An end to ‘thought it, bought it’ – why Amazon’s strengths don’t translate to the 2020s

An end to ‘thought it, bought it’ – why Amazon’s strengths don’t translate to the 2020s

Convenience and choice were virtues in the 2010s, but the definition of what makes a successful retailer must shift in the new decade

In the mid-2010s, Amazon ran an advertising campaign to promote its app. In one such ad, a woman is stretching in a yoga class when she suddenly becomes fixated on the man next to her; he has bent himself into a position which puts her in mind of a roast turkey. A bulb lights up as she realises that she needs a meat fork – the message being that we can never know quite when or how product inspiration may come, and getting that item quickly and easily is the problem to be solved.

Amazon, of course, is the retailer most likely. They offer a range and volume of stock that most other retailers cannot even dream of, but that isn’t their only strength – they are actually number one in at least three key areas that set them apart from all others; choice, availability and convenience.

When it comes to choice, the reasons for their dominance is obvious; over the years Amazon has moved into almost every conceivable category with the product ranges highly competitive on price. If you want something, often they will be the first port of call and, even if not, they represent a very reliable fall-back should other options not work out. Because they offer such a wide range, across so many categories, with around half their sales coming from marketplace sellers, availability is also very dependable.

And all this is supported by a level of convenience that is unquestionably industry-leading – extremely fast delivery, one-click payments, a customer service approach that deals with any problems and issues the refund first then asks questions after.

This proposition was cleverly encapsulated by the slogan for that advertising campaign – ‘thought it, bought it’. No sooner has the thought entered your head, the purchase can be completed and fulfilled at rapid pace, particularly using the app on our quick-access smartphones.

As marketing slogans go, it stands out because it does actually seem rather accurate. And, what’s more, who could possibly compete on those terms?

The limitations of disruption

There can be little doubt that this proposition has been successful over the past decade. In fact, if we wanted to summarise the principle underpinning retail in the 2010s, we could do a lot worse than just saying ‘thought it, bought it’. It perfectly encapsulates our approach of selling massive and increasing volumes of items to people, through an expanding number of channels, at considerable pace.   

In addition, judged on the truisms that have been inherent to retail since as far as anyone can remember, it does seem obvious to assume that the retailer who can offer the biggest range, with the maximum convenience, at highly competitive prices is going to win out ultimately. After all, the role of a retailer is to sell things to people and, so conventional logic would suggest, the more you can sell the more successful you are as a retailer.

We live, however, in a period of widespread disruption. Every industry, so we are told, is either being disrupted or will be some time soon, due to the way that digital can speed up and simplify processes; potentially automate them entirely in some cases. No business, however dominant, can ever feel entirely safe from this.

Now consider how business pressures are changing. Just a couple of years ago, positive environmental performance was a nice-to-have for retailers. Improving packaging waste and reducing the carbon footprint has always been on the to-do list, but just a bit far down to receive a level of focus that may stimulate notable results. Now that such matters are headline news every day, customer behaviour will at some point show signs of adaptation to this, with people making decisions clearly influenced by the perceived environmental soundness of the available options.

So retailers need to make changes, but let’s be clear – retail is an industry where environmental performance has been an afterthought and it is now being catapulted toward the top of their priority lists. Problem is, the marketing claims already being made seem a little hollow (‘we’ve removed X% plastic’, ‘this is sustainably grown’ etc) – because the truth is that making a seemingly positive change in one area doesn’t necessarily mean the whole process has been optimised environmentally (as I’ve argued elsewhere). The new materials required for plastic to be reduced may be resource-intensive to farm, for example. When assessing environmental performance, it can only ever be end-to-end.

Getting on top of this issue, rapidly and convincingly, requires the implementation of a different model for measuring business success – one that isn’t based around selling more all the time, only the right amount. That requires a fundamental shift in how businesses work, but ‘disruption’ seems to have its limits in that respect; are we actually capable of introducing that level of change at that kind of scale? Or will we continue with the same models while making bolder marketing claims around sustainability? Taking that step really would be disruptive, in its real sense – although this real disruption would be resisted fiercely, I’ll wager.

Reimagining ‘thought it, bought it’

For fairly obvious reasons, retail – which is inherently reliant on the manufacture, supply and distribution of large volumes of minerals, materials and products backwards and forwards – will struggle to attain a level of environmental soundness suitable to the realities of the modern world if we continue to run a model that measures success by volume sold.

Retail drives emissions and creates waste – the only questions are what scale of emissions and what volume of waste. If we continue to structure our understanding of business value around increasing sales volumes year-on-year, year after year, the relative increase in emissions and waste will go up accordingly. We can make small advances, but not address the core problem.

The current aspirational model of ‘thought it, bought it’ is what happens when technology changes the way in which things happen, but the underlying values remain the same. It is just doing the same thing, only faster. This may make it seem like we are using the technology in a logical way, but this is actually inaccurate. If we consider just how different digital technology makes our interactions with businesses, there is far more logic in reassessing what can be potentially achieved using it, then structure the rules, aims and measurements that constitute what we might think of as ‘the system’ around attaining that potential.

‘Thought it, bought it’ as a guiding principle, in its current guise, gives us an infrastructure where customer expectation is for ever-more choice and convenience. They represent the points of competition and volumes must necessarily rise. But – the real promise of this technology is for complete personalisation in every area, in everything we do. It is algorithms processing varied sets of data to build a comprehensive understanding of an individual and structuring the experience they get accordingly.

In an algorithmic sense, ‘thought it, bought it’ does not refer to activity on the part of the customer, but instead on the part of the machines processing the data. Their goal is not to provide as much choice and convenience as possible, but to come up with the best matches in the background and connect each individual to things of highest relevance in the most efficient way possible.

So we have to reimagine retail’s current approach to build it around the principles of personalisation and efficiency – the right thing in the right place at the right time, that eternal retail mantra. Data makes this possible, if the barriers to sharing widely and openly are removed (as I have also argued elsewhere), and this does not necessarily mean everything has to happen at increasing speed. We should instead be in pursuit of the right, most efficient speed.

Retail in the 2020s needs to go through some pretty fundamental change, that much is clear. If we don’t change the values and principles that underpin it, change will not be the right word for what we end up with. ‘Thought it, bought it’ is out of touch with the demands of the coming decade, but repurposed it could enable retail to perform as well as it can environmentally while driving higher standards of customer experience than are currently possible.

This article serves as an introduction to a Post-Economic Institute paper ‘An End to ‘Thought It, Bought It’ – Evolving Retail for the 2020s’.

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