How American retailers have adapted to the Amazon effect

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From The Economist:

After reeling from the shock of the pandemic, America’s consumers came roaring back early this year, fuelled by vaccines, stimulus cheques and their instinctive bullishness. Now their enthusiasm is starting to ebb. Retail sales in July were 1.1% lower than a month earlier and a consumer-confidence survey by the University of Michigan suggests that shoppers lost more of their swagger in early August. The Delta variant has played on their nerves while price spikes and supply-chain glitches have dulled enthusiasm for buying some products such as cars—sales of which dropped by 3.9% last month, compared with June. There is now a sense that the rate of growth in consumer spending is returning to a more pedestrian pace after 18 giddy months of wild shrinkages and splurges.

Yet even as normality beckons it is ever clearer that the pattern of spending has been transformed. One change is well-known: a lift in the level of e-commerce. The other is less familiar. An industry that was supposed to have been annihilated by Amazon has bounced back.

In 2017-19 all the talk was of a “retail apocalypse” and “retailmaggedon”. The fear was that a steady rise in e-commerce and Amazon’s relentless expansion into new products would drive traditional retailers towards extinction, just as Kodak failed to adapt to the digital-photography revolution and eventually went bust.

. . . .

Things have turned out rather differently. The pandemic has certainly sped up the shift towards e-commerce sales, which have risen from 14% of the total in 2018 to 20% this year according to JPMorgan Chase, a bank. Although the pace of growth has slowed in the past few months there will be no return to the past.

Meanwhile the industry’s structure is starting to look different. Amazon has thrived: its market share of e-commerce stands at about 40% overall and is far higher than that in some categories, such as books. Shopping centres have struggled to attract the same numbers of visitors as before, and some have defaulted on their debt. Nonetheless, the health of the non-Amazon retail industry looks better than it once did. At $2.5trn, for example, the market value of American listed retailers is 88% higher than at the start of 2018, while their total net debt burden has been easing since the end of 2019. The number of people employed in the retail trade is only 4% below its post-war peak in 2017.

Behind these numbers there are three types of fightback. First, the biggest retailers have embraced the digital world. This week Walmart predicted that its global e-commerce revenues would reach $75bn for the full year (about 13% of the firm’s total sales). It has made a big push in hybrid types of shopping that involve online activity but harness its stores, such as “click-and-collect” and online memberships. Target has promoted a similar service and digital sales now make up almost a fifth of its total.

The second fightback is from digital-only alternatives to Amazon. Although the veteran marketplace eBay has struggled over the years, Shopify, which helps merchants sell online and fulfil orders, has seen its share of American online sales reach 9% and its market value soar to $188bn. Many other digital firms are operating in lucrative niches, from Instacart in grocery delivery to Etsy in interactive shopping for artisanal goods.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG has checked out Walmart’s ecommerce interface and found it to be less sophisticated and well-designed than the ecommerce offerings of many much-smaller etailers, but perhaps he’s missed something.

3 thoughts on “How American retailers have adapted to the Amazon effect”

  1. PG, I agree that the Walmart site is not as good as Amazon. However, it is probably still in the top 10% of etailing sites.

    I don’t order from Walmart, though, because I don’t trust their process. The few things that I did order in the past, half the time I have had to actually track down and harass their shippers to get my product – once it leaves the loading dock, Walmart apparently doesn’t care, they’ve done their job.

    Amazon tracks everything, and updates the customer, on every step from taking your order until it arrives at your door. The few problems that I have had with things not getting here on the promised date (or earlier), they have taken the initiative to go annoy whoever is holding things up, and telling me what they found out and what is being done about it, with the option of cancelling the order, no matter whether it is in the last mile or not.

    • If the Walmart website is in the top 10% I shudder to think about the other 90%.
      Most non-amazon sites I buy from are small, focus, and easy to deal with.
      (Admitedly, not many.)

      I successfully ordered once from Walmart but that was before they bought JET and got Amazon Marketplace envy. These days I find Walmart online disjointed, disorganized, and cluttered with dead links from random vendors. They make Rakuten and eBay look good.

      To be honest, the best site I’ve bought from (not often for obvious reasons) is MICROSOFT. Clean, responsive, with a search function that’s laser focused, and to the minute inventory tracking. (Unfortunately, not to the second, as I found out when I made it to the checkout page for the new XBOX on launch day. Between finding my account and accepting my CC and finalizing the purchase their inventory died. Grrr. On the other hand every other time it’s been smooth as silk.)

      Home Depot is also very very good. Both web and process.
      Ironically, way back when, I got great results from CIRCUIT CITY and awful ones from BEST BUY.
      (BEST BUY is still under par for me.)

      • Had one massively bad site the other week trying to get something for the wife. The item was back ordered – handy link to go to their back order form.

        Couple of problems: the main ordering page not only did not pass the item to the back order form, there was no place to enter it on that form. With a little message on the bottom saying “You must specify the item to place on back order.”

        Microsoft has always had a good site. Haven’t used it in a while, though – only thing I ordered from them in the last year was Windows 10, and I did that through Amazon. (The sound of grinding teeth wasn’t due to either one of them, it was having to switch for the new hardware system. Still haven’t killed off all of the spyware and “helpful” stuff in it. I’m glad that even my new hardware isn’t up to their standards for Version 11.)

        Agree on Home Depot, too. I’ve ordered many a thing through them, although always for pick up at the store – their shipping is outrageous. (Lowe’s, on the other hand, doesn’t get any of my repairs / renovations business; their site is absolutely terrible.)

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