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The danger that Amazon’s $1B in mobile commerce poses for other retailers

July 26, 2010

kindleIf retailers don’t watch their back, Amazon is on its way to becoming synonymous with mobile commerce.

The earnings announcement press release last week from Amazon should have set alarm bells ringing at retailers of all hues – mass merchandisers, specialty retailers, department store chains and commerce players. Forget the fact that second-quarter sales were up 41 percent to $6.57 billion and instead focus on the canned quote from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos:

“We’re seeing rapid growth in Kindle, Amazon Web Services, third-party sales and retail,” Mr. Bezos said in the statement. “We’re also encouraged by what we see in mobile.

“In the last twelve months, customers around the world have ordered more than $1 billion of products from Amazon using a mobile device,” he said.

“The leading mobile commerce device today is the smartphone, but we’re excited by the potential of the new category of wireless tablet computers. Over time, tablet computers could become a meaningful additional driver for our business.”

Imagine that: $1 billion in mobile orders, albeit through Kindle, iPad and smartphone sales. If the trend continues, Amazon could end this year being runner-up to eBay as the world’s two largest mobile retailers.

EBay is already on record projecting between $1.5 billion and $2 billion in sales closing on mobile devices. Last year, the auction platform posted some $600 million in mobile commerce, 75 percent of that from iPhone and the rest through other mobile devices.

So what does this mean for retailers? Let’s sketch out some threats that an efficient Amazon mobile commerce operation poses to retailers still on the fence about a mobile site, application or SMS operation.

One-click shopping. This patented technology from Amazon was born for mobile. Anecdotal and tracked data indicates that shoppers don’t like to scroll much or click too many times on smartphones. Screen size limitation is the obvious reason.

What better option than to simply enter email address – not needed if it is already cookied, as sometimes happens on BlackBerry devices – and password and safely shop knowing that the transaction can close one click away?

As Amazon has proved over the years, it is all about frictionless shopping – and that’s become the case on mobile as well.

Amazon is now offering its one-click shopping technology to other retailers, and why not: it has a database of an estimated 94 million names, many of whom will overlap with other retailers’ customers.

Search. Take a look at any Amazon destination across mobile, be it the mobile site for BlackBerry, iPhone or Android devices or the iPhone or iPad applications or even its own proprietary Kindle devices – the search field is prominent on every page.

Here’s what retailers should know: browsing has become synonymous with searching. A site or application without a decent search engine is toast. Amazon gets this pattern of behavior, as does Google.

Amazon understands that mobile shoppers do not have the time nor the energy to thumb through tens of pages on mobile sites or applications. Shoppers on mobile visit their retail destination with some determination of what they want. Alternatively, the mobile-shopping mood is “Surprise me – but don’t make it a slog.”

It’s often been remarked that Amazon is a technology company, and not a retailer. And the search engine is proof of that. It is designed to be as intuitive as can get and mobile is a beneficiary of that investment over 15 years.

A cursory look at the top searches on Amazon’s mobile applications and sites show a preference for HDMI cables, xBox 360, Kindle DX, headphones, PS3 and Starcraft 2 games, iPod Nano, authors Nora Roberts and Charlaine Harris, and, yes – the girl with the dragon tattoo.

It won’t be a stretch to imagine that these are some of the same items being searched on over the flagship site.

Comparison shopping. Now here’s the interesting corollary to that search-engine investment: mobile shoppers are visiting Amazon’s sites and applications to research prices of products – while in other retailers’ stores.

In effect, Amazon is on its way to becoming the best mobile comparison shopping engine. And what are people comparing? Prices and availability.

Hence another unusual shopping pattern is developing: mobile shoppers are placing orders on Amazon at all hours of the day, and not just in the evenings or during lunch or over weekends.

Imagine how vulnerable most retailers are if this pattern becomes entrenched behavior. It threatens not just mobile retailers, but all those bricks-and-mortar chains that compete in Amazon’s retail categories.

Mobile database. By sheer dint of investing millions of dollars in mobile technology, Amazon has ensured that it grows its database of shoppers to include a new category: mobile.

Of course, as is the case with most retailers, it is hard to quantify mobile or online orders as incremental to the overall revenue picture. But even if it’s a channel shift, better to cannibalize your own self than have a rival retailer take the mobile order.

As more consumers shop and buy on Amazon’s mobile sites or applications or via Kindle, it is recording patterns of shopping behavior for remarketing purposes. Expect soon offers on mobile that are tied to past purchases with the same accuracy as it has done online.

Another major advantage of encouraging more mobile shopping and buying will manifest itself over the upcoming holidays. Holiday shopping is all about gifts, and that process is incomplete without the recipient’s address.

So, with more mobile purchases for self and others, Amazon shoppers are already making life easier for themselves and the retailers by having the gift recipients’ addresses stored for future sales via mobile devices.

Indeed, this is something most retailers forget: it is not easy to shop for others with a credit card in one hand, phone in the other and the gift recipient’s address missing or on another piece of paper.

Backend integration. While most retailers fuss over the front end of their digital operations, Amazon’s growing mobile commerce sales has given it much practice in integrating the mobile order-taking process with online.

To gain billion-dollar status in mobile commerce must mean that Amazon has efficiently tied its order management, warehouses, and fulfillment and shipping systems into one seamless operation. The returns process is also seamless since it follows the same protocol as an online order – email confirmation of order and address labels in package.

THE POINT OF all this is simple: every day that passes is millions more dollars in Amazon’s mobile pocket. If consumers get used to shopping and buying from Amazon’s mobile properties, that retailer could soon become the dominant standard for mobile shopping.

A major danger for retailers still sitting on the sidelines of mobile commerce is that price often trumps brand loyalty in tough economic conditions. And Amazon is a past master at offering prices that few can match. Top that with enviable customer service and you have the ideal killer app for mobile.

Final Take
Mickey Alam Khan, Editor in Chief of Mobile Marketer, New York

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Mickey Alam Khan is editor in chief of Mobile Commerce Daily, Mobile Marketer and Luxury Daily. Reach him at

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