THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT, TOYS AND TECH
There are all sorts of statistics doing the rounds that analysts can pull out on demand to illustrate their point about Amazon’s dominance of the ecommerce market. Take this much-publicised nugget from 2018, which had Amazon commanding a near-50% share of digital retail revenues in the US. Its nearest competitor was eBay, with 6.6% of the market.
That truly is domination in anybody’s book. And yet, these headline-grabbing figures have a habit of obscuring the full picture.
A couple of things happen when people make statements like “Amazon controls 50% of the US ecommerce market”. One, people confuse ecommerce with the entire retail market, making the mistake of starting to believe that Amazon has established a monopoly to rival anything the Carnegie or Rockerfeller families could muster. Actually, Amazon’s share of the total US retail market is just 5% - still not to be sniffed at, but a long way from domination.
Second, people hear ecommerce and they think of a single, homogenous market. If Amazon controls a 50% market share in ecommerce, then that must mean half of all products bought online, of every type, are purchased through Amazon. It’s easy to assume uniformity - if Amazon dominates in one product category, then it must dominate in them all.
The truth is much more complex. Amazon is renowned for its rampant expansionism and interface imperialism, for being the online bookshop that set out to sell everything. And whilst today it does indeed provide an online marketplace for pretty much every type of product you can imagine, it is not equally successful at selling them all.
This was the picture that emerged from Wunderman Thompson Commerce’s latest market survey of digital consumers, The Future Shopper 2019. Quizzing 15,000 digital shoppers across eight countries, we undertook our biggest ever analysis of trends, behaviour and attitudes in online commerce from the perspective of consumers themselves. And when we asked our respondents where they were most likely to spend their money across different product categories, it became clear that loyalty to Amazon is not by any means uniform across all retail sectors.
Instead, what we found was that customer loyalty to Amazon convened around three core categories which might be considered traditional Amazon strongholds. Let’s take a look at our findings in relation to these, before we weigh up how this might affect our thinking about Amazon’s dominance of ecommerce overall.
AMAZON'S BIG THREE
As mentioned, Amazon started out as a humble online book retailer, and has never lost sight of its roots in entertainment retail. And as far as its customers are concerned, books, music, TV and film and video games still appear to be what Amazon does best. When we asked consumers where they are most likely to purchase different products, this is the category Amazon dominates the most - 45% of our Future Shopper survey participants named Amazon first for entertainment products, way out ahead of other marketplaces in second place with 14% of the vote.
One of the key reasons Amazon is such a force in the entertainment category is that it has been at the forefront of the transition from physical to digital products. With Amazon Kindle, it turned the nascent e-publishing market into a mainstream commercial force, before doing the same with downloadable audiobooks. Amazon doesn’t publish figures for Kindle Unlimited and Amazon Publishing, its Kindle-linked publishing wings, but it is estimated that the company controls around 80% of the global ebook market.
And although Amazon did not pioneer music, film or TV streaming, it has been quick to latch onto these markets, making the highly profitable transition from CD and DVD to download and streaming sales. The Amazon Prime subscription service has been key to this - as well as signing up for service benefits like free next day delivery, members get access to two million songs, while Prime TV is now a fully-fledged film and TV production brand positioned to take on Netflix. Not surprisingly, 63% of Prime members say they mainly fulfil their entertainment needs through Amazon.
After entertainment, Amazon’s second most dominant category in terms of customer preference is toys. More than a third (35%) of our respondents said Amazon was where they did most of their toy shopping. The next biggest group was the 20% who said they never bought toys online, either because they never bought toys full stop, or because they preferred to go to a store to do so.
Perhaps not surprisingly, use of Amazon to buy toys peaked amongst consumers in the age groups most likely to have young families - 25 to 34 year olds (40%) and 35 to 44 year olds (41%). Given that toy retail is to a certain degree an age-related category (driven by children through proxy parental purses), this suggests that loyalty to Amazon in this category is even stronger than the 35% overall figure suggests.
The third category of Amazon’s big three is technology, with just under a third (31%) of our respondents naming it as their first choice for buying tech products. The next most popular channel for tech purchases was retailer sites with 21% of the vote. There was a larger-than-usual discrepancy between male shoppers (35% said they mainly used Amazon when buying devices) and female (28%). Looking at age groups, again Amazon was most popular for tech products amongst 25 to 34 year olds (34%) and 35 to 44 year olds (35%).
CHANGING OUR THINKING
Out of the other six retail categories we asked consumers about, Amazon came out as the most popular shopping channel in just one, home and garden (preferred by 27% of shoppers). And even then it only had a slim lead over retailer sites (24%). In health and beauty, these positions were reversed, with Amazon (21%) coming a narrow second to retailer sites (24%).
In the luxury, clothing and fashion and grocery categories, Amazon only ranked the third most popular. In motors and accessories, it was the most popular digital channel (19%), but a long way behind the 40% of consumers who said they did not shop for these products online.
Clearly, for a single ecommerce site to even rank second and third in these categories is still impressive - indeed, that is why we tend to now speak about Amazon as a channel in its own right, not just an individual commerce brand. But what we can say is, take entertainment, toys and technology out of the equation, and Amazon is not the runaway leader in digital retail that we assume it to be. Other channels - retailer sites, physical stores, brand websites and other marketplaces, compete with Amazon on a relatively equal footing.
Of course, that doesn’t change the truth of findings like the one that says Amazon now controls half of all online spend in the US. Across the eight countries we surveyed, when we asked consumers to estimate how much of their online spend went through different channels, the mean total for Amazon was more than a third (36%), and that is factoring in countries like the Netherlands and Czech Republic where Amazon is much less well established.
But what we can perhaps conclude is that spend alone does not give us a complete enough picture of the nature of Amazon’s dominance. Perhaps people are more inclined to shop for entertainment, tech and toy products online anyway, and these categories that Amazon has sewn up enjoy proportionately higher digital revenues than others. We certainly know that in categories like grocery and motors, people are much less likely to buy online.
Perhaps Amazon’s meteoric rise has ultimately been based on a canny understanding of which categories attract the highest digital revenues. Its dominance of ecommerce is not universal. There are still plenty of categories still looking for a digital leader, where growth out of Amazon’s shadow is still possible.
Manufacturers of branded consumer products traditionally distribute their goods primarily through retailers. With retailers feeling the squeeze more so than ever before, compounded by the widespread adoption of marketplaces as a channel, forward-thinking manufacturers have started to explore alternate routes to market– in particular DTC (direct-to-consumer). In this new report, we look at the ways that leading, multi-brand corporations are approaching the opportunity posed by selling direct-to-consumer.
Written by Raghbir Rana
Raghbir plays a lead role in running our marketplace practice across Europe, drawing on many years working for Amazon, to help brands manage and accelerate their performance on Amazon and other marketplaces.
A note about the Future Shopper 2019 survey
Research for this Future Shopper 2019 report was conducted by independent research consultancy Censuswide. A total of 15,188 consumers, who shop online at least once a month were surveyed, across 8 international markets, led by UK and US.