, Only the Paranoid Survive, injected the term “strategic inflection point” into popular business parlance. The former leader of chip maker Intel recounts the crossroads in his company’s history where the decisions he made led to momentous, industry-altering outcomes. 

For example, since its founding, Intel had made its name by packing more space onto smaller wafers of silicone in the memory chip business. It did very well in this market until Japanese companies killed them on price and quality in the early-1980’s. They were at an inflection point. Market circumstances had changed. The dynamics of the industry had changed, and Intel simply could not compete. The company was hemorrhaging money and needed a different strategy. 

Groves led his teams to the difficult conclusion that they must get out of the memory chip business altogether. They threw themselves into becoming the leader of microchip processing technology. As the history books tell us, these decisions forever changed the trajectory of Intel as a company as well as that of the entire computer industry. 

Such inflection points are hard to identify in the real-time fog of battle. When looking backwards, however, the events stick out; the specific decisions define the future of the organizations involved. 

But every once in a while the variables line up in such a way that the outcomes seem all but inevitable. We’re now at one of those times with the retail industry…an inflection point that’s sure to force a dramatic shift in market share balance from shopping centers to online stores. 

The Sales Tax Inflection Point 

We’ve discussed in some detail the concept of the convenience barrier, that human desire for immediate gratification that keeps shoppers heading for the stores rather than buying more of our stuff online. For so much of what we buy, we simply don’t have the patience to wait a few days for our favorite web-based sellers to deliver the goods to our doorsteps. We endure the hassle of regular shopping for the pay-off of trotting out of the store with our purchases in hand. 

But the convenience barrier is not as fixed a defense as retailers like Walmart have long assumed. By continually compressing the time it takes to deliver its packages, Amazon has demonstrated a certain gratification continuum whereby any improvement in delivery time leads to more consumers opting for the online option over the tedious experience of heading out to the stores. 

The more Amazon compresses that delivery time, the more shoppers it attracts. That’s why the company invests so heavily in the delivery portion of its convenience infrastructure. By building more warehouses (and improving the efficiency of those facilities), Amazon gets closer to you – its customer – and reduces the lag time between your 1-Click purchase and that package being dropped on your front porch. Those investments to enhance customer convenience are whittling away at the convenience barrier, earning Amazon the business of more consumers in the broad middle and stealing customers from traditional retailers. 

Despite the tremendous growth these investments have wrought over the years, Amazon can do more. The convenience barrier has not yet been breached. It is holding together – albeit tenuously – by the lag between getting your stuff today at Walmart and having to wait an average of two business days when buying on Amazon. The company can do more both in terms of improving delivery speed and in taking more market share. 

What’s holding it back? Oddly enough, it’s tug-o-war with various states over whether Amazon should be compelled to collect sales tax on behalf of its customers. Amazon has long argued, with a zealot’s fervor, that a 1992 Supreme Court ruling prevents any government from forcing a business with no physical presence in the state (like a warehouse) to tag a sales tax levy onto purchases made by residents. It’s the responsibility of the shopper to tax himself, self-report it to his local department of revenue, and cut the government a check every quarter of so. Not surprisingly, only the most earnest of Boy Scouts ever follow the rules. 

Amazon has enjoyed this loophole exemption since its founding, and it has used the five, six, seven percent “rebate” as a pricing advantage over store-based retailers. This has long infuriated the stores, and they’ve lobbied the states and Congress to change the law. Amazon has fought those attempts. But with budgets in such perilous condition these past few years, states have upped the ante. They’ve been pressuring Amazon in every way imaginable to start contributing to the coffers. 

And Amazon has begun capitulating, negotiating agreements with various governments to start collecting in return for incentives to build fulfillment centers and create new jobs. In the meantime, Amazon lobbyists are walking the halls of Congress, pressing for a national, uniform sales tax

Herein lies the sales tax inflection point. Amazon wants to build those fulfillment centers. As we discussed previously, it takes the warehouses from rural areas (cheaper land, cheaper labor) and puts them right against the perimeters of the largest U.S metropolitan markets. Los Angeles, San Francisco are likely to join New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Phoenix, and others as cities in which Amazon offers same-day Local Express Delivery

By paying sales tax, Amazon can operate freely in states with lots of paying customers. It will be able to build many more fulfillment centers in close proximity to those customers and work hard to improve its delivery speeds. Sure, the total price of its goods will go up, but the company seems confident it can weather that problem. (Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine Amazon suffering lower margins for a time in order to minimize the impact of sales tax on its prices.) Because ultimately, these fulfillment centers will put Amazon within striking distance of achieving nirvana for web retail convenience: delivering a product to customers as quickly as they could get in the car, drive to the store, and buy it themselves. 

The sales tax inflection point doesn’t require Amazon to reach the nirvana state. The convenience barrier is breached, I believe, when a critical mass of consumers can get their orders delivered overnight. 

Brer Rabbit Begs, “Please! Not the Briar Patch!” 

The great irony with the sales tax is how hard the traditional retailers are lobbying Congress and state legislatures to bring Amazon to account. They see it as a matter of price, not of convenience. They believe Amazon will finally lose its pricing edge and hardly worry what it means in terms of Amazon taking full advantage to provide faster delivery and better convenience. 

They seen an opportunity inflict pain on their web-based foes, and they’re blind to the unintended consequences of their campaign. In particular, they’re blind to what it means for their own best competitive advantage, the convenience barrier. 

I’m reminded of the Uncle Remus story of Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit. Fox was keen on catching rabbit and teaching him a fatal lesson for outwitting him one too many times. Fox concocted an elaborate ruse involving a tar baby, and managed to snare Rabbit in the trap. Once caught, Rabbit begged for mercy: 

“Drown me! Roast me! Hang me! Do whatever you please," said Brer Rabbit. "Only please, Brer Fox, please don't throw me into the briar patch." 

Fox, imagining his enemy being torn to pieces, tossed Rabbit into the thorns with the bitterest contempt, and cocked his ear to listen for the sounds of anguish. 

He heard nothing. 

Then Brer Fox heard someone calling his name. He turned around and looked up the hill. Brer Rabbit was sitting on a log combing the tar out of his fur with a wood chip and looking smug. 

"I was bred and born in the briar patch, Brer Fox," he called. "Born and bred in the briar patch." 

And Brer Rabbit skipped away as merry as a cricket while Brer Fox ground his teeth in rage and went home.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Amazon Whittling Away at the Convenience Barrier

Amazon’s Fulfillment Center Binge

Amazon is on a construction binge, building fulfillment center after fulfillment center in a seeming reckless abandon of its bottom line. It added 17 warehouses in 2011, a 32 percent increase that brought its global total to 70. And it’s showing no signs of slowing this year. 

In the U.S., the new FC’s are going up all over the place. A handful of them follow Amazon’s old model in which the company finds cheap land to build mammoth facilities and staffs them with an abundance of laborers desperate for any wage, no matter how low. That’s a reasonable approach for an internet retailer. Given the growing sophistication of the delivery companies – UPS and FedEx in particular – you can ship your goods from anywhere and know they’ll reach their destination within two business days. So, it would make sense to build the biggest warehouses possible in the places you can take full advantage of cheap labor and cheap wages. The bigger the FC with cheap costs, so the thinking goes, the better the economies of scale. Which is why Amazon has built clusters of warehouses in the rural, post-industrial (i.e., high unemployment) corridors of places like Kentucky and Pennsylvania. 

To be sure, Amazon continues to follow that model. Many of the newest facilities are popping up in corporate-friendly South Carolina and Tennessee after the company has extracted favorable tax guarantees and other incentives from state and local governments. It’s easy to make sense of these. They follow Amazon’s long-heeded playbook. 

But then we have FC’s going up on pricy real estate on the outskirts of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City. Under the domains of the notoriously business-wary, high-tax collecting states of California and New Jersey. This is a clear departure from the playbook. Surely Amazon doesn’t need to spend the kind of cash required to build and run warehouses near major metropolitan areas. It’s already serving those markets with its popular two-day delivery services plus its overnight options. 

Unless Amazon is signaling to the world that two-day delivery isn’t good enough…that it’s investing in this portion of its convenience infrastructure because it wants us to get those boxes, adorned with the Amazon smile, much, much more quickly. 

The Convenience Barrier and Walmart’s Blind Spot 

I’m going to make a bold assumption about the minds of retail executives following the dot-com collapse of 2000 and 2001. 

They believed the online threat made its best attack in the heady days of 1998 and 1999 when every niche idea was being funded as the web’s answer to Walmart. And since it failed to take away much of their business (indeed, most of the companies were liquidated in bankruptcy proceedings…the ultimate sign of failure), the traditional retailers lulled themselves into the belief that their stores had little to fear from the internet. 

Even in the best of times, they concluded, the web guys were running into the toughest headwind a retailer could imagine. Companies like Amazon were trying to sell products with a built-in three- to five-business day delivery delay to customers who were used to walking out of a store with packages under their arms. Shoppers were used to immediate gratification, and Amazon required them to delay the pleasure of instant consumption. The web guys were running into the headwind whose force emanated from human nature. 

A heavy dose of hedonism pervades the shopping public. They want what they want, and they want it now. It’s a human nature thing. If your success depends on their patience, you’re unlikely to earn access to that broad middle part of the market. This is the essence of the convenience barrier. Despite all the inconvenience of driving to shopping centers, parking, navigating the stores, and standing in check-out lines, at the end of it all you walk out with that thing you came to buy. 

So the retail executives thought the web would be, at best, relegated to the domain of niche products that would never fit on their shelves anyway. The internet would certainly never be able to overcome all that protection afforded by the convenience barrier. As a protection against the competition, they thought the convenience barrier – because it is rooted in that human desire for immediate gratification– is as fixed as they come. 

And so, after the dot-com implosion, the retail executives stopped investing their cash and energy into game plans for competing against Amazon. They wrote-off the internet and went back to battling each other. In doing so they created a blind spot in which Amazon was able to whittle away, ever so slowly and ever so methodically, at that convenience barrier with hardly a notice from the likes of Walmart, Target, and other big-time retailers. 

The Gratification Continuum 

The teams at Amazon never saw the convenience barrier as unassailable because they never saw shoppers’ desire for immediate gratification as a simple matter of yes or no. True, shoppers have a deep streak of hedonism. They prefer their stuff sooner rather than later. But when weighing the convenience benefits of shopping online versus in-store, consumers are willing to make trade-offs. They will demonstrate some patience in order to avoid the hassles of trips to the store. 

The desire for immediate gratification existed, therefore, on a continuum. The precise amount of time Amazon made them wait was critical in the shoppers’ decision to forego traditional stores, which meant the convenience barrier was far more fungible than it was fixed. 

That digital camera you want? If Amazon takes five business days to deliver it, you would probably head over the Best Buy and get it today. But if Amazon delivers it in three days, you’re more likely to avoid a trip to the big box. 

Those diaper bin liners you need for the nursery? You’d suffer through a trip to Walmart if, otherwise, Amazon required you to wait three days. But if Amazon can get them to you in two days… 

And that bag of Starbucks French Roast coffee you need so desperately for your caffeine fix early tomorrow morning? You’ll run to the nearest Kroger to get it this afternoon…unless Amazon could get it to you before you go to sleep tonight. 

Amazon never had to match the immediate gratification shoppers get from walking out of a store with package in hand. If they met customers just part of the way on that gratification continuum, shoppers would choose them over the stores. And in growing numbers the more Amazon compressed that wait time. So Amazon whittled away at the convenience barrier, putting cash to work building more fulfillment centers, eliminating defects to speed up warehouse pick and pack routines, and working painstakingly to optimize the hand-off of goods to UPS, FedEx and other delivery partners. 

And they did much of it while still in the comfortable anonymity of Walmart’s (and other retailers’) blind spot. 

The Progress of Amazon Delivery and a Glimpse into the Future 

Over the decade, Amazon has systematically dropped the time it takes to get packages from digital shopping cart to real-world doorstep. They reduced it from five business days to a three-day standard. Then they took away delivery charges. Then they offered Amazon Prime and made two-day delivery the standard. Then they added the ability to ship overnight for a modest additional fee. 

Now Amazon has placed a box on my porch on a Saturday morning, and I’ve heard others surprised by the same thing.* And its Local Delivery Express is providing same day delivery in ten of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas that are, not surprisingly, nearest to its fulfillment centers. They’re piloting same-day grocery delivery in Seattle. And, at the extreme, they’re already managing last mile delivery in many Chinese markets. 

The ambition is mind boggling. Amazon is not satisfied with two-day deliveries. They will continue investing in this arm of the convenience infrastructure. They have benefited from understanding the gratification continuum, but they haven’t stopped compressing it. One suspects they’re pushing to hit convenience nirvana wherein Amazon can get goods to you faster than you could get in the car and go to the store for it yourself. 

So, that fulfillment center binge that has Amazon constructing on the pricey land outside of San Francisco, LA and NYC? I think we can expect many follow-on stories to the recent reports of New Yorkers ordering from Amazon in the morning and finding the packages delivered by end of day. 

Amazon is pressing the convenience lever with a mighty force as the store-based retailers watch that “unassailable” convenience barrier get slowly reduced to rubble. 

Where does it all stop? Perhaps this video gives us a glimpse into the future. Perhaps it all leads us inevitably the Amazon Yesterday program! 

* Just imagine how much Amazon hates that it can rarely get those boxes to you on Saturdays and Sundays because UPS just won’t run the brown trucks on the weekend and FedEx charges a huge premium for weekend delivery. But you know Bezos’ brain trust in Seattle is scheming ways around this. I was surprised several weeks ago to get a FedEx box on my doorstep late one Saturday morning. It was an Amazon package slated for Monday delivery. I suspect Amazon is testing out some ways open up this weekend window; to improve even further this arm of its convenience infrastructure. And I’m sure the tests come at considerable expense. Most importantly, until their delivery partners help open this window, you can believe that Amazon views them with the sort of contempt it reserves for any middlemen that set up roadblocks between its services and its customers. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Difference in Scale: More Amazon v. Walmart

This is the third post in a series about deconstructing Amazon's Feedback Loop, an attempt to understand how its components work both as individual units and together as a collective system. See the previous posts, Convenience (and Diaper Stench): Amazon v. Walmart and All Convenience Infrastructures Not Created Equal

The Feedback Loop is about pressing those levers (price, selection, convenience) for the purpose of earning the patronage of millions of shoppers that comprise the broad middle. It’s about driving growth. 

Here’s the big difference between being a web retailer as opposed to a traditional one; an Amazon versus a Walmart: 

To become more convenient and attract more shoppers, Walmart must build ever more stores. It must go where the customer is. Proximity between seller and buyer is a function of how far a shopper must drive to reach a supercenter. 

To become more convenient and attract more shoppers, Amazon benefits from more consumers being connected to the internet with each passing day. Proximity between seller and buyer is a function of how many steps a shopper must take between his seat on the couch and the nearest web-enabled device. 

The same forces that bring more people onto the internet every day bring those people to Amazon. It must simply be prepared for their business.

Scalability and the Check-Out Scenario

Those are the starkest of contrasts when considering the factors that drive convenience in the physical world versus the digital realm. And while differences in cost are big, the implications for scaling – increasing sales faster than infrastructure – are staggering. 

Consider the programming logic that turns the gears behind Amazon’s 1-Click check-out process. While that code base was enormously expensive to develop, requiring high-salaried programmers to build it, test it, and improve it over months of iterated effort, it now sits on an Amazon server. It may require occasional maintenance tweaks, but by and large that digital instruction manual can facilitate millions of check-outs each day about as easily as it can conduct just one. 

More importantly, that code can facilitate thousands upon thousands of check-outs simultaneously without slowing down the flow of commerce, the speed of transactions, or the convenience of quick turnarounds for shoppers. 

That is ultimate scalability. The kind you get when you depend on a convenience infrastructure built on technology. 

To keep picking on Walmart, let’s consider the contrast of store-based retail scalability. Its cashiers are cheap on an individual basis. Each is paid a piddling hourly wage, but each can only facilitate the check-out of one customer at a time. 

If it wants to be able to check-out 100 shoppers at the same store simultaneously, it must have 100 different check-out aisles with 100 different cashiers working 100 different cash registers at the same time. Since that’s impractical, it permits long lines to form at each register during peak hours, thereby reducing its convenience to customers. 

Scaling its convenience infrastructure is – for Walmart and its ilk – always constrained by physical world limitations. In the physical world it’s difficult to scale many of your convenience factors too far beyond that one-to-one ratio (like one cashier to one shopper). In the digital realm, scaling seems nearer to one-to-infinity (theoretically at least) than that one-to-one ratio.

The 1:1 Ratio Rears Its Head Again

Consider this other constraint of store-based retailing… 

In 2010 Walmart added about 1,400 stores to its existing world-wide base of 10,000 (give or take a few). All that additional real estate – those stores that brought Walmart closer to more shoppers – funded a nearly ten percent increase in revenue, taking the business to $447 billion in sales. If we assume each new store cost, on average, somewhere around $10 million (to build, equip and stock each), it means Walmart invested $14 billion in the main component of its convenience infrastructure. 

So, to increase revenue ten percent, it invested $14 billion and grew its number of physical locations by about 14 percent. This suggests something pretty close to a one-to-one relationship between opening new stores and growing revenue.* And while that ratio is not a precise formula for Walmart’s growth, it does highlight the natural constraints that exist for growing your business under the rules of a physical world: you have to invest significant cash to build more stores to access more customers and (finally) to grow your revenue. 

This puts to a cap on how quickly Walmart can grow because everything is governed both by how much cash it has to plow back into its convenience infrastructure and how many new stores it can possibly open in a 365-day span of time. 

It’s almost like a gravitational pull that keeps its ability to scale in check, making it difficult for traditional retailers to get much beyond that one-to-one ratio of having to increase its base of stores by (for example) ten percent in order to increase its revenue by about the same amount.

Walmart’s Rate of Growth Anchor

Those physical world limitations create an anchor on rate of growth as the base of legacy stores (those that have been open for more than a year) gets bigger and bigger. 

Let’s consider that 1,400 new store openings push the upper limit of what Walmart (or any retailer for that matter) could do in a given year. That’s a lot of construction, requiring a lot of resources in the way of cash, management attention, and use of supply chain bandwidth. They could probably do more (in fact, I believe they have done more in previous years), but I doubt they could do considerably more on a sustained basis. 

When calculating rate of growth (a percentage), new stores are the numerator and the base of legacy stores is the denominator. If 1,400 is the max new stores in a given year, the numerator is pretty much a fixed number. But the denominator grows larger with each passing year. Those 10,000 or so from 2010 become 11,400 after 2011, 12,800 after 2012, 14,200 after 2013 and so on. So, for each of those years, 1,400 divided by the growing legacy base gives us a smaller percentage (14 percent drops to 12.3 percent then 11 percent then 9.9 percent, etc.) as time passes. 

The rate of growth slows. The ability to get to ever more customers is bounded by the constraint of only being able to open so many new stores in a given year. 

Now this is mostly theorizing. I’ll grant that the numbers are likely a decent-sized understatement of reality. Walmart can probably open more than 1,400 stores a year if it wanted to. But not a dramatically higher number. So the general rule stands true: the base of existing stores creates an anchor on rate of growth. It will slow as the legacy base gets bigger. Trees can’t grow to the sky. 

Conclusion and Segue to Convenience Barriers

The point is that Walmart operates in a world of limits, and while we can quibble about the exact numbers, the facts remain that the limits approximate (at least roughly) 1.) that one-to-one ratio for new stores to revenue, and 2.) the rate of growth slowing with a fixed numerator being anchored down by an expanding denominator. 

Web retailers don’t have that same challenge. Investing in technology – those pieces of code whose logic churn across millions of server processors to transact millions of transactions – is much less expensive and much more scalable. 

Over the long haul, this scale difference has a compounding effect. Much like the difference of a few (seemingly) small interest rate points for savings accounts may not amount to much over a few years’ time, the difference is amplified to dramatic proportions as time marches on and the effects of compounding take hold. 

Amazon’s advantage of lower convenience infrastructure expense and better scalability means it can take those savings and invest them in making up for any deficiencies it might have in the competitive struggle with traditional retailers. 

And Amazon has been very disciplined in making these investments both in the other growth levers (lower prices and wider selection) and also in attacking the bulwark of the best convenience defense store-based retailers retain against web competitors; namely, the ability to satisfy customers’ desire for immediate gratification, that ability to walk out of a store with purchase in hand. 

That’s the convenience barrier, and Amazon’s has been whittling away at it over the years. 

* Note that this is the roughest of calculations on several fronts, the most important of which is that Walmart’s revenue growth does not only come from new store sales. In most years, the lion’s share of growth comes from selling more through its existing base of stores (a better scaling proposition because they don’t have to invest much more in the existing stores to drive more sales volume through them). However, given how anemic same store sales growth was in fiscal years 2010 and 2011, it’s fair to conclude that new stores were responsible for most of its added revenue. 

The bigger point is, however, that there exists some sort of gravitational pull – governed by the natural constraints of a physical world – that pulls store-based retailers back toward that 1:1 limitation on scale. Even if they do better than 1:1 for some time (say a ten percent increase in number of stores increases revenue 50 percent), gravity will pull down that ratio over the long haul.