Why Amazon Bought Whole Foods: To Beat Walmart

Why did Amazon buy Whole Foods? To beat Walmart in the war for the on-demand grocery shopper.

As announced June 16, Amazon and Whole Foods have agreed that Amazon will acquire Whole Foods Market for $42 per share in an all-cash transaction valued at approximately $13.7 billion. Whole Foods will operate under its own name. The acquisition will give Amazon ownership of 460 stores in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom as well as Whole Food’s built-in ecosystems of customers and suppliers.

Amazon’s expansion into brick-and-mortar grocery industry is well known (as is the company’s general encroachment into offline retail.) To date, Amazon’s strategy has been to build and pilot its own stores. So why would Amazon buy a chain of grocery stores rather than develop its own? I believe Walmart is forcing Amazon to accelerate its expansion.

Chronology of a Retail War

As I have blogged, Amazon and Walmart are in an intense fight to own the future of retail, including the $600 billion grocery industry. Both businesses are racing to win loyalty from the on-demand consumer who expects a frictionless buying experience both online and in the store:

  • Amazon has been piloting its own models for using physical stores to provide on-demand grocery services, examples being the launch of Amazon Go and Amazon Fresh Pickup. Amazon Go is supposed to provide a completely frictionless buying experience via physical self-service grocery stores where anyone with an Amazon account, a supported smartphone, and the Amazon Go app can simply take what they want from the store and leave with no check-out required. With AmazonFresh Pickup, customers can order groceries online and have their orders ready for pick-up at designated AmazonFresh Pickup physical locations — in as little as 15 minutes.
  • Walmart has been making moves of its own, some of which are aimed directly at the grocery-buying experience. In 2015 the company launched Walmart Pay, which shoppers use on their mobile devices to purchase goods in-store. In 2016, Walmart’s began piloting Pickup and Fuel concept stores, where customers order online and then drive to Walmart to have their groceries loaded into their cars by employees. These developments have occurred in context of Walmart developing a stronger way to battle Amazon by developing its own ecommerce business and to gain more efficiency through its offline infrastructure. For instance, in 2016, Walmart purchased hot ecommerce company Jet.com. In 2017, Walmart announced it has been testing a service whereby Walmart employees deliver packages to customers on their way home, which raises the possibility that employees could also deliver groceries.

Both Amazon and Walmart are in a strong position to win the war for the future of Continue reading

Is HomePod Apple’s Death Star in the Music Streaming Wars?

Apple’s newly announced HomePod smart speaker is more than Apple’s answer to Amazon Echo and Google Home in the battle for your home – it’s quite possibly Apple’s major advantage in the music streaming wars.

In unveiling the HomePod June 5 at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple announced that the voice-activated speaker will be a music-first experience that combines both the quality of high-fidelity Sonos speaker and the intelligent interface of the Amazon Echo – with a focus on providing users access to the Apple Music catalog. As Apple noted in a press release,

Designed to work with an Apple Music subscription for access to over 40 million songs, HomePod provides deep knowledge of personal music preferences and tastes and helps users discover new music.

At WWDC, Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook said the speaker has “amazing sound and incredible intelligence that will reinvent home music.”

Why the focus on a high-fidelity experience with an emphasis on music? One reason is that Apple wants to be the leading music streaming provider – badly. After disrupting the music industry through iTunes and the iPod, Apple found itself looking behind the times when consumer tastes shifted from downloading songs on iTunes to streaming them on apps such as Spotify. And looking outdated is strange ground for Apple. Apple’s desire to play catch up with streaming was a big reason why the company paid $3 billion for Beats in 2014. Months after buying Beats, Apple launched its own service, Apple Music, in 2015.

The good news for Apple is that within two years, Apple Music has become the Number Two streaming service as measured by paid subscribers. And these are heady times for streaming services such as Apple Music and Spotify. In 2016, for the first time ever, streaming music platforms generated the majority of the U.S. music industry’s revenues. As the RIAA noted, the biggest contributor to growth was a doubling of revenues from paid streaming services. But for Apple, there is also some bad news:

  • Amazon has been rapidly encroaching upon music streaming. It offers a limited service to Amazon Prime customers (Amazon Prime Music) and recently launched a subscription service, Amazon Music Unlimited.

Spotify and Amazon are significant competitors with their own strengths and weaknesses:

  • Spotify enjoys the strong brand affiliation with music, its customer base, and outstanding personalized playlists, but the company is losing money.

  • Amazon enjoys an advantage with its deep pockets and the popularity of Echo speaker, which provide a natural platform for streaming music. But Amazon Music Unlimited is an upstart (and Amazon Prime Music is a feature of Amazon Prime, not a pure streaming service, per se).

The Echo factor is big. Echo has experienced astounding growth to dominate the market for voice-activated home speakers, as people become more comfortable with the voice interface. It’s like a Swiss Army knife for doing everything from controlling the temperature in your home to ordering products.

And in addition, Echo is also a platform for playing music through voice commands (“Play the new Lorde song”), something Spotify does not offer. In 2017, according to eMarketer, 35.6 million Americans will use a voice-activated assistant device at least once a month, and 71 percent of them will use Echo. (Google Home has the second highest marketshare behind Echo, at 24 percent, but Google does not release user figures for its Google Play streaming service.)

No wonder Amazon offers Amazon Music Unlimited at its lowest price to owners of Amazon Echo speakers: Echo is a Trojan Horse for Amazon’s music streaming product.

But Swiss Army knives, while being useful, are not great at everything. The Echo is not engineered specifically to listen to music. HomePod is. At WWDC, Apple Senior Vice President of Global Marketing Phil Schiller said that HomePod will provide the high quality of a Sonos speakers and the smart interface of the Echo.

“These aren’t smart speakers, Schiller said of Sonos. “They don’t sound so great when you listen to music,” he said of the Echo. But HomePod will sound great and act as a home musicologist, he said.

He indicated that the HomePod will make it possible for consumers to call up music using complex voice searches and then listen to music through a product that provides state-of-the-art sound including spatial awareness, which adjusts the audio depending on where you are sitting in the room.

But the ace in the hole is the integration with Apple Music. As Apple announced,

By saying, “Hey Siri, I like this song,” HomePod and Apple Music become the perfect musicologist, learning preferences from hundreds of genres and moods, across tens of thousands of playlists, and these music tastes are shared across devices. Siri can also handle advanced searches within the music library, so users can ask questions like “Hey Siri, who’s the drummer in this?” or create a shared Up Next queue with everyone in the home. HomePod, Apple Music and Siri deliver the best music experience in the home that streams ad-free directly to HomePod.

HomePod will also provide the same functionality as Echo, providing functions ranging from turning on the lights in your home to providing sports and weather information.

The HomePod should be available in December at a cost of $349, a cost that is significantly higher than Amazon Echo and Google’s own Home speaker. By pricing the HomePod at the high end, Amazon is banking on consumers:

  • Accepting Apple’s position as a premium brand.
  • Caring enough to pay more for better sound.
  • Subscribing to Apple Music because it’s so easy to listen to music with voice commands on HomePod. (I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple offers an incentive for bundling Apple Music paid subscriptions and HomePod.)

It’s an interesting bet. Consumers have been indifferent to sound quality on mobile devices, not caring enough about sound quality to buy high-end mobile streaming products such as Pono. Meanwhile in the home environment, the growth and popularity of Sonos speakers for years showed that people would pay for premium sound  – but then Amazon’s encroachment on Sonos suggest that consumers were willing to sacrifice the fidelity of Sonos for the convenience of Echo. And now Apple believes consumers will do the same with HomePod.

Apple won’t put a dent in Echo’s 71-percent market share anytime soon, but Apple doesn’t need to. Apple is not offering a utility that competes on price as Echo does. Apple is selling a high-end experience first and utility second. Apple Music is central to that experience. Will HomePod be a catalyst for Apple Music to eat into Spotify’s lead?

Let Us Now Praise Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos is the Abraham Lincoln of the business world: he doesn’t let critics stop him from making history.

The success of the Amazon Echo encapsulates his resiliency perfectly. eMarketer recently reported that Echo owns more than 70 percent of the market for voice-assisted devices, whose usage grew nearly 130 percent in 2016. During 2017, 35.6 million Americans will use voice-activated assistants at least once a month, which means 25 million of them will use Echo. And during the 2016 holiday season, Amazon sold nine times as many Echo devices as it did the year before. But the ascendance of Echo was hardly assured when Amazon launched the product in November 2014.

In fact, Amazon’s Echo caused a good deal of criticism, ranging from concerns about violations of personal privacy to skepticism over its value to do anything useful for its owners.

Echo Faces a Rocky Start

The Echo surfaced at a time when Bezos was fielding taking heat for the failure of the Amazon Fire phone, which Amazon had released earlier in 2014. And although the Echo made some positive impressions coming out of the gate, the product didn’t exactly overwhelm the media influencers. The voice-activated speaker inspired bemused reactions from publications that were not quite sure what to make of it, including The Verge, which described Echo as “a crazy speaker that talks to you.” An analyst at Wedbush Securities told Bloomberg, “I think it’s just a two-way speaker, but why isn’t there an app that lets me do the same thing without having to spend $99 on hardware? I think this is a solution that is seeking a problem.” And Consumer Reports criticized the Echo for being too rudimentary.

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Amazon and Walmart Fight for the On-Demand Grocery Shopper

On March 28, Amazon fired a shot in its war with Walmart to define the future of the $600 billion grocery industry. The world’s biggest online retailer announced the beta launch of AmazonFresh Pickup, an on-demand grocery service. With AmazonFresh Pickup, customers can order groceries online and have their orders ready for pick-up at designated AmazonFresh Pickup physical locations — in as little as 15 minutes.

The service is a clear response to Walmart’s limited rollout of Pickup and Fuel concept stores, where customers order online and then drive to Walmart to have their groceries loaded into their cars by employees.

Both businesses are racing to win loyalty from the on-demand consumer.

The rise of the on-demand consumer is one of the compelling trends defining the 21st Century economy. As Google has reported, we’re living in the era of the micro-moment, when consumers, armed with mobile devices and apps, can research and purchase goods and services on their own time and terms. On-demand businesses such as Uber have acted as important catalysts. Uber, for all its flaws, demonstrated the power of responding to mobile consumers with an easy-to-use app that provides a service on demand, and the company has had a profound impact across many industries. Businesses ranging from Panera Bread to 7-Eleven have responded to the on-demand consumer with services such as online ordering and drone delivery.

The grocery industry is well suited to an on-demand model. People need to restock groceries often, and obviously perishable goods have a limited shelf life. But as writer Mark Rogowksy notes in Forbes, the on-demand grocery model has been fraught with its share of failure, one of the reasons being that grocery delivery is not as “on-demand” as it sounds. In fact, it’s a lot easier for mobile consumers to order and pick up groceries on the go rather than wait around in their homes for delivery. Hence, Walmart has been experimenting with the Pickup and Fuel stores. Walmart launched the stores in late 2016 amid speculation that the giant retailer had found a way to battle the ongoing Amazon threat.

At about the same time Walmart began experimenting with Pickup and Fuel, Amazon made headlines with the beta launch of Amazon Go, which consists of physical self-service grocery stores where anyone with an Amazon account, a supported smartphone, and the Amazon Go app can simply take what they want from the store and leave with no check-out required. The flagship Amazon Go store is open exclusively to Amazon employees, and so far the frictionless shopping model has encountered glitches as the in-store technology struggles to keep pace with consumer foot traffic when the Amazon Go store gets busy. Amazon has delayed the launch of a public-ready Amazon Go. But as Amazon has demonstrated with its latest announcement, Amazon has many more cards to play.

Both Amazon and Walmart are in a strong position to lead the on-demand grocery business. They both have brand muscle and deep pockets. Amazon is crushing Walmart (and everyone else) in online retailing, and Amazon is successfully moving into our homes and cars with on-demand devices and technologies such as the Dash button and Alexa voice assistant, which make Amazon a more ubiquitous and convenient presence in our lives, as Google strives to be. Walmart, though, possesses many advantages, including scale and a powerful physical ecosystem that includes not only its stores but network of partners, over whom Walmart wields considerable power.

Walmart also has an uncanny knack to experiment and learn. For example, in 2015 the company launched Walmart Pay to make it possible for shoppers to use their mobile devices to check out and purchase goods, and in 2016, Walmart expanded Walmart Pay across 4,600 stores. Walmart has quickly added services to Walmart Pay that cater to the needs of on-demand consumers, such as the ability for shoppers to refill prescriptions and skip pharmacy lines. Here is a company that understands the intersection of the mobile and physical worlds.

In coming months, Amazon and Walmart will continue to claw their way for leadership. And who will win? The on-demand consumer. With each innovation, Amazon and Walmart are reshaping the grocery industry around the needs of mobile consumers — which is good news for shoppers and the businesses that possess the means to service them on shoppers’ own terms.

Image source: Matthew Kane (https://unsplash.com/@matthewkane)

Amazon Wants to Be Your Personal Stylist

Amazon sure knows how to keep everyone off balance. While retailers are figuring out how to use automated chatbots to service customers, Amazon is pushing a new personal styling feature that relies on the human touch.

The Launch of Outfit Compare

Days ago, Amazon began to make available to Prime members a service called Outfit Compare. With Outfit Compare, Amazon Prime members receive advice from Amazon on their style choices. The service works like this:

  • Amazon Prime customers may post two photos of themselves wearing different outfits of interest to them.
  • An Amazon stylist then gives feedback on which outfit looks better on the customer. The stylist provides feedback based on factors ranging from what’s trending to what looks best on you. The stylist uses a style scale in voting for the preferred option, ranging from “Definitely Pick This One!” to “It was a close call.”

And according to Amazon, your stylist is a real person, not a bot. Amazon says that Outfit Compare “is powered by a team of fashion specialists” whose backgrounds include retail, editorial, and styling.

Throughout the past week, a number of journalists have reported on the launch and have tested it. So far the coverage of Outfit Compare includes a fair bit of incredulous head scratching, such as:

  • How Amazon corralled a team of fashionistas to help people in a stylistic funk is a weird question. It’s unclear whether there’s any sort of automation at play — because it’s hard to imagine a team of stylists eagerly waiting just to dress you. — Sam Blum, Thrillist.
  • It’s not immediately clear how this feature will boost Amazon’s bottom line in the near-term. — Sarah Perez, TechCrunch.
  • Amazon has added what might be the strangest feature for Prime members yet . . . Outfit Compare is a fun tool to mess around with, but it’s unclear what exactly Amazon gets out of it. — Chaim Gartenberg, The Verge.

Those comments remind me of the bemused reactions when Amazon rolled out the Dash button in 2015. The Dash button seemed so out of the blue that many thought its launch was an April Fool’s joke. But two years later, Amazon says the list of brands signing up for the Dash program include Campbell’s Soup, Cascade, Clif Bar, Mentos, and Quilted Northern, to name but a few. All told, more than 200 Dash buttons exist.

In other words, Amazon is not just messing around.

Amazon’s Fashion Aspirations

So then what does Amazon get out of rating customers’ style habits? I think Amazon is using Outfit Compare to figure out how to create a more effective balance between human judgment and personalization through technology. Why? To become a true fashion brand.

Amazon clearly wants to become a fashion brand. The company operates Amazon Fashion, which bills itself as “a one-stop destination for head-to-toe style.” Its moves to build up its fashion business also include, among other things, consulting with fashionistas such as Julie Gilhart (formerly the fashion director for Barneys New York) and hiring Caroline Palmer, formerly Vogue.com editor, as director of Editorial, Video, and Social Media for Amazon Fashion.

Amazon has already launched seven private-label clothing brands, and Amazon is poised to become the largest clothing retailer in the United States. But selling a lot of clothing and being a fashion brand are two different things. Successful fashion brands build trust by possessing a sense of style and curating style appropriately. And as reported by Business Insider, Amazon gets lukewarm customer reviews for style curation.

Stitch Fix Shows the Way

I suspect Amazon is watching Stitch Fix to learn about style curation. Stitch Fix is an online style recommendation service. The site uses artificial intelligence to analyze and recommend personal style options to its customers based on a variety of data, including information reported by customers. Personal stylists analyze the AI-based recommendations and then assemble a customized package of clothing, which is delivered to the customer. Customers can always return what they don’t want — in fact, returns help Stitch Fix’s AI engine get smarter.

One Stitch Fix stylist explained to Computerworld the human/AI dynamic this way:

When a client fills out a profile and is ready to be styled, we are able to see what the algorithm is suggesting based on the data collected from her profile — everything from sizing to location, geography, body type, fabric preferences, colors and pattern preferences. It helps to not have to worry about the broad strokes of what a client does not want. Then we can make creative decisions about what will fit her body and her lifestyle.

By contrast, without AI, a stylist might need weeks of working with a client to come up with the best recommendations.

So far, the combination of AI and human judgment has made Stitch Fix so successful that more than 80 percent of its clients come back for a another delivery within 90 days, and one third spend more than half their clothing wallet share on Stitch Fix. Stitch Fix has achieved a valuation of $300 million since its founding in 2011 and is reportedly considering an IPO.

Amazon is already known for using AI to power its product recommendations. But the launch of Outfit Compare suggests that to become a fashion brand, Amazon realizes it needs to apply more than algorithms. It looks to me that Amazon is learning from Stitch Fix to apply the human touch. Amazon is a fast learner. And what Amazon wants, Amazon usually gets.

Amazon Dashes to the On-Demand Economy

Sometimes change wears an awkward smile. When Amazon launched Dash buttons for instant re-ordering of products in 2015, the idea seemed so goofy that some considered the announcement to be an April Fool’s Day joke. Amazon actually expected people to affix WiFi-enabled hardware devices to any object in our homes so that we could restock on diapers and detergent with the simple touch of a button?

But Amazon was deadly serious. The Dash buttons, available to Amazon Prime members, have taken off. According to Amazon, Dash button orders occur over twice a minute, and for many popular items, more than half of orders are done via Dash buttons. The list of brands signing up for the program include Campbell’s Soup, Cascade, Clif Bar, Mentos, and Quilted Northern, to name but a few. All told, more than 200 Dash buttons exist. They give consumers convenience; and for brands, revenue and access to consumer purchase data.

As it turns out, people find it useful to turn their appliances into smart objects. For instance, if you place a Tide Dash button on your laundry machine, you make it easier to restock on detergent at the precise moment when you realize you are running low, presumably when you are doing laundry with the machine nearby. All you need to do is click on the Dash button, which triggers the instant order. No muss, no fuss, no online shopping cart.

On January 20, Amazon officially expanded the use of Dash buttons on the Amazon home page. (Note the irony here: a business that started as an online retailer launched a physical product and brings it to the online world). You can create your virtual Dash button by choosing an “Add to Your Dash buttons” option on a product’s detail page — but Amazon is also creating them automatically for products you order often or have ordered recently. The buttons are available for both desktop and (more importantly) mobile use — thus turning your mobile phone into an all-purpose dash button.

The Dash buttons are succeeding because Amazon has tapped into a broader trend toward on-demand shopping and living. Uber famously triggered the advent of the on-demand economy with its convenient app that made traditional taxi services look antiquated. Now businesses ranging from Nordstrom to Walmart have been incorporating apps, drones, ride-sharing services, and other forms of on-demand ordering and delivering. According to the Harvard Business Review, the on-demand economy generates $57.6 billion and attracts 22 million consumers annually.

And mobile is crucial to the uptake of on-demand living.  Since 2013, consumers have preferred using their mobile devices over laptops and desktops to interact with retailers online. As Google has reported, we are increasingly using our mobile devices to decide what to do, where to go, and what to buy — and in on-demand fashion. For instance, half of consumers who conduct a local search on their smartphones visit a store within 24 hours.

Google calls these moments of instant decision making “micro-moments.” Amazon intends to capture its share of those micro-moments by making it easier to order products with our phones, which is where Dash buttons on our mobile phones come into play.

Apps such as Instagram and Pinterest have incorporated their own equivalent of Dash buttons, but none of succeeded like Amazon has. Why? Because Amazon had already established itself first as a strong product discovery shopping platform long before incorporating the Dash buttons. And it took years for Amazon to ingratiate itself into our buying habits. The Dash buttons would come later.

Amazon patiently embedded itself into our everyday routines by becoming a user-friendly platform for finding and buying things on our own terms. Dash buttons are just part of its strategy for making shopping an even more natural part of our lives:

  • Dash buttons on our laptops and home appliances for ordering via touch.
  • Alexa in Amazon Echo, automobiles, and phones for ordering via voice.

With Dash — and the much bigger Alexa — Amazon is leading the uptake of the on-demand economy everywhere through natural actions such as clicking and talking. No longer is Amazon a retail engine. It’s a lifestyle brand for the on-demand economy.

Related:

Why Voice Search Is the Future of the On-Demand Economy,” June 14, 2016.

This Is the World Uber Has Made,” June 7, 2016.

Welcome to a New Era of Convenience Shopping,” June 29, 2015.

 

Why Voice Search Is the Future of the On-Demand Economy

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Mobile gave rise to the on-demand economy. But voice search will fuel its future.

Google demonstrated how voice will form the foundation of an on-demand search ecosystem when Google announced the Google Assistant intelligent search tool at the company’s I/O event in May. Then Apple, at its Worldwide Developers Conference June 13, showcased a smarter and more ubiquitous Siri voice-activated intelligent agent for using our voices to do everything from order an Uber ride to make restaurant reservations. Both developments underscore how voice is rapidly shaping the way we research and buy in the moment.

On-Demand Everywhere

In a June 7 blog post, I discussed how mobile triggered an uptake in on-demand living by making it easier for consumers to use their phones to quickly find things to buy and places to visit. Google calls these moments of rapid decision making “micro-moments.” Uber sensed the popularity of micro-moments by launching its now wildly popular service through which we use mobile devices to get rides when we want them. Amid Uber’s ascendance, businesses ranging from Amazon to Walmart have embraced various models of on-demand commerce.

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