Is copying Amazon.com the brightest idea for your business?

There are these interesting strategic meetings in companies where I’m pretty sure one of you may have heard this from some corner of the room – Why don’t we copy what Amazon is doing? Why re-invent the wheel? They set the standard anyways.

I’ve heard it before in team meetings or from people I’ve had casual conversations with. After all, there seems to be some truth in what they are saying. Amazon.com is by far the most successful e-commerce retailer in the World. What they did for the website became a standard that others were forced to adopt in the market. For example, until they did something amazing with product recommendations, it wasn’t considered even as a bad idea. A product recommendation engine was merely ignored. It has now become a standard for any e-commerce website. When Amazon prime was launched, the cacophony in the US market was remarkable. Everyone wanted to do a “prime”, but they just couldn’t figure out how to do it even reasonably well for a small loss.

Are Amazon.com’s highly talented bunch of Product Managers responsible for this constant innovation and out-of-the-box thinking that leads to these strong features on the website? It is a tough call to make without knowing the inner workings of the organization. If I had to take a guess, it is due to a coordinated top-down and left-right coordination across all teams in the organization in collectively delivering the desired outcome. The failure of one team is compensated for by the success of another team in getting things done. Product Managers are getting the execution details ironed out, while the business teams are working hard to make the structure work. In organizations where Product Management makes unilateral decisions or decisions are “handed out” to them, things start to fail.

When different stakeholders in a company come together to decide on a certain course of action, trying the tested is an easy remedy to follow. You are after all not introducing something new that a customer needs to learn, you are not surprising them, you can get it out into the market faster and you don’t have to bear the risk of any downfall. Logically speaking, if a website like Amazon is literally attracting more than half the number of internet consumers, it is nearly futile as a competitor to introduce something new as you are depending on a part or whole of those same consumers for your business.

Here is the catch though. Every consumer visits a website for a certain reason. By far, a customer visiting Walmart.com does so as they want to identify products as related to the “Walmart” brand offering. This can be translated from an aspiration standpoint as EDLP on products sold on the web. The reality could be a little dispersed, but the fact is that the Amazon customer is different from a Walmart customer. This customer may be fine seeing the same features or look and feel across both websites, but is looking for something more when they visit them separately. Multi-channel retailing became a very high strategic initiative when I worked at Walmart. It was for a reason very obvious but yet took long to implement. Playing to your strength is what keeps you going. We introduced a program called “Pick Up Today” primarily for that reason. Why wouldn’t you use a store network of 3000+ stores to your advantage, to Amazon.com’s disadvantage and the customer’s benefit. Walmart and for that matter any other retailer with a dual presence in the offline and online world have a strong message for Amazon. However, the challenges these companies are fighting are more to do with internal roadblocks that are not easy to clear. Departments that worked with clockwork precision to deliver results in stores cannot go online or mobile overnight.

So, if blindly copying features is a bad idea, then how about copying the look and feel of the website. Amazon.com is probably the most cluttered website one can ever find. Nothing in the website talks beautifully well about the user interface or design applied. It screams out loud the question, “do we really need a beautiful, well designed website to make money?”. However, it has worked beautifully well for its customers. Jeff Bezos never seems to be worried about how beautiful his web store looks. Very similar to the way Sam Walton never cared about the beauty of the Walmart store, but cared about what it sold within it. Both leaders seem to have a similar viewpoint on one shopping aspect of the customer- if you give the customer what she wants, she will forget about how she got it. This is similar to how passengers get very impatient and fidgety while waiting for their flights in beautiful, well serviced airports. They don’t care about how the airport is. They care about getting on to that delayed flight and going home early. It is not the airport that they care about. It is the flight that they are concerned about. They are paying  money for the flight, not for the stay in the airport. But yet, we see millions of dollars being spent on creating huge, luxurious airports for the comfort of the passenger. I have seen people look at Amazon’s checkout process and say, “let’s do this. It looks perfect”. Now, while there is nothing imperfect about Amazon’s checkout, it does bother you with a lot of information to digest. Things like detailed delivery timelines, benefits of using an Amazon credit card or benefits of using prime are all additional snippets of information generously sprayed everywhere. Only a seasoned shopper at Amazon can navigate that mess without being distracted and still make a purchase. Luckily for Amazon, they have plenty of such shoppers. You and I don’t have that luxury with our shoppers.

So, if the look and feel is also something that is not worth copying, then what else should we do? isn’t the shortest path to product management or business success centered around getting workable things out the door faster. If so, isn’t copying the best the easy way out? Yes, it is still true that copying (or let’s say being inspired by) the best player in the market helps your business in turn. The reason is not necessarily because we have copied it well, it is because we are looking at our competition, figuring out where the majority of our target customers shop, see what they are shopping, see how they are shopping and provide the same tools more or less to help them out. All this is being done ignorantly by us while we copy the market leader and its offerings.

If we indeed need to copy Amazon.com, or be inspired by it, we should look at the way they are looking at their shoppers. Understand if these shoppers intersect with our business. If they do, we look at what our internal strengths are and see if we can build something better (or at worst similar) to Amazon.com. Doing that will help us realize where we truly stand in the market and how many customers are truly loyal to our brand. It also sets you apart as a Product Manager and as a person seriously in the business of making product work.

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