Amazon stores struggle to move from the cloud to solid ground

Looking for new kingdoms to conquer, Amazon is aggressively moving into physical retail locations. This time the e-commerce giant may face tougher competition.

The lavish financial success and enormous influence Amazon exerts in the online world has hardly dulled the giant's ambitions to replicate that success in the physical world.

In just the past two years, the company has established an array of Amazon stores, through both acquisitions and its own startups, that attempt to reach consumers in more targeted and personal ways to win their hearts and, as importantly, their wallets.

"Jeff Bezos [Amazon CEO] realized he needed to push his distribution strategy further down the stack with physical stores in locations where he can attract a lot of foot traffic," said Guy Courtin, a former vice president of industry strategy at Infor. "These physical locations not only allow more direct contact with his customers, but they work hand in glove with their highly automated warehouses. These warehouses, another type of physical location, are used like inventory dispensaries, or what I call 'dark stores'," he said.

Since 2017 Amazon has launched Amazon Books stores; Amazon 4-star stores; Amazon Go cashierless convenience stores and pop-up stores throughout the country. It acquired Whole Foods Market for $13.4 billion and plans to greatly expand its chain of grocery stores over the next few years. Amazon also signed a deal with Kohl's to handle returns from Amazon online customers free of charge and has moved into the delivery business where, even now, it delivers more of its own products to customers than its distribution partners.

Amazon Books

In its financial report for the third quarter ended Sept. 30, 2019, Amazon reported that sales for its online stores were $35.0 billion, up 21% from last year's third quarter. Sales from its physical stores for the third quarter were $4.2 billion, down 1% compared with the same period last year.

Company officials explained the slower growth to changes made earlier this year in how it accounted for calendar days in the wake of the Whole Foods acquisition, along with a shift in delivery and pick up orders to the online sales component of that revenue.

Amazon Go

Whether Amazon eventually dominates the physical retail world as completely as it has the e-commerce world remains very much an open question for some analysts. Most of the Amazon stores launched so far are very much works in progress, still being fine-tuned in terms of the products and services they offer, their market positioning and even their business model.

"Amazon is doing a lot of testing to find out what the next big bucket piece is for them," said Thomas O'Connor, principal research analyst at Gartner in Sydney, Australia. "Whole Foods gave them some insights into what it's like to operate a large-scale store operation. But the bigger challenge remains, what is the right next step and where does the best profitability lie for them," he said.

So far, Amazon's aggressive push into the physical world hasn't caused competitors to lose much sleep. In the opinion of some industry analysts, a few of its major competitors have responded smartly to Amazon's moves.

"Walmart and Target have figured out it costs less to ship from their own stores, which is something Amazon can't really do yet," said Bob Phibbs, CEO of The Retail Doctor, a consultancy in New York. "Most online brands realize they need brick-and-mortar stores to make money, but the fear of Amazon being in physical spaces is much lower than the fear of their domination in the e-commerce."

Analysts are split, for instance, on exactly what the strategic purpose the Amazon Books stores serve, which, like the Amazon 4-star and Amazon Go stores, have contributed very little to the top or bottom lines. Ironically, selling books online was Amazon's first business back in 1994, which put many physical bookstores out of business.

Whole Foods Market

Gartner's O'Connor notes the dozen or so Amazon Books stores in operation today are located in high-traffic areas and serve as a way to increase Amazon's overall brand awareness in those areas.

"We see [Amazon Books] being used almost as an advertising point for their broader businesses," O'Connor said. "They can also take a more targeted approach to an assortment of products within those stores for things like Alexa-styled devices," he said.

The same goes for Amazon 4-star stores, O'Connor said, noting that the eight operating stores, with four more coming in 2020, can be used to experiment with business models to run such stores, including bringing some capabilities and methods from Amazon's online operations to the physical stores.

One of the things Amazon is good at is getting a lot of early hype and awareness, but then doing a slow build out following that. That seems to be what they are going after with the 4-star and Go stores.
Thomas O'ConnorPrincipal research analyst, Gartner

The 4-star stores only offer a subset of best-selling products from across Amazon's portfolio from consumer electronics, to books, to toys. Amazon decides what products to stock in each store based on surveys conducted among regular Amazon customers who reside within a five-mile radius of a given store.

"This increases the chances of people seeing something in the store they like and buying it," Courtin said. "Essentially, Amazon is taking a subsegment of its warehouse and pushing it out to touch consumers in yet another way," Courtin said.

O'Connor adds that while most of Amazon's physical stores are off to a slow start, one should not write them off.

"One of the things Amazon is good at is getting a lot of early hype and awareness, but then doing a slow build out following that," he said. "That seems to be what they are going after with the 4-star and Go stores."

Amazon stores serve multiple purposes

Amazon's biggest investment in physical locations was the $13.4 billion it spent acquiring Whole Foods. The acquisition gives Amazon over 505 physical stores in the U.S., Canada and England, and is by far the most profitable among all of its physical stores. One of the benefits Amazon gained through the acquisition is a new and huge audience to sell its $99-a-year Prime membership service to.

The acquisition also neatly complements the company's aggressive expansion of its warehouses by bringing Amazon in closer proximity to its shoppers. Many Whole Foods locations now process returns from Amazon online customers, simplifying the returns process and drawing more foot traffic to Whole Foods stores.

Kohl's has a similar deal to partner with Amazon on processing the returns of online purchases across its 1,100 stores. Kohl's recently reported that since the program started in July, foot traffic across its stores is up 24%, although there has been no appreciable increase of in-store sales. Commenting recently in a public statement, however, Kohl's officials said the agreement has proved to be its "single biggest initiative" of 2019.

But even with the Whole Foods acquisition and plans to significantly expand its fledgling grocery chain of stores over the next couple of years, Amazon may find its stiffest competition in the market. Since Amazon began its concerted push into the retail grocery market, well-resourced competitors, including Walmart and Target, have stepped up their game to match some of Amazon's offerings, such as curbside pickup of online orders.

"Walmart and Target have found a bit more of their footing in the last 12 months in their competition with Amazon," O'Connor said. "But the big challenge for Walmart will be what happens to their online growth when they finish their rollouts of curbside pickup across their stores in North America. Can they maintain that growth rate once the curbside service is fully rolled out?"

One advantage Amazon holds over competitors like Walmart is the data it can collect on customers coming in and out of their physical locations, especially in its grocery stores.

"Amazon owns their own data, so they can mine it anyway they want. This is why the grocery business is a big deal to them," Phibbs said. "Once [they] get into someone's shopping cart, they know how many kids you have, they know who is sick or old -- the more [they] can segment those shoppers into targeted offerings. Ultimately, data is their real strength."

Amazon is not the first successful web-only company to make a concerted push to establish physical locations to further its financial fortunes. Companies Warby Parker and Casper have also established physical stores and/or signed deals with large brick-and-mortar retailers to either put pop-up stores within the retailer's stores or install drop boxes for customer returns.

But giving Amazon due credit as a visionary, Courtin recalled a 1999 briefing with Jeff Bezos when Bezos reportedly said he was in the process of working out a deal with Starbucks to put Amazon return lockers in their stores.

"With research he realized the majority of Amazon customers were also Starbucks customers," Courtin said. "He wasn't so much interested in investing in physical locations then, but he knew he had to make it easier for customers to return items. He was a couple of decades ahead of everyone."

Amazon fulfillment centers, robotics and labor practices

Whatever success physical locations might have will be tied to the increasing number of mammoth warehouses Amazon continues to build in both thickly settled urban areas such as New York City and sparsely populated rural areas. Such facilities, especially in the inner city, allow the company to quickly deliver goods to tens of thousands of Amazon Prime customers in one to two hours, bolstering an already lucrative business that some analyst believe is worth $20 billion.

"Fulfillment centers such as the one in Staten Island allow Amazon to guarantee quick delivery because they know many Prime customers are only a few blocks away," Courtin said. "That's an important competitive advantage to have in a massive market like New York City."

In 2012, Amazon bought warehouse robot maker Kiva Systems, now called Amazon Robotics, which the company deployed across many of its warehouses. These robots can swiftly transport up to 1,500 pounds of goods on pallets from one location to another, where eventually they are placed on chutes to conveyer belts. Very few, if any, humans are involved across the entire process.

Still, even with AI- driven robots and other sophisticated automated warehouse processes, employees are still being overworked with reports of health issues; one 48-year-old production line worker reportedly collapsed and died of a heart attack. He laid on the warehouse floor for 20 minutes before fellow workers assisted him for fear of slowing production. Six workers have died at Amazon facilities since November 2018, according to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. That organization names Amazon among its "Dirty Dozen" companies for putting workers at risk.

"The past few months Amazon has had some pretty bad press about their labor practices," said one analyst who did not want to be named. "The community feel that the bookstores are going for, along with the TV ad campaign encouraging people to visit their warehouses and see how well they treat employees, is designed to soften the image of this behemoth trying to crush all retailers."

The high profit margins derived from Amazon's AWS cloud division and being plowed into Amazon stores will give the company added time to experiment and refine its various ventures, but ultimately it will come down to basic blocking and tackling.

"At the end of the day it's brutal to be profitable and to execute brilliantly in the brick-and-mortar business," Phibbs said. "Right now, I can't give [Amazon] the same grade for their brick-and-mortar prowess as their online prowess."

An Amazon spokesperson did not respond to request for comment.

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