Sunday, December 6, 2009

Amazon: Avoiding the Post Office

In Rethinking the Parcel Market, I noted Amazon's effort to offer same day delivery and what that means for UPS, FedEx and the Postal Service in the United States. Today's Times Online reports that Amazon has launched "a secret search for bricks-and-mortar stores to support its rapidly growing website. It is understood to be scouring the country for high-profile sites."

According to the article, Amazon is not looking to open retail outlets where customers can buy goods that the store has in inventory. Instead, the stores will provide a delivery point for customers that order larger items that mail or truck delivery is inconvenient.

[Monday 12/7/2009 Amazon has subsequently denied the story. Given the success of Apple stores and Amazon's success in revolutionizing the retail supply chain, the idea that Amazon would add a brick and mortar option seems logical. The brick and mortar option clearly fits with Amazon's clear interest in reducing the time from order to delivery. The post was edited following its original posting to reflect why Amazon may have explored the possibility of retail even if it has for now rejected the available brick and mortar options.]

Amazon's move if completed would put it in direct competition with Argos, Tesco and John Lewis which all offer similar services. The Times reports that Argos' customers pick-up 18% of their Internet purchases in brick and mortar outlets rather than have the items delivered by parcel carrier or road transport. Argos will generate half of their television sales this Christmas via the combination of a purchase on the Internet and delivery to a brick and mortar outlet.

If Amazon goes ahead with a retail strategy, it should be able to haul items for pick-up to its "stores" using contract carriers dedicated to their retail network. Amazon's business case would most likely show that both customers prefer to pick-up their larger items at a retail outlet and the overall delivery costs, including the cost of operating retail outlets, is less than the cost of home delivery. Amazon could then decide to hold some inventory of fast moving items at retail outlets to further reduce costs and allow for same day pick-up of these items. For this strategy to be successful, the customer's experience in retail outlets has to be just as good as the experience on the website.

A retail initiative by Amazon's would be a direct assault on Royal Mail, DHL, UPS, TNT, FedEx and road transport companies that handle items that weigh over 75 pounds (34 kilo). The reported new initiative would also be a direct assault on retail outlets of Royal Mail and its competitors that could provide a similar service to replace the loss of sales as single-piece letter mail volume decline.

Amazon is unlikely to pursue a similar strategy in the United States. Pursuing this strategy in the United States could require Amazon to collect sales taxes on sales in those states where it opened retail outlets. Losing the sales tax advantage would eliminate a price advantage that Amazon has over Best Buy, Sears and other s that offer store pick-up of Internet sales. Given the peculiarity of U.S. tax law there is an opportunity for FedEx, UPS, and the Postal Service to work with Amazon to expand the hours of a limited set of their retail outlets to make them pick-up points for Amazon and other Internet retailers. Alternatives any of these competitors could follow the lead of the German and Danish Post Offices and open self-service lock-boxes for after hours parcel delivery.


brian said...

Amazon denied the story pretty quickly-

The concept reminded me immediately of the old Sears Catalog stores that used to exist in lots of American towns. Almost exactly the same thing when you think about it- the only difference being that the "catalog" is now a web page.

Maybe more to the point, it would have been a way for Amazon to compete more effectively with Wal-Mart, which wants to be the biggest online retailer, and is using its network of stores to support that goal with its "Site to Store" option that offers free shipping if you pick the item up at a local Wal-Mart.

Alan Robinson said...

thanks for the update. I modified the story to reflect Amazon's denial of the story. I do not think it change Amazon's interest in reducing the time from order to deliery.

It will be interesting to see how the Sunday Times follows up on its story. What struck me by the story was how many of the sales were picked up in stores.

In addition to the old Sears Catalog stores, I think Western Auto also used that model.