Even giants fall
One of the things that baffles me most in this age of high frequency change is the sense of permanence that we have about certain institutions that are really just a few years old. We feel like change happens faster (I’ll be releasing some research to this effect soon). We witness the rapid collapse of established names from our past – consumer, commercial, media and political. But we seem to believe the new giants – Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google particularly – are immune to the same effects.
I’ve long argued that Facebook will fail, at least as a network, if not as a company. If I was wrong about the timescale (always the hardest thing to predict), my opinion about the outcome has, if anything, hardened. These companies are not immortal, and their products and services are ephemeral, subject to the same market forces as everyone else.
This is true too, of Amazon, a subject that came up while I was speaking to Matt Ward for The Disruptors podcast. Matt has a lot of experience with Amazon and he believes it presents the dominant threat to retailers today, particularly with its own brand goods that can displace all competitors in its search rankings – one of the most important discovery channels for consumers, alongside the likes of Google. I totally agree: Amazon is a massive threat to competitive retailers and those that use it as a route to market. However, that is not to say that it cannot be competed with. There are lots of ways to disrupt and defeat Amazon. Here are two examples:
Amazon is an incredibly efficient way to buy things when you know what you want. But it has so far failed to crack the discovery challenge: helping you find things when you don’t know what you want. This might seem to go against the weight of evidence. After all Amazon’s sales growth has been stellar and it has reported great results from its recommendation engine – particularly personalised emails. But this is a different thing to serendipitous discovery. Amazon’s recommendations are based on your search and shopping behaviour, so they are always going to be narrowly tailored to your known tastes. And what if you’re shopping for someone else? Amazon has enough data points to separate out gifts from personal purchases in theory, but in practice I find its recommendations frequently appear muddled.
So where do we look for serendipitous discovery? There are better digital options, like Pinterest, though I still wouldn’t rate this as truly good. The real answer is the high street. Here we still have the opportunity to browse, be inspired, and look – at speed – beyond our normal filters.
If someone can crack digital discovery, they can open up a crack in Amazon’s armour.
The bigger opportunity though, is in choice. The reason Amazon has become a first stop for our searches is because it is easy and low friction. But the best interface is often no interface: what does Amazon do when we no longer search for ourselves? If Amazon doesn’t succeed in making Alexa the default platform for our autonomous product searches – where digital agents find and acquire things on our behalf without explicit instruction – then it is very susceptible to competition. Yes, it might still have the best logistics engine to deliver those products, but this is eminently disruptable without a stranglehold on the customer acquisition piece. It levels the playing field for competition.
No knockout blows
When we’re looking to the end of companies, we’re always looking for the single big challenger who knocks them clean out of the market. The reality is always much more complex. There will be no single knockout blow that defeats Amazon or Facebook. They will lose slivers of their advantage, one piece at a time, as new competitors come in and secure ground, or old competitors return reinvigorated by innovation (it can happen). It’s a cliche, but change is the only constant. And that’s as true for today’s digital giants as it is for the behemoths of the past.