How Amazon Won Shopping

Amazon might not be the best shopping site, but using it can feel like magic.,

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I don’t want to let a milestone pass without blaring that THIS IS A BIG MOMENT.

Amazon most likely passed Walmart recently as the biggest retail seller outside China, as my colleagues Karen Weise and Michael Corkery wrote on Tuesday. Shoppers around the world — but mostly in the United States, which remains Amazon’s biggest market by far — now buy more than $600 billion worth of stuff on Amazon each year. Yeah, that’s a lot. That’s about what Americans spent at restaurants and bars last year.

Some of you reading this might be surprised that Amazon wasn’t already selling more than Walmart. Nope. Remember that people in most countries, including the United States, still do the vast majority of their shopping in stores. That makes it all the more remarkable that Amazon has gotten so big. (Side note: The total value of yearly purchases made on Alibaba, China’s e-commerce giant, is roughly double those on Amazon. That’s really a lot.)

What’s most notable is how Amazon got to this point. Not unlike America’s retail rulers of prior eras, Sears and Walmart, Amazon rose to power because it nailed convenience, the force of habit and a system to move merchandise from place to place. Amazon isn’t always the best place to shop, but it is winning by mastering everything but the shopping.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon was on track to surpass Walmart as America’s retail leader. But changes in our shopping habits turbocharged Amazon’s sales even more than Walmart’s. (Read more from my colleagues on Amazon’s milestone.)

As regular On Tech readers know, I am a teeny bit obsessed with Amazon. And among my fixations is this question: How can Amazon make a gazillion dollars and still feel like a clunky shopping website from the 1990s?

I realize that’s a subjective assessment. But if you’ve ever browsed through endless options for curtain rods on the site, squinted at blurry product photos, felt bewildered by search parameters or questioned the reliability of reviews, you’ve had a glimpse at Amazon’s shortcomings as a store.

Juozas Kaziukenas, the founder of the e-commerce research firm Marketplace Pulse, mentioned something to me a few months ago that stuck in my brain: If Amazon started today, it might not work, because it doesn’t necessarily have the best products at the cheapest prices nor is it a particularly pleasant place to shop.

But most shoppers on Amazon don’t fixate on the flaws. Amazon has trained people to believe that they can rely on it to find what they need fast, usually. Buying is a breeze, usually, and Prime members and people who have Amazon credit cards have incentives to shop only there. If you have a problem, it’s easy to get help — not always but often. Amazon’s prices aren’t always the lowest, but sometimes they are, and many people don’t bother to look elsewhere.

Amazon “works for most consumers most of the time for most of the things,” Kaziukenas told me. Maybe that’s not an inspiring corporate motto worthy of etching on a Jeff Bezos spaceship, but it does explain Amazon’s appeal.

Amazon is proof yet again that the best product doesn’t necessarily win. We gravitate to products and services like Amazon, Netflix and Zoom that win our trust and make using them so easy that it feels like magic.

Oddly, that isn’t far off the blueprint for Sears and Walmart. Sears made it convenient to buy everything from socks to stocks and was an expert in sorting and moving merchandise. Ditto for Walmart, which mastered logistics and reached shoppers where they lived, increasingly in the suburbs. There are significant differences among Sears, Walmart and Amazon, too, but these companies’ wins were not necessarily because they offered the best experience in the store or the catalog or on the website.

Ultimately, the proof of Amazon’s power isn’t only in its eye-popping sales numbers but in the reality that it’s now more important than the products it sells.

It might not have the exact pair of Nike shoes that you want. It might botch an occasional order or make you feel uncomfortable about its treatment of its workers or its crowding out of local shops. But people now buy on Amazon because it is Amazon.


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