Amazon as frenemy: What’s on the minds of top retailers today

Last week, nearly 200 executives from retail startups and long-standing brands joined us in Napa, California, for the Digiday Retail Summit to talk through their biggest challenges.

In town hall-style discussions and small-group meetings, they discussed the issues weighing on their minds: Amazon, internal roadblocks, conversion, customer acquisition and conquering “cross-channel.”

Here are some of the candid thoughts retailers shared on the topics.

‘Amazon’s a haters’ club.’
Executives considered Amazon’s pros, though wound up focusing on its cons. In the end, most agreed: It’s a bully.

“It’s not Amazon that’s changing things — things are just changing: The marketplace is changing. User expectations are changing. The retailers that can evolve will survive, and the rest will die. But Amazon’s not a threat.”

“We call Amazon a ‘frenemy’; we sell through our own site and through Amazon, and our customer prefers shopping our products through Amazon. That’s their choice, and that’s OK. For us, the challenge with Amazon is there’s no opportunity to tell our brand story.”

“Amazon is giving opportunities to small businesses that don’t have large reaches or big budgets. Some folks I know are going to survive because of Amazon. For them, it’s definitely a plus.”

“Amazon’s a haters’ club. We were considering partnering with them, but we felt like we were being bullied. They were like, ‘We own this space — you can either hop on or not.’”

“Amazon can be a useful acquisition tool. We currently have five or six products on there for that reason.”

“It’s price-driven, so for a luxury brand, it’s not a fit. It doesn’t offer the same story, feeling or service of a luxury brand. It’s got work to do to get there.”

“If you partner with Amazon, they’re going to use you to learn everything they can. We did, and they built a private brand much like ours, using the same factory.”

“With brands like Nike now selling on Amazon, it’s almost impossible for fashion brands not to cave.”

“Amazon only does what it does for Amazon, and that’s the problem with Amazon.”

Are influencers worth it?
What are the best ways to monetize social media? Retailers shared concerns about whether their marketing dollars are being well spent, and all talk turned to influencer marketing.

“We use an affiliated marketing tool that’s been helpful in tracking the performance of unique blog posts and unique Instagram posts, where we can tag a product and see how many transactions it drives in a certain period.”

“We think about [Instagram] more along the lines of traditional media than a means to conversion; for us, it’s a broadcast channel, rather than a digital channel. We’re tracking things like media value and impressions delivered.”

“We’ve had the most democratic conversations about influencers, which are so subjective. Lately, though, we’ve been better able to track their success — and our ROI.”

“It’s not how many followers an influencer has, it’s how that influencer fits with your brand: the way they speak, their vibe. Without authenticity, don’t bother.”

“Our influencer activations are mostly about content creation, but we’re trying to track conversion on them. It’s more about driving traffic and getting new members to sign on than sales.”

Acquiring customers takes work.
Social media is just one way to draw shoppers. Executives are exploring strategies in other channels, as a loyal customer base is crucial to success in today’s retail landscape.

“Do what works for you, rather than what everyone else is doing. By trying new things, we discovered an effective tool for attracting new shoppers: podcast advertisements.”

“It’s much more cost-efficient to keep customers than it is to earn new ones. You’ve got to build those relationships while you can.”

‘There’s got to be more education’ on the executive level.
Retailers revealed that the biggest obstacles are often in-house.

“The way to keep up with the modern consumer is to understand trends in real time and also execute. Things need to be upended and disputed — maybe take two or three months to roll out and not a year. We live in a digital age where everything changes quickly; consumer tastes change very quickly. Millennials have taught us that, in terms of the way they adopt new products and new technologies, and the way they talk about them and consume them.”

“Finding executive leadership that has an experience and understanding of what’s happening today and how the market’s changing today is really hard. You want them to have 20 years of experience, but the playbook they’re bringing to the table is really outdated, and it’s hard to retrain people. I’ve had some great mentors, but they’ve become completely obsolete to me at this point. They don’t understand that what worked 15 years ago, even two years ago, doesn’t work today.”

“It’s a big organization issue. Getting anything implemented requires so many checks and balances, it’s mind-blowing. A lot of organizations are trying to remedy this by creating small groups and innovation labs. The goal is to make changes quickly, then move on.”

“Just weeks ago, I had a senior executive walk over to my desk and say, ‘So, hashtags — what are they?’ That sparked an internal lunch-and-learn program for senior executives. There’s got to be more education.”

More channels, more data
Multichannel is not enough. Providing cross-channel and omnichannel experiences is the new norm — but nobody said it’s easy.

“We have a mobile app that we’ve had a lot of success with. Essentially, it’s a loyalty program attached to a piece of technology that offers the customer convenience and ease of ordering. It has truly helped our brick-and-mortar locations with labor overhead and managing busy times of the day. There are so many pros to introducing technology that connects the online and offline.”

“Mobile apps are the only way we’ve been able to connect [the in-store and online experiences]. We created an engagement-based app that’s connected to AR activations that are in-store, online and on our print mail. It has literally revived our print mail experience. We’re looking for a partner that can help us take it to the next level.”

“The thing we’d love to see is in-store personalization at scale. We can put it in major markets, but then all the other markets say, ‘What about us?’ So, it actually does more harm than good from a media PR standpoint. We haven’t been able to find a sustainable, cost-efficient way to do it across stores.”

“We’re trying to work with the data we’ve collected online and in store, but it’s a lot of data. It’s really hard to understand what’s valuable.”