How to beat Amazon in the e-commerce leagues

It’s a rather grim prospect to face, for the hundreds of other online retailers that pride themselves on competitive prices and fast delivery. 

How to grow an e-commerce business without giving in to Amazon’s supremacy is a question that haunts many an entrepreneur, and here is my answer: instead of imitating what Amazon do well, create a business proposition based on something they can’t or don’t yet do. Then deliver it better than they ever will. 

Amazon strives to be “the world’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online”. Convincing as it may sound, this statement on their website is one part of a whole different truth: the A-Z spectrum at which their logo cleverly hints encompasses many more products than they can offer. 

To name but a few, no Amazon-branded online banking, insurance or travel agency services exist yet. The clue to understand why is the fact that none of these can be delivered quickly, or fulfilled at a low cost. 

The same applies to our business, Lenstore – we are an online optician and retailer of contact lenses. Whilst we admire Amazon’s online marketing and usability best practices, there is no pressure for our core service to compete directly with any of their products. 

Amazon’s current infrastructure is not fit to provide contact lenses and optical advice; their checkout process doesn’t allow for prescription based products to be ordered easily. They are stuck. 

More importantly, accessing the expertise over the telephone, via a website or in person of a qualified Optician is an entirely different proposition than buying furniture or stationery from Amazon’s marketplace.

Service-based businesses operate in a different space to Amazon and this is key. The availability, professionalism and expertise of customer services teams make or break someone’s reputation. Where’s the phone number on Amazon’s website? It’s there but good luck finding it.

Amazon wins by focusing on what they are good at: building scalable infrastructures to fulfil orders at a low cost. This is really impressive. A customer care function that can dedicate as much time as it takes to satisfy each individual’s needs doesn’t enjoy very many economies of scale and neither does a service that requires field-specific expertise and tailored solutions, such as optical advice. 

This is service-based e-commerce at its fullest; the antithesis of Amazon’s “fast and cheap”. A business that embraces such complexity and personalisation is fit to win in online retail without being at the mercy of Amazon.

Mitesh Patel is a co-founder of Lenstore.

Related: Five things every business can learn from Amazon

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