Should Online Merchants Be Afraid of Amazon's Drones?

Specialty Retailers Have Their Own Weapons to Win the War for Consumers

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Amazon turned heads with its news that it's thinking about using unmanned aerial drones to get packages delivered to customers in as little as 30 minutes. But some are suggesting that it could be a business-killer for other if it becomes a reality, with the potential to drive already-struggling smaller retailers out of business, something Amazon has been doing for years.

So shouldn't these specialized online-only merchants be petrified of Amazon's drones? The quick answer: No, not at all. In fact, it's further proof that companies must take ownership of their brand in the digital channel and stand out. The more specialized and unique the retailer, the better chance it has of surviving. Digital strategies are the keys to success, specifically through an integrated digital blend of content, community and commerce. Sure, retailers should be mindful of how Amazon's drones could be disruptive to their business, but they should be more concerned with what sets them apart, and content is the avenue.

Story is the essence of a brand

People love Amazon for plenty of good reasons -- it's an easy and pleasant experience, and lots of great deals can be found -- and drone delivery promises to expand Amazon's strengths. But for all of its advantages, Amazon doesn't maintain the essence of brands or try to tell their stories. Its goal is to get goods to consumers quickly, but lost in this commerce blitzkrieg are the stories behind the brands. In an increasingly flooded commerce market, customers are turning their attention (and dollars) to brands with which they can connect, ones they respect and ones that deliver an online experience with content they can't find anywhere else. Here, specialized online-only retailers have a significant advantage.

The challenge for specialized merchants is marrying the essence of their brand with the overall commerce experience to really engage the customer. Larger online brands are at a disadvantage here; their siloed organizational structure, where the e-commerce and brand businesses are often disparate, creates a disjointed commerce experience with the loser being the customer. Check out most of today's large commerce websites. Many present a fork in the road at the outset: Take one path to learn about the brand or a different path to start shopping. Due to their size, they're simply unable to work together to integrate both prongs in a seamless way. They struggle to combine a decades-old brand story with their need to sell product.

Now check out the websites for men's clothing store Bonobos, sunglass retailer Warby Parker or shoe company Crocs, specialized online merchants (and not Acquia clients). These brands are using their relatively unknown brand stories and flexibility to their advantage, wonderfully integrating their brand's history into their commerce platform. The result for the customer is something that feels more like a journey than a shopping mall. Today's socially savvy and brand-conscious consumer is more likely to purchase a product and, more importantly, establish lasting loyalty with brands that take them on a journey found nowhere else.

Content, community and commerce: The digital trifecta

In her "2014 Internet Trends" report, venture capitalist Mary Meeker defines the "Internet trifecta" as a critical mass of content, community and commerce, and pointed to the incredible growth of Houzz, a home modeling and design platform, as an example of a company that's doing it right (also not an Acquia client). This approach is what sets specialized online merchants apart from Amazon.

Houzz has experienced some insane growth in the past year, highlighted by its community of 14 million monthly site visitors. But Houzz isn't just a static destination for homeowners, who make up 90% of the site's audience. The Houzz community also includes nearly 170,000 professionals across 30 categories, from general contractors to architects to kitchen remodelers. The site is exploding with consumer/professional interaction, with over 167,000 discussions on Houzz around any design topic imaginable. Compare that to Amazon's community, where interaction is essentially limited to product reviews and no two-way discussions are made.

But the real value in Houzz' community is the content exchange between the homeowners and professional groups -- content that a large retailer like Amazon just doesn't have access to. More than 11,000 "ideabooks" are published to Houzz by both homeowners and design professionals, each chock full of high-res images of gorgeous homes. On the commerce side, more than 550,000 products are up for purchase on Houzz by vendors. For consumers, professionals and retailers, Houzz presents a symbiotic relationship enabled by a wonderful blend of content, community and commerce.

What drones?

Online-only retailers shouldn't fear Amazon or its army of drones. The speed and service drones promise can't build the brand connection that a specialty retailer can. Because of their size and inherent ownership of their brands, these retailers are in a unique position to take the big boys head-on. Deploying an integrated blend of content, community and commerce is something Amazon can't do for millions of products, but specialized merchants can. Drones of the future will soon seem like trite commerce tactics of the past.

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