Love it or hate it, Amazon has forever changed the way the world shops online. A decade ago, I found myself working at its UK headquarters in the kitchen and home team. In time, I was promoted to head up the content and marketing team in this category. While it was definitely not without its challenges, the time I spent working there led me to uncover insights, tips and tactics that I carried with me working in senior marketing roles at other major retailers, as well as the work I do in my own business now, coaching small business owners and consulting to larger corporates on marketing, brand and systems.
Retail has never been a particularly easy or simple business, but in 2020 the sector is facing unimaginable losses. From forced lockdowns of physical stores through to massive supply-chain issues with e-commerce brands, and a whole host of other obstacles that do little to ease the pressures and stressors so many retailers are used to dealing with. So, what can you do to ensure your retail business not only survives but thrives in an ever-changing landscape?
Here are seven lessons I learned working at Amazon that may help surface ideas, tactics and strategies for your retail business.
1. Start with the customer and work back
Customer-centric is a term bandied around at every major retailer today but few truly live up to the concept. At Amazon this isn’t just an idea or a throwaway line used by the C-suite when presenting, it is the foundation upon which the entire company is built. From software which helps determine the ideal number of emails an individual customer should receive in one week (to help, rather than hinder, their shopping experience) through to which categories to expand into, the customer comes first. How would the customer feel about this? How would they experience this? How does this genuinely improve their life right now? How can we make the experience easier, better or less frustrating for them?
While many retailers won’t have the same level of insights into their customers as Amazon does, they can still look at ways to make the act of shopping an experience for their customers. Complete personalisation, dynamic content and a relentless questioning of “what do they most want?” can go some way in truly providing something people not only want, but will come back to.
2. Know your numbers
I used to joke that you couldn’t say “Hello” at Amazon without having analytics to back up why you were saying it. While that wasn’t entirely true, analytics did play a huge role in making decisions for the business – from which emails to send and at what
time, through to which words to test in the navigation (eg, “rugs” vs “carpets”), we referred to the numbers as often as possible. What is the data telling you?
Arthur C Nielsen Snr, founder of the market research company ACNielsen, famously said: “The price of light is less than the cost of darkness”. I completely agree.
If you have areas of the business that you’re on the fence about, check your data. For example, if you have been spending time, effort and money building up a collection of videos for your online store, look at the data. Are they even being watched? Are people watching all the way through? Are they increasing the time spent on your website (or the platform you’re hosting them on)? Are you getting higher conversion rates when you use them? Are you getting more sales (eg, if the video is used on a product detail page in an e-commerce store, is there a higher conversion compared with pages without video)? Are they helping build your brand as the go-to for XYZ?
Checking the data helps you look at the facts around things, rather than making decisions based on emotion – or worse, simply doing what’s always been done.
3. Empower your people
One of the things I liked most about working at Amazon was the idea that anyone, at any level in the company, could put forward ideas for how to improve things or even pitch new categories to launch. If you had an idea, you were encouraged to share it.
Similarly, if you had feedback about processes or even people, you were encouraged to share this and could do so anonymously. While other former Amazon employees have spoken negatively about this, in my own experience this was a great thing in that you could input positive feedback about people anonymously without them having to fill in forms or feel like they were boasting.
Likewise, you were able to go to your manager’s manager with feedback, questions or challenges.
Consider the business you’re in. Is it only ever the people at the top making decisions about new category launches, collections or changes to the way retail operates? Consider setting up systems where anyone can give feedback or share their ideas, and you may just be pleasantly surprised at the innovation that arises.
4. Never scrimp on service
Hand in hand with being customer-centric is great customer service. Amazon is a company built on reviews, and its customer service team constantly monitored these to understand what the customer needs were and how they were, or were not, being met. Truly empowered, the customer service team was able to make changes to live products based on customer feedback. This is something I have rarely seen at other retailers.
Likewise, during my time there I witnessed first-hand the desire to deliver quality experiences. I spent three months dedicated, along with other leads from other countries, on a new category launch. In the final hours it was pulled – not because of a lack of resource, effort or time, but because it was deemed that we could not deliver the same level of service our customers in the UK had come to expect. Yes, it was a huge blow, but it reinforced, again, how crucial it is to deliver on your brand promise.
How are you empowering your customer service teams to action change quickly and in line with customer expectations? How are you genuinely delivering on the promises you make as a business?
5. Act quickly
I have consulted with many larger retailers on their marketing and systems. One complaint that often comes up when I’m asking teams about their processes to date is the fact key decisions aren’t made quickly, so excitement for key campaigns or ideas fades as they take weeks or months to act on. A tactic Amazon has become well known for is its one-page press release for new ideas and pitches.
Rather than an essay on a new initiative or a full 30-page strategy document complete with tables and graphs, staff at Amazon were encouraged to create a one-page future press release on this idea. Written in the present tense but dated months, even years, in the future, the press release would outline the key points, relevant data and reasons why it was successful.
As a consultant now, I see a lot of time and money spent on documents and presentations that take months to create and are rarely looked at again. This tactic forced people to get to the key points and pitch quickly.
6. Share the lessons
Community is a huge element of a business’s success, and no year has made that clearer than 2020. It’s not just external communities that are key, internal communities are also imperative for a business to thrive. While I worked in the kitchen and home area of Amazon UK, I would often connect, learn from, collaborate and cross-promote with other category merch leads. For example, if a new cookbook came out, I would be able to access information about buyers of particular books and send them relevant information about the utensils or baking equipment that may help them execute recipes. Likewise, we were able to access information about buyers of kitten food or nappies to be able to send them products related to keeping their house clean.
Another example was that anyone from any team sending emails was able to sit in regular meetings on email best practice, benchmark analytics, areas we could improve on and updates to email platform software.
Consider the retailer you’re in right now. How often are different teams, categories or even sub-brands communicating and collaborating for the benefit of the whole? Too often office politics or a us-vs-them mentality exists instead of being transparent and opening up opportunities that benefit everyone.
7. Be an available leader
During the time I worked at Amazon, I emailed Jeff Bezos directly twice. Once about an idea I had for the category I worked in, and another time about something I thought could be improved. On both occasions he replied himself. Regardless of what else he does in life or business, he made himself an available leader.
One thing I see often when I consult to businesses, or during the time I worked in-house for other retailers was the idea that leaders were somehow unavailable to those who worked for them. They were on another level (always physically higher in the building) or sitting behind tightly shut doors, unwilling to have casual chats with the very people who help them achieve their own KPIs.
How often are your leaders or executives making themselves available for feedback? How often are they even just asking to meet with or learn from newcomers to the business? People are your business’s best asset. Ensure you spend as much effort internally marketing and maintaining your business as you do externally.
Fiona Killackey is the founder of My Daily Business Coach and author of Passion. Purpose. Profit.