by Dan Conboy

Black Friday and Cyber Monday may have gone, but the Christmas commerce continues as shoppers eagerly fill their online baskets with festive gifts for their nearest and dearest.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday may have gone, but the Christmas commerce continues as shoppers eagerly fill their online baskets with festive gifts for their nearest and dearest.

Like many, I’ve often left my gifting to the last possible minute and, as such, have habitually leaned towards Amazon for much of my gifting needs.

It’s difficult to not be impressed by Amazon. As a revolutionary force, they have changed the retail game in so many respects, elevating customer expectations and driving through innovation after innovation.

They pioneered ‘one click’ technology to make ordering amazingly fast and easy. Introducing Amazon Prime meant customers could access unlimited next day delivery for a fixed annual price. Amazon Prime Now took this even further with thousands of items available in as little as two hours. The list goes on...

Amazon have truly established themselves as ’The King/Queen of Convenience’ and, with this, has driven a growing and loyal customer base, reinforced by their growing army of Amazon Prime customers and Alexa devices.

What I like less about Amazon

Having worked in the eCommerce space for over 18 years, I have true admiration for Amazon as a business and pioneer of retail technology. However - as they say - ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ - and Amazon’s growing prominence in the UK retail market also brings some considerations.

Amazon’s position of taxation has been the source of much public debate. Whilst they generated £8.8bn of revenue from UK sales, they apparently paid just £1.7m of corporation tax. Of course, this blog isn’t about politics or corporate governance, but you understand the point. Is it fair that Amazon paid such little tax when competitors pay so much more?

Also, whilst Amazon is the ‘King/Queen of Convenience’, it’s not - in my opinion - ‘The King/Queen of Discovery’. That is, finding and discovering products isn’t always easy. Yes, there are lots of products on offer, but whittling down product selection can be a chore and inevitably means we look to visual aids such as ‘Amazon Choice’ to make quick decisions. Does that mean consumers get the best product or deal though? There’s also been long standing concerns over ‘fake reviews’ and a proliferation of offshore sellers who don’t always follow the rules.

Lastly, Amazon’s ever growing market share means - in some quarters - it feels a bit like a monopoly. Even Donald Trump seems to think so, and the German cartel office, the Bundeskartellamt, has just launched an investigation.

Yes, consumers have choice and don’t have to use it. Just like they don’t have to use Facebook, Instagram or Google. No one is forcing consumers to use Amazon, but mechanisms like Prime - fused with the comfort of habits and the security customers feel with Amazon - create a cycle of loyalty. It’s a mightily powerful feat of marketing genius - but is it good for us and retail in general?

A Christmas Challenge

It felt like I was having more and more conversations about Amazon and airing some of these concerns. Yet I widely acknowledged my own hypocrisy as I am a long standing Amazon Prime customer. I admire much of their achievements. Plus my wife has openly admitted that she may divorce me if I ever considered cancelling our Prime membership to make some hollow political/societal statement. A full-on boycott would never work, but could I manage a Christmas hiatus and buy all my presents from other retailers? Could I embark upon a different Christmas presents journey?

In November I committed to the challenge. I would plan all of my Christmas gifts and seek to find them from other retailers. I was generally curious as to what would happen and what my experiences would be, so I decided to document the process for this blog.

It all starts with a list

I started to create a list of presents for my nearest and dearest. This in itself was useful; I encouraged myself to consider more imaginative presents rather than fallback to the default of Amazon gift cards for some of my ‘more difficult to buy for’ (mainly male) relatives. This act alone forced a greater level of imagination than any other Christmas gift list in recent memory.

From the list I then started the search. My first instinct was to look at websites of brands I knew, so I looked at sites such as John Lewis, Debenhams, Currys and Selfridges. I was interested to see how these sites would translate my intentions into the product discovery process and then guide me through the purchase process.

I’m not going to comment on the individual customer journeys on these sites (that would be a blog post in itself) but what was consistent was that most of these sites guided me through their thousands of products quite well, whether that be homepage merchandising, search or general filtering. I was able to refine criteria effectively to narrow down the product search and the process of exploring what was on offer was, dare I say it, enjoyable.

It struck me how this felt quite different to the experience I am used to on Amazon which is often a little uninspiring and utilitarian. It emphasised to me that Amazon’s success is around utility and it does that very well. But gift shopping shouldn’t be about utility, it should be about fun and originality.

Checking out

I’d successfully accumulated several baskets across these sites. It had certainly taken me longer than it would have on Amazon, but I was more satisfied with my choices and confident that I’d win a few more brownie points than I would have having shopped with Amazon. It’s not that the products I had in these baskets weren’t available on Amazon - many were - but I’m not entirely confident that I would have found them on Amazon through their standard user journeys.

The next step was checkout and here I was feeling apprehensive. On Amazon this would have taken me seconds. I was curious how these sites would guide me through the checkout and how long it would take. Would they make me register first? Would they insist I remember the fourteenth character of the 3D secure code I set up in 2015?

In general, checkout was swift - no forced registration (thank goodness) and tools such as postcode lookup to speed up address entry. Thanks to good old GDPR, I was opted out of all marketing communications by default so didn’t have to carefully read all the small print to avoid being bombarded with daily email SPAM either. So far, not too bad.

Delivery options were also good. I’d been generous to my loved ones so had triggered free delivery on most orders and, because I was ordering well in advance (for once), I had no need to use any express delivery service. Only Selfridges insisted on charging me delivery and, ironically, I spent the most with them. I could have hoped to have received a voucher code for free delivery next time, but I didn’t opt in to their marketing.

The payment process was mixed. Some took PayPal, most didn’t. None took Apple Pay or G-Pay. This felt like such a missed opportunity as I had to manually type in my credit card information each time. As a person who is constantly preaching the fantastic benefits of mobile payment solutions like Apple Pay and G-Pay, I know my checkout experience could have taken seconds. Instead it took minutes and I had to type the same information in each time. Surely a conversion killer and something which could be so easily improved upon.

Final thoughts

My mission to have an Amazon Free Christmas is complete and has been a success. What I learnt is that, with a little planning, it’s possible to have a richer and more thoughtful Christmas buying experience and it wasn’t as much hassle as I thought it would be. Indeed I rediscovered some of the joy of retail by being guided through the product selection; it emphasised just why brand websites add value and how their key benefit is being able to shape the consumer experience to suit, rather than having to follow a formulaic route such as Amazon.

Having said that, there’s still room for improvement. Merchants really should be incorporating mobile payment solutions like Apple Pay and G-Pay across the board to offer the greatest level of convenience, security and speed of checkout. This is a real quick win and would surely deliver much greater commercial benefits than the cost of implementation. Plus free delivery is also a must when the spend is over a set amount - to pay £5 for standard delivery wasn’t ideal and could be off-putting to some shoppers.

All in all though I was pleased with the outcome.Finally, eCommerce provides the opportunity for smaller companies to connect with global audiences. Indeed this is how I started in eCommerce back in 2000, running a small online retail business which grew and served customers across the globe.

Whilst I’m pleased that I’ve managed to have an Amazon free Christmas, I’m mindful that I could, and should, shop with more of these retailers - they create diversity and innovation in the market and often deliver fantastic service. Looks like I already have a New Year’s Resolution!

Happy Shopping and Merry Christmas!

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