Thursday, November 13, 2014

Is Amazon shifting its Core Value Proposition from price to speed?

Two weeks ago, Amazon announced that it intends to build and open its first distribution center in Illinois. Currently, Amazon fulfills many orders to Illinois, including Chicago, from a distribution center in Indiana and others further away. Having a distribution center in Illinois would enable Amazon to provide next-day or even same-day delivery to Chicago customers. However, Amazon also agreed to collect sales tax from Illinois residents as a condition of opening a local distribution center; that effectively represents a 6.25% to 9.75% price increase, depending on the customer, municipality and product category.

Amazon's decision to open a distribution center near Chicago aligns with its recent decisions to open centers near other big cities, including Boston, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and New York Metro (all of which have been announced since September,) and collect sales taxes in those states. In addition, earlier today, Amazon announced an agreement with Hachette to sell its print books and eBooks, after months of public squabbling. The terms of the deal between the two companies are confidential, but both companies have confirmed that Hachette will have the ability to set its own prices for eBooks. That's in line with the agreement that Amazon reached with Simon & Schuster last month, which also gave that publisher the right to set eBook prices.

One other data point, this one anecdotal, is that I recently purchased some food products from Amazon. The company is moving aggressively into grocery sales and delivery with its AmazonFresh service in San Francisco, metro Los Angeles and Seattle. For customers in other areas, Amazon recently launched a service called Amazon Prime Pantry, which enables Amazon Prime members to order a limited selection of non-perishable items for a flat fee of $5.99 with 3-4 business day delivery. That also represents a price increase for Prime customers, who pay nothing for 2-day delivery of other products. I ordered one of the grocery products that didn't require Prime Pantry shipping, but I paid $17.99 for a product that I subsequently purchased for $4.79 from a local supermarket. You can safely assume that much of the price difference went for the "free" shipping.

So, we have multiple points of evidence that Amazon is willing to let its effective consumer prices increase. If that's true, it's a dramatic shift in the company's strategy, which has been to underprice its competition, much like Walmart's now-abandoned "Always the Low Price" strategy. However, if Amazon is willing to no longer be the low-price vendor, what's the tradeoff? Amazon's recent flurry of announcements suggests that it's speed of delivery, and possibly, the ability to provide same-day grocery delivery to the largest metropolitan markets. Amazon is signalling that it intends to offer next-day delivery to perhaps 90% of the continental U.S., and same-day delivery in as many as the 50 largest cities.

I discussed my hypothesis with one of my former clients, and he made a very important point: Anyone can offer the lowest price as long as they're willing to take losses; price is never an effective long-term differentiator. On the other hand, same-day delivery is a powerful differentiator, because it requires massive capital and labor investments that few competitors are willing or able to make. Amazon is making the investments to give it a long-term competitive advantage over not only brick & mortar retailers, but also quasi-competitors like Google that don't have logistics as a core competency. In summary, Amazon is taking some of the money that it's been using to subsidize below-cost sales to consumers and shifting it to capital investments in and labor costs for distribution centers.

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