The March 2021 issue of The Atlantic contains an essay by Vauhini Vara on a topic which we have all widely heard: Amazon’s growth has been bad for many Americans. Almost as often, I find articles in business magazines that take the opposite view, extolling the company’s efficiency, convenience, customer service, low-cost goods, and strategic acumen. Both approaches conclude that Amazon threatens “the end of retail” as we know it.
Pro or con, one premise goes unquestioned: for the foreseeable future, Amazon’s position as the pinnacle of retail marketing is unassailable. However, those who subscribe to this conventional wisdom would do well to recall what Stanford University Professor Francis Fukuyama once confidently and widely embraced, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall: an assertion that we had reached “the end of history” at the close of the Cold War. Clearly we had done nothing of the kind. I contend that those who see Amazon as “the end of retail” are making a similar mistake.
As I have written before, the Covid-19 pandemic has ushered in a Second Consumer Revolution whose impact few have fully grasped. Expectations have shifted and will continue to shift. At the heart of this change is what I call Social Retail Marketing (SRM), in which consumers will effortlessly make purchases without leaving their social media feeds to visit a website or open an app. In a world growing ever more impatient, that distinction will soon have outsized implications, outgrowing Amazon’s huge retail sales.
Amazon purchases that seem frictionless now, will soon be spurned as laborious and inconvenient.
Clearly Amazon’s achievements are impressive. In January 2020, Fortunereported that the company had more than 156 million Prime users worldwide. But compare that to the the five most popular social media networks: each having more than 1.2 billion users, all potential SRMconsumers. Our brains have not evolved to distinguish differences on this scale with much precision, so take a moment to consider the following: a million seconds is 12 days; a billion seconds is 31 years.
To buy something in Amazon requires three steps: open the app, search for the product, and buy it. My vision for SRM is much more direct. Say you’re watching a video on YouTube and you see a guy wearing a leather jacket. It looks good. You want it. In an optimized SRM experience, you simply click on the jacket and two hours later it’s at your house in your size. You’re wearing it as you go out to dinner.
Many people ask, “What could be easier than Amazon?” The answer is SRM, which is Amazon without the app.
Now you may think this convenience is trivial. But I maintain that it is not, especially in what I call The Impatience Economy. Consumers want it now, they don’t want to wait even for next day delivery. This is an age when a product named SlyDial allows you to suppress the recipient’s ringtone, so you go directly to voicemail and avoid time-wasting conversations. Don’t have time to read a book? No problem: you can listen to it on Audible at 3.5 times the speed of the original recording. And if even that verbal deluge is too slow, you can use a product like Blinkist to give you a 15-minute summary of Thomas Pikkety’s 816-page Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
Given the demand for these kinds of time-sparing products, why wouldn’t we expect users to be deterred by the added step of having to work through a website or an app? Why wouldn’t they prefer a direct, less annoying, more time-efficient, faster, familiar approach using social media?
Recent trends show that consumers are sick of cluttering up their mobile screens with app icons and are deleting them.
The SRM approach I’m advocating enables consumers to continue deleting apps. How? By moving the retail and marketing channel inside social media and messaging app streams. Think about it. No one spends hours and hours each day in the Amazon app. But that’s exactly what billions of consumers do with Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp, and other social media and messaging platforms.
Don’t misunderstand me: Amazon is awesome. As Brad Stone says in his excellent analysis of the company’s history, Amazon is “the everything store.” But “store” is telling here. We’ve entered a new paradigm, one in which the company has to go to the customer rather than the other way around. And Amazon hasn’t really done that. It’s changed the brick-and-mortar retail experience, but the onus is still on customers to download the app, go to the website, and search for what they want. They still need to go to Amazon. It’s not coming to them. To me that falls far short of the company’s goal of being the world’s most “customer-centric company.”
And that failure provides an opportunity for innovative companies who adopt the SRM approach. Reach, sell, and serve billions of customers inside social media.
What can be bigger than Amazon? Social Retail Marketing!