WHAT CAN SPECIALTY STORES DO TO COMPETE WITH AMAZON?
A nemesis can bring out the best in us and push us to reach greater heights. For specialty retailers, that nemesis is Jeff Bezos and Amazon. So what are you going to do about it?
The United States had the Cold War with Russia, during which they were the Evil Empire and we had Ronald Reagan. The Boston Celtics had the Los Angeles Lakers; Coca-Cola will always have Pepsi; and the Yankees have the Red Sox. In fact, we have all had someone in our lives that may have hurt us, abused us, took advantage of us, beat us, crushed us or stolen from us. But the wonderful thing about the human species is that we grow and accomplish the most when we are challenged, tested, and pushed to the brink with our backs against the wall to what we think are our limits.
In the absence of such an adversary, we can get soft and rest on our laurels and lose our edge. Think about how much losing that girl or that guy, losing that job, or getting cut from that team motivated you to fight harder, get better, be more, overcome the shame and the humiliation, and yes, get even. These are moments in our life that are burned into our memory and help us to adapt and survive. Without that survival instinct and that adaptability, we would have never made it from cave dwellers
This is the kind of attitude that specialty retailers need to bring to the biggest battle of their lives. It’s a battle for survival, a war against a menacing force that wants to steal your livelihood, take away everything you have worked for in your life. If it’s a family business, he wants to steal what your father, grandfather or great-grandfather built. He wants to make our Main Streets soulless, vacant landscapes that were once occupied by a mosaic of amazing independent shops that made communities special.
Let’s be honest: Jeff Bezos does not care about you, your business, your town or your city. He wants one thing and one thing only: to take your customers and lay waste to businesses that have served communities since the beginning of time. How is he doing this? By making humans lazier and lazier. He has developed the logistics and distribution to keep us sitting on our asses instead of walking over to our friendly neighborhood merchants.
Is this good for society? I certainly don’t think so. Anything that causes us to isolate from each other as people, that stops us from leaving our homes and going to our local malls and streets to engage in that dance of humanity does not serve us well as people. It just makes us fat, lazy and alone. I admit, I use Amazon Prime as well, but I want to not use them. I love going to stores and for stores to win they cannot be disappointing experiences once we get there. Sadly, they often are and that needs to end, and end fast.
So this is time for specialty retailers to unite in their ideas, in their passion, and in their desire to fight this menace — and to fight for what is just and right and important for society. I don’t want to live in a world where there is no longer a diversity of thriving specialty retailers. Maybe Jeff Bezos is motivated to put all retailers out of business from a massive insecurity complex (like The Revenge of the Nerds” on steroids.) His ambition is becoming a bore to me because it creates nothing but convenience on the backs of everyone else.
I am so proud of brands like Birkenstock who have fought back and not allowed Amazon to carry its products, but I cringe when I see Nike make the recent decision to go all in with Amazon. As successful as Bezos is, and despite being the richest man in the world, I believe he has done it by taking from others in a zero sum game. He has not created any accretive value to society but simply sucked it away from other retailers. This is why if Amazon did not have its cloud services, a part of their business I truly respect, they would be bleeding with losses. I think of people that added value to the world, like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, and consider how they will leave their imprint on society. But I see none of this with Bezos. He is just robbing Peter to pay Paul; he’s a giant middle man that the government has allowed to grow into an unchecked monster, and who now wants to be kingmaker of every industry in his sights. Amazon is a vampire squid looking to suck the blood out of Main Street USA.
So this is where we are, which means it is time to mobilize and fight for the survival of not just your brick-and-mortar store, but for our society itself. The retailers that have gone out of business over the past few years due to the “Amazon Effect” refused to adapt or just did not know what hit them. They got caught up in a competitive tsunami. But now there are no more excuses, no more complaining or rolling over or throwing up your hands. It is time to punch back in the mouth, to dig deep and muster the courage to bring the best out of yourself, your staff and your business. As Dylan Thomas wrote “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Feel the rage and fight and mobilize like the U.S. did after Pearl Harbor. We must awaken that “Sleeping Giant” that is U.S. specialty retail.
It is time for action. Mobilize on your street, your town, business districts. Reach out to your local politicians. Take all the action necessary to reinvigorate your community and create the atmosphere that will draw customers back into your stores. Reach out to the NRF and collaborate with your local BID (Business Improvement Districts) and find ways to stimulate and create engaging experiences that can combat the laziness that Amazon Prime has fostered. Make the effort to push back on the soul-sucking, mind-numbing experience of living by Amazon Prime and not experiencing the community of merchants in your hometown. In order to do that you must deliver value, both on an emotional level and service level, to the customer. They have to buy into this vision — that the experience you offer and that getting off the couch and coming into the store is going to be a far more enjoyable, satisfying human experience than logging onto a computer.
I am hoping we get some help in this fight by the Whole Foods/Amazon merger getting blocked due to the clear anti-competitive forces at play. I also am keeping my fingers crossed that President Trump goes after Bezos (who also owns “The Washington Post,” which Trump sees as the king of fake news). Trump has said for a long time that Amazon has serious tax and anti-trust issues. But we cannot depend on him.
Instead, we must start locally. As Nick Saban, the legendary head coach of University of Alabama, says: “You have to start where your feet are.” That means you need to take action from where you are right now, not when conditions change or seem more favorable. As a retailer, you can get involved in the activism I mentioned above, but where you really need to get to work is with your own retail business. You need to train like Rocky Balboa did after he got destroyed by Clubber Lang in “Rocky III”; you need to get to the retail gym and remember the “Eye of the Tiger.” That is what we all need to get right now. So hang a picture of Jeff Bezos in your office to remind you who is trying to take away what you’ve got. Screw him! Don’t let it happen and invest in yourself and your business like never before. Like they say in “The Godfather,” it’s time to “Go to the mattresses.” After all, this is all about the family, the specialty retail family.
To get your store in shape to fight this battle, you must eliminate all channel conflict between stores and web. Call it whatever you want, omni-channel, unified commerce, universal customer. Forget the semantics, you just need to get it done. Rip out that legacy system that is creating silos of data within your organization and get your business wrapped around your customer, like Amazon does. The difference is you own a store and can “out-Amazon” Amazon when you properly leverage technology. You may not have Amazon Prime, but you can have customers buy online and return to store, buy online and pick up at store (for free!), or buy online and ship from store for less expensive fulfillment. You can craft your own spin on Amazon Prime but add a heart and a soul and human contact to the mix. That is a powerful combination that Bezos can never match. He cannot steal that from you, nor can he take away a sincere, authentic relationship from you as long as you deliver a great service experience.
My career is devoted to helping the independent specialty retailer not just survive, but thrive. We are all in this together. So rise up and fight for the hearts and minds of the American consumer by appealing to what they value: human connection, emotion and feeling loved and important. There is no way in hell Amazon is ever going to do that. Their weapon is laziness; they want to appeal to the Twinkie-eating couch potato masses and keep them in a mindless consumer slumber (coupled with an Amazon movie). We must raise the playing field and appeal to better human instincts.
I will leave you with that incredible sentence that Adrian said to Rocky from her hospital bed in “Rocky III” before his second fight with Apollo Creed. “There is one thing I want you to do for me.” “What?” replied Rocky, “WIN…WIN” says Adrian. So let’s go out there and WIN and beat that soul-sucking Vampire Squid.
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