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Amazon’s New Customer


Back in 2006, when the iPhone was a mere rumor, Palm CEO Ed Colligan was asked if he was worried:

“We’ve learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone,” he said. “PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in.” What if Steve Jobs’ company did bring an iPod phone to market? Well, it would probably use WiFi technology and could be distributed through the Apple stores and not the carriers like Verizon or Cingular, Colligan theorized.

I was reminded of this quote after Amazon announced an agreement to buy Whole Foods for $13.7 billion; after all, it was only two years ago that Whole Foods founder and CEO John Mackey predicted that groceries would be Amazon’s Waterloo. And while Colligan’s prediction was far worse — Apple simply left Palm in the dust, unable to compete — it is Mackey who has to call Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, the Napoleon of this little morality play, boss.

The similarities go deeper, though: both Colligan and Mackey made the same analytical mistakes: they mis-understood their opponents goals, strategies, and tactics. This is particularly easy to grok in the case of Colligan and the iPhone: Apple’s goal was not to build a phone but to build an even more personal computer; their strategy was not to add on functionality to a phone but to reduce the phone to an app; and their tactics were not to duplicate the carriers but to leverage their connection with customers to gain concessions from them.

Mackey’s misunderstanding was more subtle, and more profound: while the iPhone may be the most successful product of all time, Amazon and Jeff Bezos have their sights on being the most dominant company of all time. Start there, and this purchase makes all kinds of sense.

Amazon’s Goal

If you don’t understand a company’s goals, how can you know what the strategies and tactics will be? Unfortunately, many companies, particularly the most ambitious, aren’t as explicit as you might like. In the case of Amazon, the company stated in its 1997 S-1:

Amazon.com’s objective is to be the leading online retailer of information-based products and services, with an initial focus on books.

Even if you picked up on the fact that books were only step one (which most people at the time did not), it was hard to imagine just how all-encompassing Amazon.com would soon become; within a few years Amazon’s updated mission statement reflected the reality of the company’s e-commerce ambitions:

Our vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.

“Anything they might want to buy online” was pretty broad; the advent of Amazon Web Services a few years later showed it wasn’t broad enough, and a few years ago Amazon reduced its stated goal to just that first clause: We seek to be Earth’s most customer-centric company. There are no more bounds, and I don’t think that is an accident. As I put it on a podcast a few months ago, Amazon’s goal is to take a cut of all economic activity.

This, then, is the mistake Mackey made: while he rightly understood that Amazon was going to do everything possible to win in groceries — the category accounts for about 20% of consumer spending — he presumed that the effort would be limited to e-commerce. E-commerce, though, is a tactic; indeed, when it comes to Amazon’s current approach, it doesn’t even rise to strategy.

Amazon’s Strategy

As you might expect, given a goal as audacious as “taking a cut of all economic activity”, Amazon has several different strategies. The key to the enterprise is AWS: if it is better to build an Internet-enabled business on the public cloud, and if all businesses will soon be Internet-enabled businesses, it follows that AWS is well-placed to take a cut of all business activity.

On the consumer side the key is Prime. While Amazon has long pursued a dominant strategy in retail — superior cost and superior selection — it is difficult to build sustainable differentiation on these factors alone. After all, another retailer is only a click away.

This, though, is the brilliance of Prime: thanks to its reliability and convenience (two days shipping, sometimes faster!), plus human fallibility when it comes to considering sunk costs (you’ve already paid $99!), why even bother looking anywhere else? With Prime Amazon has created a powerful moat around consumer goods that does not depend on simply having the lowest price, because Prime customers don’t even bother to check.

This, though, is why groceries is a strategic hole: not only is it the largest retail category, it is the most persistent opportunity for other retailers to gain access to Prime members and remind them there are alternatives. That is why Amazon has been so determined in the space: AmazonFresh launched a decade ago, and unlike other Amazon experiments, has continued to receive funding along with other rumored initiatives like convenience store and grocery pick-ups. Amazon simply hasn’t been able to figure out the right tactics.

Amazon’s Tactics

To understand why groceries are such a challenge look at how they differ from books, Amazon’s first product:

  • There are far more books than can ever fit in a physical store, which means an e-commerce site can win on selection; in comparison, there simply aren’t that many grocery items (a typical grocery store will have between 30,000 and 50,000 SKUs)
  • When you order a book, you know exactly what you are getting: a book from Amazon is the same as a book from a local bookstore; groceries, on the other hand, can vary in quality not just store-to-store but, particularly in the case of perishable goods, item-to-item
  • Books can be stored in a centralized warehouse indefinitely; perishable groceries can only be stored for a limited amount of time and degrade in quality during transit

As Mackey surely understood, this meant that AmazonFresh was at a cost disadvantage to physical grocers as well: in order to be competitive AmazonFresh needed to stock a lot of perishable items; however, as long as AmazonFresh was not operating at meaningful scale a huge number of those perishable items would spoil. And, given the inherent local nature of groceries, scale needed to be achieved not on a national basis but a city one.

Groceries are a fundamentally different problem that need a fundamentally different solution; what is so brilliant about this deal, though, is that it solves the problem in a fundamentally Amazonian way.

The First-And-Best Customer

Last year in The Amazon Tax I explained how the different parts of the company — like AWS and Prime — were on a conceptual level more similar than you might think, and that said concepts were rooted in the very structure of Amazon itself. The best example is AWS, which offered server functionality as “primitives”, giving maximum flexibility for developers to build on top of:1

The “primitives” model modularized Amazon’s infrastructure, effectively transforming raw data center components into storage, computing, databases, etc. which could be used on an ad-hoc basis not only by Amazon’s internal teams but also outside developers:

stratechery Year One - 274

This AWS layer in the middle has several key characteristics:

  • AWS has massive fixed costs but benefits tremendously from economies of scale
  • The cost to build AWS was justified because the first and best customer is Amazon’s e-commerce business
  • AWS’s focus on “primitives” meant it could be sold as-is to developers beyond Amazon, increasing the returns to scale and, by extension, deepening AWS’ moat

This last point was a win-win: developers would have access to enterprise-level computing resources with zero up-front investment; Amazon, meanwhile, would get that much more scale for a set of products for which they would be the first and best customer.

As I detailed in that article, this exact same framework applies to Amazon.com:

Prime is a super experience with superior prices and superior selection, and it too feeds into a scale play. The result is a business that looks like this:

stratechery Year One - 275

That is, of course, the same structure as AWS — and it shares similar characteristics:

  • E-commerce distribution has massive fixed costs but benefits tremendously from economies of scale
  • The cost to build-out Amazon’s fulfillment centers was justified because the first and best customer is Amazon’s e-commerce business
  • That last bullet point may seem odd, but in fact 40% of Amazon’s sales (on a unit basis) are sold by 3rd-party merchants; most of these merchants leverage Fulfilled-by-Amazon, which means their goods are stored in Amazon’s fulfillment centers and covered by Prime. This increases the return to scale for Amazon’s fulfillment centers, increases the value of Prime, and deepens Amazon’s moat

As I noted in that piece, you can see the outline of similar efforts in logistics: Amazon is building out a delivery network with itself as the first-and-best customer; in the long run it seems obvious said logistics services will be exposed as a platform.

This, though, is what was missing from Amazon’s grocery efforts: there was no first-and-best customer. Absent that, and given all the limitations of groceries, AmazonFresh was doomed to be eternally sub-scale.

Whole Foods: Customer, not Retailer

This is the key to understanding the purchase of Whole Foods: to the outside it may seem that Amazon is buying a retailer. The truth, though, is that Amazon is buying a customer — the first-and-best customer that will instantly bring its grocery efforts to scale.

Today, all of the logistics that go into a Whole Foods store are for the purpose of stocking physical shelves: the entire operation is integrated. What I expect Amazon to do over the next few years is transform the Whole Foods supply chain into a service architecture based on primitives: meat, fruit, vegetables, baked goods, non-perishables (Whole Foods’ outsized reliance on store brands is something that I’m sure was very attractive to Amazon). What will make this massive investment worth it, though, is that there will be a guaranteed customer: Whole Foods Markets.

stratechery Year One - 270

In the long run, physical grocery stores will be only one of the Amazon Grocery Services’ customers: obviously a home delivery service will be another, and it will be far more efficient than a company like Instacart trying to layer on top of Whole Foods’ current integrated model.

I suspect Amazon’s ambitions stretch further, though: Amazon Grocery Services will be well-placed to start supplying restaurants too, gaining Amazon access to another big cut of economic activity. It is the AWS model, which is to say it is the Amazon model, but like AWS, the key to profitability is having a first-and-best customer able to utilize the massive investment necessary to build the service out in the first place.

I said at the beginning that Mackey mis-understood Amazon’s goals, strategies, and tactics, and while that is true, the bigger error was in misunderstanding Amazon itself: unlike Whole Foods Amazon has no desire to be a grocer, and contrary to conventional wisdom the company is not even a retailer. At its core Amazon is a services provider enabled — and protected — by scale.

Indeed, to the extent Waterloo is a valid analogy, Amazon is much more akin to the British Empire, and there is now one less obstacle to sitting astride all aspects of the economy.

  1. To be clear, AWS was not about selling extra capacity; it was new capability, and Amazon itself has slowly transitioned over time (as I understand it Amazon.com is still a hybrid)
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8 days ago
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Russian Hackers Are Using Google’s Own Infrastructure to Hack Gmail Users

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Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, reporting for Motherboard:

The “Change Password” button linked to a short URL from the Tiny.cc link shortener service, a Bitly competitor. But the hackers cleverly disguised it as a legitimate link by using Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP. This is a service hosted by the internet giant that was originally designed to speed up web pages on mobile, especially for publishers. In practice, it works by creating a copy of a website’s page on Google’s servers, but it also acts as an open redirect.

According to Citizen Lab researchers, the hackers used Google AMP to trick the targets into thinking the email really came from Google.

“It’s a percentage game, you may not get every person you phish but you’ll get a percentage,” John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, told Motherboard.

So if the victim had quickly hovered over the button to inspect the link, they would have seen a URL that starts with google.com/amp, which seems safe, and it’s followed by a Tiny.cc URL, which the user might not have noticed. (For example: https://www.google[.]com/amp/tiny.cc/63q6iy)

A huge reason that phishing works is that most people just aren’t technically savvy enough to tell a phony-looking URL from a legitimate one. But a URL that really is coming from the google.com domain — that’s the sort of link that even a web developer might think looks legit, especially at a glance.

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12 days ago
Note to self: start looking at full URLs for links
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Compound interest applied to learning

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How are some people more productive than others? Are they smarter or do they just work a little bit harder than everyone else? In 1986, mathematician and computer scientist Richard Hamming gave a talk at Bell Communications Research about how people can do great work, “Nobel-Prize type of work”. One of the traits he talked about was possessing great drive:

Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!

What Bode was saying was this: “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity — it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime.

Thinking of life in terms of compound interest could be very useful. Early and intensive investment in something you’re interested in cultivating — relationships, money, knowledge, spirituality, expertise, etc. — often yields exponentially better results than even marginally less effort.

See also this metaphor for how cultural, technological, and scientific changes happen. (via mr)

Tags: mathematics   Richard Hamming   working
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15 days ago
Strong believer of this
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“Not use collective punishment as it is not fair on the many...


“Not use collective punishment as it is not fair on the many people who did nothing and under the 1949 Geneva Conventions it is a war crime.”

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19 days ago
21 days ago
Should buy ice cream for everybody in her class - including the teacher - but not the daughter. That will be a life lesson she'll carry with her forever.
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On Giving a Shit

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Joe Hewitt, possibly in response to Dave Winer’s and my objections to Facebook today:

Seriously guys, nobody gives a shit about the open web. Only your clique.

A few thoughts:

  • Most people don’t care about “the open web” at the technical or political (and in my personal case, business) level that Dave Winer and I do. Most people, I’m sure, couldn’t even offer a cogent definition of what “the open web” means. Nor should they have to. They just know they can open a web browser, search for things, visit their favorite sites, and click links from one site to another. But I’ll tell you what: I bet most people think it sucks that stuff posted publicly to Facebook — like Marc Haynes’s lovely story about Roger Moore — can’t be searched by Google. And I bet they’d be pissed if they knew that it wasn’t a technical issue on Google’s side but simply a deliberate strategic decision by Facebook. People may not know what the open web is but they like it.

  • What a sad way to go through life, discouraging people from fighting for what they know to be both right and good for the world, simply because most people may not understand. “Just give up” seems to be Hewitt’s advice.

  • Joe Hewitt in 2009:

    The web is still unrestricted and free, and so I am returning to my roots as a web developer. In the long term, I would like to be able to say that I helped to make the web the best mobile platform available, rather than being part of the transition to a world where every developer must go through a middleman to get their software in the hands of users.

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24 days ago
Great quote from the archives
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25 days ago

John Gruber won't point to blog posts on Facebook either. His blog is a link flo...

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John Gruber won't point to blog posts on Facebook either. His blog is a link flow monster. You should listen to him if you want to be heard.
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