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[21 comments]

Amazon recruits retail fashion stars for its marketplace

February 24, 2014

Amazon is in discussions with about 10 prominent fashion retailers, including J. Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch and Neiman Marcus, in regards to selling on Amazon's marketplace.

Sources told The Wall Street Journal that Amazon would list the goods on its site, but customers would go to the retailers' websites to make the purchases. Similar to existing programs offered to smaller retailers, the retailers would pay Amazon fees for directing traffic to their websites and for any resulting transactions. Potential sellers also include Lord & Taylor and vendor/retailer Ralph Lauren.

Beyond any fees, the move would fill voids in Amazon's offerings. In 2012, Amazon launched a push to upgrade its apparel assortments with a particular focus on adding more high-fashion labels. Calvin Klein, Rebecca Minkoff and BCBG Max Azria are among those already selling on the website.

The broader assortments would also support Amazon's Prime shipping program at a time when a hike in the annual $79 membership fee is being considered. Even though the retailers would be responsible for arranging and paying for the deliveries, Prime members would still receive free delivery, according to Journal.

Adding more of the best fashion retailers to its website could also help Amazon compete with Google. Recent studies have shown that more and more people are starting their search at Amazon rather than Google.

"It's a battle about who is going to control access to the customer, because shoppers may instead come to search for brands on Amazon," Gerald Storch, CEO of Storch Advisors and former CEO of Toys "R" Us, told The Dallas Morning News.

Finally, Amazon gains more access to the shopping habits of a lucrative set of customers.

For retailers, the risks were more extensive, particularly partnering with a massive, potential competitor willing to lose money to break into different markets. Some smaller third-party sellers on the website in the past have charged that Amazon uses its marketplace to test pricing strategies and find and develop new products to compete with them.

Retailers also reportedly have reservations over relinquishing control over styling and photography. Selling on Amazon's expansive site may also tarnish a fashion brand's cachet.

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Discussion Questions:

Would you advise major fashion retailers to participate in Amazon's marketplace? Do you see a significant risk from Amazon gaining shopper insights on participating retailers' customers?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

How likely are major fashion retailers to join Amazon's fashion marketplace?

Comments:

Come into my parlor said the spider to the fly.... Whose customer is it, anyway?

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Peter J. Charness, SVP America, Global CMO, TXT Group

Not to play unless you can outflank Amazon which none have been able to do online. Target learned this lesson the hard way by turning is eCommerce operations over to Amazon for several years and then taking them back a few years ago when they realized the fox was in the hen house.

The data is more important to Amazon and they use information far better than 98%+ of retailers, so my advice would be to stay away until you understand how Amazon is trying to take advantage of this and you can find a way to neutralize it if possible.

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Bill Davis, Director, MB&G Consulting

I'll be honest: when it comes to fashion and Amazon, I'm just not sure. It's one thing for Amazon to develop private label HDMI cables to fill a need it sees from shopper behavior. It's quite another thing entirely to design and bring to market a pair of fashion jeans. The lead times for acquiring the product are longer than the lifetime of the product, and brand has real meaning in fashion, where in other categories it may be a little more dubious.

The Google vs. Amazon angle is much more interesting to me. When caught between a rock and a hard place, retailers would do well to engage with both. The learning process isn't just one way - this isn't just about Amazon sucking the knowledge out of fashion brands or their customers. And I have definitely heard consumers call Amazon "the Google of products." There may be no love lost with Amazon, but the risk for fashion brands to play seems lower to me than more commodity-type products. And frankly, there's no love lost with Google either. Sometimes the frenemy of your frenemy is someone you can still do business with. I guess.

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Nikki Baird, Managing Partner, RSR Research

Yes, I would advise the retailers to join the marketplace. But the real risk is for Amazon. If an Amazon loyal shopper goes to the fashion site through Amazon, that shopper is going to expect the same customer experience that brings them to Amazon. Few retailers - especially fashion retailers - can provide that.

Amazon must assure that the retailers give the customers the Amazon customer experience. However, that is a long shot because these retailers are clueless to the demands of the online customer.

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Gene Detroyer, Professor, Independent

It makes complete sense, but it would be wise to have a strategy going into the relationship. Amazon is making it easy and creating the perception of less risk by essentially offering an advertising platform for these retailers.

What could happen over time is that Amazon sales referrals begin to make up a larger portion of the retailer's online sales, giving Amazon more leverage over the relationship terms. Amazon could also make it more attractive to the retailers and their suppliers to stock products directly with Amazon - to provide perhaps more efficient shipping, returns and customer service. That is probably Amazon's longer term strategy, to become the "brand" online shoppers turn to rather than these specialty retailers.

The collection of online shopper browsing/click through behavior and insights by Amazon will inform their strategy and relationship with these retailers, but it will be the sales activity given Amazon's reach and audience that retailers should consider going into this.

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Gib Bassett, Global Program Director for Consumer Goods, Teradata Corp.

There is no clear answer. Amazon is the new shopping mall, a one-stop location for many, if not most of your shopping needs. As such, it draws a huge crowd. Fashion retailers need that crowd. Amazon needs prominent fashion. Amazon gains access to data. Retailers gain customers. It may be a necessary, but uneasy, alliance.

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Max Goldberg, President, Max Goldberg & Associates

Amazon appears to be well on its way to gaining major control of customer access. Major fashion retailers should participate in Amazon's marketplace or join together in building a better mousetrap for capturing "first read" with their desired customers. Otherwise it will be Amazon that flourishes most with top spending consumers. Will/can that happen? Or has Amazon already won that battle/war?

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Gene Hoffman, President/CEO, Corporate Strategies International

Sure they are going to join up. It's Amazon making the offer. Why wouldn't they for fear of being left out? Is it going to be successful? I would not bet against Amazon, but am doubtful.

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Ed Rosenbaum, CEO, The Customer Service Rainmaker, Rainmaker Solutions

Since the transaction takes place at the retailer's website (not on Amazon), this is a potential win for both sides. The retailers gain traffic, and Amazon continues to gain credibility as a one-stop headquarters for fashion (already a strong suit of its Zappos subsidiary). Yes, Amazon is also in it for the data, but any smart retailer involved in this marriage should negotiate access to the same information for its own purposes.

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Dick Seesel, Principal, Retailing In Focus LLC

I think Max hit the nail on the head. Amazon is the new mall, the new nexus that shoppers will frequent first. That said, plenty of retailers have decided that an arms-length relationship with Amazon is a smart choice. Let's see how these pioneers fare before advising others to join.

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Cathy Hotka, Principal, Cathy Hotka & Associates

When it comes to fashion brands investing in digital, particularly in luxury, there is Burberry and everyone else. The industry remains quite store-centric but Amazon is doing a great job of assuring them "We've got this" as these brands wake up to the necessity and potential of digital commerce. Fashion brands are not as uncomfortable with data sharing as they are with the brand ubiquity inherent with digital partnerships. The resistance is breaking down, though.

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Carol Spieckerman, President, newmarketbuilders

This is simply another channel of distribution for the fashion retailers. Unless "exclusivity" is a strategy, why not make a line of products available through Amazon.com.

As for the risk in Amazon gaining shopper insights, they already know more about the consumer than just about anyone or any company. I don't see the risk at all. I think that the fashion retailers will gain more insight to how many of their customers buy online versus in-store.

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Shep Hyken, Chief Amazement Officer, Shepard Presentations, LLC

This is part of Amazon's push to broaden its value to consumers and to other businesses and from a retailer's perspective, it's a source of traffic much like other paid media and related channels. It's up to retailers to build brand-driven customer relationships strong enough to persevere against Amazon's customer relationships.

Bottom line: Amazon controls more customer relationships now than anyone else does online and it's better to partner with them than compete with them and others that they partner with.

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Phil Rubin, CEO, rDialogue

This is a no brainer to me, assuming the fees that Amazon will be charging are reasonable.

The bottom line is that retail needs to be where the consumer is and if their consumer is starting their search on Amazon, "skate to where the puck is going to be." (per Wayne Gretzky)

This is just another marketing channel. And let's not forget that since Amazon is not "closing the sale," the retailers will also have access to the data. What they do with it is up to them.

I would just advise retailers to have clear agreements with Amazon as to what Amazon can do with the data. Just sayin'.

That's my 2 cents worth!

Lee Kent, Let's meet share and succeed in Retail, YourRetailAuthority

Retailers will choose to participate to increase sales and market, but also to learn in this ever evolving retail marketplace. Channels have blurred, e-commerce is increasing rapidly, social media matters - retailers must stay focused, watchful and nimble to grow in changing times.

Anne Bieler, Sr. Associate, Packaging and Technology Integrated Solutions

I may be an old school/paranoid retailer, but there's no way I'd partner with a competitor, no way. Sharing the cost of shipping is so short-term thinking, I find it hard to believe anyone other than the department stores are thinking about it. Especially a vertical specialty brand.

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Lee Peterson, EVP Creative Services, WD Partners

These are companies that are already next to each other in physical malls and have been so for years. There is always a fight to maintain the brand and attract customers. If Amazon is the digital mall where the customer is going, why wouldn't these brands follow? Surely they wouldn't set up a physical store 3 miles down the road from where the fashion oriented mall is located... why would they do the same online?

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Jonathan Marek, Senior Vice President, Applied Predictive Technologies

This is a good idea for any manufacturer or brand named product that wishes to forgo the expense of competing with Amazon's e-commerce presence. Similarly, they should be open to other e-commerce providers simply for the opportunity to grow the business or as in most cases, retiring the slump in sales for these past few years.

At the same time I see the e-commerce software of Amazon becoming much larger in size and scope. This may be the creation of slowdowns within their enterprise systems due to over burdened hardware for processing, storage and communication. This issue can be resolved with a sudden and unexpected infusion of large amounts of capital which can stunt a company's long term development plans.

Another consideration for Amazon to closely monitor is the likeliness of the software becoming clumsy and unfriendly to the users both new and old.

I guess we will just have to wait and see on these issues. As a last thought, we are seeing through this discussion the creation of additional reasons for someone in possession of the necessary financial resources to build or buy a serious competition for Amazon. I am more confident than ever that the e-commerce business will be getting a little more crowded on the big business side of the fence in the near future.

'gjarnoldjr'

I really struggle with this one...the benefits for Amazon are readily apparent but for the retail partners, less so. Giving Amazon access to customer data could later come back to haunt these retailers, especially as Amazon's ambitions in apparel are well known and it's far better equipped than most retailers to analyze, interpret and activate any data captured.

The deal does make more sense for vertically integrated apparel specialists such as J.Crew, whose merchandise isn't easily substitutable and therefore shouldn't be subject to comparison shopping on Amazon.com. However, I suggest you enter J.Crew in the search field on Amazon.com. All search results are clearly knockoffs of popular J.Crew pieces sold by third party sellers.

Until Amazon begins to really control the presence of brands - and their knockoffs - on other areas of the site such as Amazon Marketplace, retailers risk confusing customers and ultimately diluting their brand equity by engaging in any sort of co-operation with Amazon.

Indeed, Lush just won a lawsuit in the UK around a similar issue.

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Kelly Tackett, Research Director, Planet Retail

Hmmm, the ladies who shop will showroom Amazon and still go to the store, because they need to try things on. For the bargain-hunter, unless the retailers use Amazon as a dumping ground (an off-Neiman, etc.), you get better deals in-store.

Kate Blake, Social Media Manager, Take Five with Kate Blake

Having worked with Target.com from its inception as a standalone site, through its 10-year arrangement with Amazon, followed by the eventual separation into a free-standing site fully under the control of the Target brand, I have just three words for these fashion retailers: APPROACH WITH CAUTION.

The level of brand control you will cede to Amazon is enormous. For years we struggled to ensure the merchandise presentation and site design of Target.com were worthy of the Target brand. The Amazon approach, based on speed and functionality, often leaves out many of the important aesthetic and experiential levers that connect us emotionally to our favorite brands. No one can argue with Amazon's functional success, but do they have the same kind of "brand love" as any of the companies in the article?

I doubt J.Crew, Abercrombie, Nieman or any of the other brands in consideration would be satisfied with Amazon's traditionally lowest-cost, quick-n-dirty approach to merch presentation. Merch presentation can be done efficiently--that was part of my job at Target--but there's a point beyond which you just start damaging the brand. It was one of many reasons Target eventually had to move away from Amazon again. I know Amazon has been working hard to up their game in presenting fashion, style and luxury merchandise, but I'd be very cautious if I were considering this arrangement--the risk to your own brand is high indeed.

Further, I have had first hand experience "partnering with a massive, potential competitor willing to lose money to break into different markets." While there may be many benefits to having an Amazon relationship--especially in the early years--retailers must regard Amazon as a "frenemy." Amazon will, as any business should, accrue all the advantages they can to improve their own bottom line. If it were me, I'd continually re-evaluate the business relationship, and be sure it's easy to exit if the downsides start to outweigh the benefits.

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Lance Thornswood, VP/Managing Director, inRetail

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