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July 26 2012

14:00

The newsonomics of Amazon vs. Main Street

Order it on Amazon. Then run to your front door and have it handed to you. The news of Amazon’s same-day delivery blitzkrieg — first explained in depth in an excellent Financial Times piece — elicited a near-maniacal laugh among newspaper companies: What next?

Of course, the impact of Amazon’s move extends well beyond the further toll it may take on the ever-shrinking newspaper business — but that crater-creating possibility may well be the biggest news of a big news summer. Advertising — in Amazon-contested markets — will never be the same.

We’ve known that newspaper advertising revenues are in a deep, downward spiral — higher single digits this year, with early budget guesses showing the same for 2013. In the U.S., overall ad revenues are half what they were five years ago, down $25 billion a year from 2007.

Here’s what most hurts most about the new Amazon threat: It aims directly at the one category of newspaper advertising that has fared the best, retail.

Classifieds has decimated by interactive databases. National has migrated strongly digital. Retail, which made up of just 47 percent of newspaper ad revenues 10 years ago, is now up to 57 percent of newspaper totals. Now that advertising, albeit in just a few markets initially, will have to compete with Amazon-forced marketplace change.

Amazon, of course, isn’t targeting newspaper revenues. It’s targeting customers — selling more to current ones and engaging new ones. Further hits to newspaper revenue are just another unintended consequence of accelerating disruption of all business as usual.

The same-day push is built on strategies long in the making. Amazon knew its day of reckoning on its sales tax exemption would come. Like all big, smart companies with legions of lawyers and lobbyists, it delayed the inevitable, and with each delay, built market strength and cash.

Now the jig is finally up. Combine revenue-starved states and the late-arriving sense that Internet business no longer needs a societal jumpstart, and Amazon is being forced to charge sales taxes, though it negotiated their arrival with great agility. The exemption allowed Amazon an incredible price advantage, and many of us have been glad to take advantage of it. Not having to charge customers four to nine percent in sales in taxes (which land-based merchants couldn’t avoid) allowed it to provide lower prices.

Amazon knew this day would come. What the market didn’t know was that sales tax settlements would lead to Amazon quickly flipping its model. It had paid sales taxes in a few states, forced to do that in places it had warehouses. So it placed those warehouses close enough to customers (Nevada for Californians, for instance) to make two-day shipping a snap. Now, with the tax changes underway (it’s estimated that Amazon will be on the hook for sales taxes for half the U.S. population) , it no longer needs to selectively place vast warehouses in only a few states — it can place them everywhere and much closer to customers.

Today, if you’re in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, New York City, Philly, Seattle or D.C. , you can place an order and it the same day through Local Express Delivery. That becomes Amazon’s base program. It is now building out that simple concept with 7-Eleven distribution lockers and much more, city by dense city. Behind that new delivery service stands an array of back-end technologies, analytics, and logistics that far surpass what anyone else possesses. Even now, to get a sense, of what’s behind the evolving system, just check out the left-hand navigation on this page.

The program builds on the smarts of Amazon Prime, whereby 10 million Amazon customers pay $79 a year and get “free” two-day shipping. Same-day is just the next logical step, both for delivery of goods and deepening of customer relationships and selling opportunities — which, remember, increasingly include media (“The newsonomics of Amazon’s Prime/Subscription Moves”).

The unintended impacts of Amazon’s same-day push will be as intriguing as the ones we can foresee. Just for starters:

  • Will local advertising expand or retract? Retailing will be more intensely competitive, and anti-Amazon appeals need to be transmitted somehow, via smartphone, websites, print, community events, and more. Was SoLoMo just a dream, or is it now a counter-strategy? (Newspaper companies efforts to become regional ad agencies, ironically, may get a boost from the Amazon move.) Preprints, which may total as much as 40 percent of the $11 billion or so U.S. dailies take in as “retail,” will be a prime front here, one way or the other. While retail advertising impacts could be substantial, brand advertising may well become more important, as online buyers decide among brands in different ways.
  • Will newspapers be forced to accept still another death blow to their fortunes, as retail ads are further disrupted? The impact on print is up in the air. Further, Find ‘n Save, a fledgling newspaper-consortium-owned Amazon competitor finds itself even more outmatched as same-day delivery further trumps one of its key differentiations.
  • Will Google, with all its eggs in the ad basket, find unexpected competition, as Amazon further disintermediates advertising itself, becoming the first and only stop between “I want this” and delivery of the good? Will advertising itself be replaced to larger degree as manufacturers are forced to differentiate themselves within Amazon, maybe moving marketing spend there?
  • What will cityscapes and shopping centers of all kinds look like if Amazon’s plans succeed? Imagine a cityscape without big box stores, Walmart, Best Buy, and Bed Bath & Beyond? Impossible, you say? How about one without Borders, Tower Records, and Blockbuster Video, all of which have left hulking holes in the American suburban landscape. Nothing is safe from digital disruption; nothing, holy or commercial, is sacred. Optimistically, a couple of dozen communities are creating next-generation uses for these eyesores, as the big box reuse movement (good rundown and reuse wiki via Slate) has been unexpectedly spawned. Will big boxes, the spirit-sapping, wallet-supporting icons of our age of disenchantment, take the brunt of Amazon’s assault, or will it be smaller stores?
  • What might it do to employment? Will CVS checkers be replaced by more truck drivers and order fillers? Or is the future simply more robotic, as Amazon’s purchase of warehouse-product-picking Kiva Systems changes the supply chain? No, it’s not sci-fi, though it appears to be the year of the “robots,” as computers do everything from local “reporting” (Journatic) to filling our orders for toothpaste and printer ink.

Let’s take a first look at the competition, as we look at the newsonomics of Amazon vs. Main Street.

In one corner, there’s Amazon. Its strengths:

  • Quick findability, in your living room.
  • Delivery to your door, or near it, now “same day.”
  • Wide selection, often more than is available locally (but sometimes less).
  • Wide-ranging and increasingly deep user reviews.
  • Guaranteed satisfaction or easy return.

In the other corner, it’s Main Street. Its appeals:

  • Buy it now. Pick it up. See, buy, use. Ad veteran Randy Novak says that more than 80 percent of retail sales now come from areas within 15 minutes of a stores’ location.
  • The visual and tactile shopping experience; NAA’s Randy Bennett points to retailers’ role as “showcasers.” Then, there’s shopping as entertainment, plainly as much heaven for some as hell for others.
  • Habit.
  • Getting out of the house once in a while.
  • Support of the local guy.

Proximity here is fascinating. The local edge has long been proximity, that 15-minutes-away appeal. Now, Amazon counters that with 12 inches away (your nearest screen) and some number of hours, as Americans do their new arithmetic on buying.

Beyond proximity, there’s price. Yes, Amazon is acknowledging that the 20-year-long sales tax furlough it got is finally ending. It knows it will have to add that 4-9 percent of sales tax to its prices across the country within several years. So where will that tacked-on pricing put it?

Let’s remember that its world-class algorithms track competitors’ pricing in real time. After all, that’s been — often to Amazon investors’ chagrin — CEO Jeff Bezos’ strategy from the beginning: sacrifice profit margin for market share and growth. Its last quarterly report showed 1 percent net profit — on $13 billion of sales. Expect it to match or beat on many items, absorbing low margins, and maybe loss leaders to win market share from Main Street.

How much room, with tight margins, will Amazon have to maneuver? That could tell the tale here. Squeezing margins — lowering prices — will have one at least near-term consumer impact. If you’re selling the same vitamins, shoes, or dog food as Amazon, you’ll have to lower some prices to compete. The cautionary tales of bookstores and music stores, and now Best Buy, show that consumers don’t find a lot of sense in paying more locally than through the web.

As we consider price, the shipping fee comes clearly into view. With Prime, the innovation that paved this road, members don’t worry about each shipping cost. Pay once — that $79 annual fee that’s been remarkably stable — you get shipping “free.” Look for Amazon to embed free same-day shipping into another similar program, Prime Same-Day, for $99 or $139, or include it for anyone spending more than $500 a year, for example; we believe that Prime members may average $1,500 in annual purchases already. As with Prime and with Amazon overall, again, build market share for the long term, even at the risks of low profitability or even loss.

There’s a lot of nuance we’ll miss in the first passes on the topic, of which Farhad Manjoo had the best. This commercial initiative is aimed of course at goods, not services. It’s the goods-selling competitive and geographic landscape — think Amazon categories like drugs, clothes, toys, and electronics — that could be transformed. Services, like those that we use today — health care, restaurants, fitness centers, and, of course, coffee shops — would be unaffected. In an ideal world, we may have less time for mundane shopping and more for more fruitful activity. Or we may have big empty buildings, fewer community jobs, and less socializing. And, maybe people will have more time to read. We’ll probably see all these things happening at once.

Amazon, of course, just wants to make money. Yet, it has already, in part, disintermediated shopping itself. Expect it to be extend its Subscribe (interesting choice of words, right?) and Save program, wherein you get small discounts for getting regular deliveries of goods, like detergent, that you reorder over and over again. Expect it to try to change our mindsets from shopping to deciding and then letting it go, and getting it delivered without a second thought — changing the very notion of shopping.

With price differentiation now driven by algorithm, with ad offers driven by those with the biggest data, and now with delivery of our daily goods newly rationalized, it looks like those that prize news creation best continue to look elsewhere for revenue. That’s one of the reasons I’ve become increasingly enthusiastic about reader revenue. Yes, newspapers could repurpose their daily delivery systems here, to actually aid Amazon, but that seems like a real longshot. The technocrats of commerce, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple, are the biggest game in town — and increasingly, they want to be the only one.

Photo by Stephen Woods used under a Creative Commons license.

February 24 2011

15:30

The Newsonomics of the digital mercado

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

It’s as old as organized humanity itself: the mercado, the bazaar, the marketplace. We love to visit Old World marketplaces as we travel abroad. At home, our own shopping is now a mish-mash of malls, big box stores, neighborhood shops, and online commerce. Amazon, itself, is now a $34 billion business, and its Prime delivery program can deliver just about anything (my favorite buy: an electric mower) right to your door, seeming so local.

We can research almost any purchase. We can compare prices. We can get advice and reviews from hordes we’ll never meet.

Yet it’s far from nirvana. Navigating the byways of web commerce, other than great walled gardens like Amazon, can be frustrating. Numerous culs-de-sac interrupt us. Price-comparison sites like Price Grabber, Google Product Search, Shopzilla, and UK’s Kelkoo only seem to give us a partial view of what’s available. It’s tough to know when reviews may be gamed. Sites like preprint-digitizer Shop Local (“Your Local Weekly Ads, All in One Place”), owned by Gannett, seems curiously backwards, like replica E-Edition newspaper products for reading. Trying to compare model numbers, on sites like CNET or Best Buy, can give us digital nervous breakdowns.

Within the infinity of shopping choice, a lot of us would like some order.

That’s what the new Find n Save product aims to provide, and for the benefit of newspaper companies. Find n Save is the latest effort from newspaper companies to reclaim what they consider to be their birthright, maybe a third generation of such marketplaces following the ShopLocals and the earlier Storerunners.

Find ‘n Save focuses us on a decade-old-plus newspaper company problem.

While the daily newspaper — with its display and classified ads, its Sunday circulars, and its Wednesday food coupon – used to be the leading local marketplace, it now is just part of the pack. One number — print ad revenue halved in 10 years to $24.8 billion in 2009 (no final tally is yet in for 2010, which was still lower in single-digit decline) in the U.S. — gives real meaning to this splintering of commerce.

Digital media, with its search-led research/price comparison abilities and, now, with the new couponing craze, has wrought havoc with the newspaper business model.  All of that digital commerce has been disruptive and disintermediating. Yet there’s been more disintermediation (of traditional publisher/merchant relationships) than remediation.

We turn to lots of digital media to research and shop, but we have few go-to places of habit, again with Amazon making the greatest inroads into our shopping lives so far.

From a customer-centric perspective, it’s never been more confusing to find good deals. Yes, they seem to come from every quarter — print circulars, the web overall, direct mail, eBay alerts, Amazon “notifications” — but they’re disordered.

A recent study by the BIA/Kelsey group puts a number on the proliferation of marketplace choice. The annual study points to consumers using an average of 7.9 different media to make buying decisions in 2010, compared to only 5.6 in 2007. Buying’s gotten more complex.

The flipside, of course, is that merchants’ own choices about how to market have gotten more complex (“The Newsonomics of  Eight Per Cent Reach“), with small- and medium-sized businesses using 4.6 media to reach customers in 2010, as compared to 3 in 2007.

So taking a look at Find n Save, let’s look at the Newsonomics of the would-be new mercado, and what it will take to make these new marketplaces bigger business for local media.

McClatchy’s newspapers are the first big clients for Find n Save, a product of Travidia, a long-time player in the print-to-digital ad conversion business. Find n Save replaces Marketplace 360, the company’s former regional marketplace product.

Two big McClatchy papers — its hometown Sacramento Bee and the Kansas City Star — launched Find n Save in November. The company’s other big sites, from the Miami Herald to its North Carolina properties (Charlotte and Raleigh) and the Fort Worth Star Telegram, should feature it by July 1, with the rest of the company’s 30 markets putting Find n Save in place by year’s end. MediaNews’ flagship Denver Post will also launch it soon.

It’s not the only new effort at a regional marketplace.

Find n Save will soon by joined by another regional commerce portal. FYI Philly will launch this spring, in the greater Philadelphia region, two of its principals tell me. It’s conceived as a commerce portal, details to come. Significantly, it’s the result of unprecedented cooperation among four newspaper competitors in that region: Philadelphia Media Network (the new parent of the Inquirer and Daily News), the Journal Register company, Gannett, and Calkins Newspapers.

For Chris Hendricks, McClatchy’s VP/interactive, the Find n Save push is about a grand goal: reclaiming retail advertising. While the destruction of print classifieds has been well chronicled, the steady decline of local retail has been less so. You can figure that retail advertising has declined about $7 billion annually since its 2001 height. Yes, online display advertising has yielded some retail revenue, but doesn’t come close to recreating the lost revenue — or the lost sense of marketplace. 

So Hendricks talks about “blowing up retail” — and reordering it with Find n Save. “People are searching more and more for local services and products,” he says. “And they’re getting more and more confused.”

Find n Save aims to bring some simplicity to that confusion. Take a look at it, and you can see it’s a work in progress. What we notice about it — very prominently — is the deal of the day. Yes, Find n Save aims to take advantage of the Groupon revolution. Some Find n Save sites are partnered with Groupon, while others offer their own deals of the day. The idea is that the deal of the day isn’t just a new ad play, a new revenue source, for news sites; it’s also a new gateway to local commerce. The rest of Find n Save shows its ambitions:

  • It gives prominence to other local couponing, deals without the social must-buy incentives of the daily deal. Subway sandwiches, vacuum cleaners, lots of restaurants, and car care — but all in one place.
  • It incorporates product search, as have previous versions of the product. Consumers can search by product, brand, and store, among other attributes, narrowing or expanding search as they wish, and see where that product is available locally. The big allure, here, is the ability to check whether a product is in stock, at multiple, close-by locations. Search for lamps or shoes or spas, and you’ll find a motley assortment of offers.

So far, the November-launched sites have seen their marketplace traffic “quintuple,” says James Green, chief marketing officer of Travidia and an alum of Raleigh’s pioneering Nando Media. He says that’s due mainly due to “product-centric search engine optimization,” providing a new level of prominence in Google search results. If that base can keep growing, Chris Hendricks sees the sites becoming commercial magnets. Possible new, related streams can include display ads, offering prominence and placement, charging local retailers for ingestion of their inventories and conversion of their print material generally and topical directories, he says.

“Deals are the content,” says Hendricks. He notes, for instance, that news sites’ attempts to connect up editorial content with restaurant directories — using newspapers’ unique and core strengths — hasn’t produced the dividends many of us thought they would. Forget the packaging of feature content with ads; just focus on the ads.

So what can we make of this step forward?

Well, it’s a step, but probably many more are needed. Fronting a site with coupons makes some sense, and will pull in additional audience. Yet the overall research and shopping experience will have to be fuller if these are to become go-to sites with masses of local buyers.

It’s hard to know how many years we are away from the perfection of commerce — you know, getting each of us the kinds of timely and meaningful shopping offers that bring order out of the digital shopping chaos. Certainly, though, here is some of what will be needed:

  • Broader, deeper databases of products: That’s simple to say, and hard to achieve. I asked James Green whether Find n Save is a breakthrough product. Not yet, he said, saying that there’s not yet “enough conversion.” That translates as product search being too spotty; provision of retailers’ real-time inventories is still a work-in-progress. If we as consumers run into more dead-ends than usable deals, we’ll stop coming back.
  • Reviews and recommendations: Find n Save contains none. In a world of imperfect knowledge, we love seeing what dozens of others think of products and services, just like in the early mercados. What’s new, good, and fresh? Throw out the reviews that are outliers, and we’ve got a better-than-even shot of making a better buying decision. Sites without them lack the critical component found in sites from Amazon to Best Buy to Yelp.
  • Preferences and customer knowledge: While some of us are highly concerned about privacy, many others say, ‘Just use your tracking to give me what I want — including deals — and stop spamming me with useless ads.’ So the ability to state preferences and to have my digital behavior intelligently watched — for my benefit — will be a big differentiator.
  • A great tablet product. James Green says Find n Save’s mobile app will be ready soon. Apps are, of course, becoming a price of admission for mobile customers. More importantly, the winning local marketplace will figure out how to combine deep, broad shopping info, social reviews, deals — and to fully embrace the interactive and visual capabilities of the tablet. Just as the iPad — and its newer cousins — are the big do-over opportunity for news companies’ reader business models, they’re also literally a blank slate for the new mercado.

Who will build it? It could be a Travidia, or an Amazon or a Google or a Facebook or a Flipboard-for-commerce so far unborn. There are billions of dollars baiting the hook.

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