Guest Editorial: Amazon is a community-powered platform

Thanks again to SNEWS® and Doug Schnitzspahn for providing a forum for the industry to discuss and debate Amazon and its place in the outdoor industry in the recent SNEWS Winter Outdoor magazine article, "Friend or Foe? Will Amazon.com help or hurt the outdoor industry?" A number of opinions were shared on all sides of the issue, but more than anything I’m just grateful for the dialogue. If you haven’t seen it, you can find the full article on www.snewsnet.com. I’ve decided to share some brief comments on the article here.
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Thanks again to SNEWS® and Doug Schnitzspahn for providing a forum for the industry to discuss and debate Amazon and its place in the outdoor industry in the recent SNEWS Winter Outdoor magazine article, "Friend or Foe? Will Amazon.com help or hurt the outdoor industry?" A number of opinions were shared on all sides of the issue, but more than anything I’m just grateful for the dialogue. If you haven’t seen it, you can find the full article by clicking the following link: www.snewsnet.com. I’ve decided to share some brief comments on the article here.

In response to the nameless contributors who referred to Amazon as “worse than K-Mart,” I’d like to kindly point them toward the data that shows Amazon is ranked #1 in annual customer service reports and is a bright spot in the economic news with Yahoo business headlines like "Amazon Crushes Earnings, Stock Soars." K-Mart is not “crushing” Wall Street expectations. K-Mart is not topping customer satisfaction indexes, earning customers’ trust over privacy issues or raising the bar for innovation in retailing.

In my opinion, one should cautiously avoid the temptation to lump Amazon into a mythical category of evil, large-format retailers who represent the antithesis of the outdoor community simply because Amazon is a successful, $19+ billion company.

The debate isn’t about big retailers versus little retailers. The real debate is about what it means to be a good retailer. Good retailers attract customers. Good retailers are the vehicle through which brands are able to reach customers. As it pertains to the outdoor industry, I agree there are much better retailers to work with than K-Mart. Amazon, for example.

Despite long odds and years of unprofitable balance sheets, the once-underdog Amazon has survived and now thrives by following a deadly simple premise: start with the customer and work backward. As my former colleague Mr. (Rich) Hill stated so eloquently in the SNEWS article, “If our outdoor consumer has a voice in this conversation, a segment of them are clearly saying that shopping at Amazon is a choice they want to have.” This isn’t just an opinion, this is a measurable fact.

Later in the article, our friend Mr. (Matt) Hyde asks us to consider “what does it look like?” With all due respect, I believe this question -- as it pertains to a physical manifestation -- falls victim to another temptation; in this case, the desire to process something new through an old and familiar lens. We don’t choose to board a jet aircraft because we first imagined it favorably as a locomotive, nor should we.

Unfortunately, some of these arguments are presented as if the industry must choose between Amazon and specialty retail. In reality, of course, brands must optimize a variety of distribution. The diversity present in the retail mix can be an advantage for brands, and suggesting that a homogenous, conforming experience for consumers is a prerequisite for long-term brand success is a faulty argument that will ultimately fail to service a segment of consumers who choose to shop in alternative channels.

Instead of trying to imagine what Amazon would look like if it were something it’s not, let us focus on what it is:

  • Amazon is reach. 88 million customers are pleased enough with their experience that they consistently rank Amazon at the top of nearly every survey and return to shop again and again.
  • Amazon is loyalty. An astounding number of customers pay $79 per year for Amazon Prime and get all their orders shipped to them via 2-day air. By the way, around 42% of those Prime customers hold a graduate degree -- not your typical Wal-Mart demographic.
  • Amazon is efficiency. Customer + Google + a killer Amazon product detail page = Sales. It doesn’t look like a store but offers everything the customer wants: convenient access, a trusted name, information, loads of unbiased peer reviews and a choice of reputable sellers from which to purchase.
  • Amazon is the future. With their cell phones, consumers today can text bar codes or snap pictures of what they want and buy it from Amazon with one click. Ask yourself this: How will your kids shop?

Finally, I wanted to respond to the comment regarding a “lack of service.” I am the first to concur that Amazon (or any online merchant) will never replace specialty outdoor services such as waxing and tuning skis, offering gear repairs or providing a customer with a custom-molded hip belt. This is precisely why specialty brick and mortar should not fear greater distribution online. It is their core value proposition and cannot be replicated elsewhere.

Yet, simply because a retailer does not offer these hands-on services does not mean they lose on service. Admittedly, Amazon is a different model, but not one without merits. Amazon has once again been ranked in the top 5 of all retailers (online or off) in terms of customer service for 2008, according to the National Retail Federation. Some 52% of Americans researching products online choose and trust Amazon.com to give them unbiased customer reviews and exhaustive product information.

This is a community-powered platform, and the community as it relates to outdoor enthusiasts is growing. The argument that suggests a consumer choosing to make their purchase on Amazon must somehow either be a novice, ill-informed or otherwise untrustworthy is absurd and, frankly, insulting to the customer. Similarly absurd is the implication that a customer is safer buying a belay device from REI.com or Backcountry.com than from Amazon.com. In fact, all climbing gear currently sold on Amazon’s is offered by specialty outdoor dealers via the Amazon 3P platform.

My proposal is simple: Let’s stop debating over words like core and authentic. Let’s suspend the argument over what it’s supposed to look like, and let’s instead work together to promote our industry, our lifestyles, our brands and our products to consumers where and how they choose to be engaged.

The customer has spoken. Are we listening?

Larry Pluimer, Amazon Outdoors

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