A version of this article was originally published on Entrepreneur.
The COVID-19-driven seismic shift to digital commerce has left many consumer brands reeling. The pace of change has put many consumer brands in reactive mode, ensuring they are simply set up and advertising across all platforms.
However, approaching each platform individually, and without understanding their nuances, is a grave mistake. As I’ve written previously, a cross-platform strategy is critical to sustainable e-commerce success. And there are several strategies that guarantee success, no matter the e-commerce platform.
As these retailers compete aggressively to grab the e-commerce consumer and share of wallet, the brand manufacturers are often left in the dust. If brands are feeling lost on the nuances of these e-commerce platforms, they’re not alone. Read below for what you need to know when engaging with the four major retail and advertising platforms: Amazon, Instacart, Walmart.com, and Target.com.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Amazon, the largest e-commerce retailer in the United States is a pure-play e-commerce retailer. In sharp contrast with value-added retailers such as Target and Walmart, Amazon does not believe they’re in the business of selling things; they’re in the business of helping people buy things. They’re a platform for selling and delivering products, with over 50% of their 2020 package volume delivered by their own logistics company.
Winning search is critical for a brand’s success on Amazon, and Amazon’s platform is mostly pay-to-play. With a low barrier to entry for brand manufacturers, their loyalty-driving Amazon Prime program, and fast shipping, Amazon is a necessary player for most consumer brands. However, Amazon can be expensive for brands. Between aggressive negotiations tactics with 1P vendors, chargebacks, shortage claims, advertising costs, and FBA (Fulfilled-by-Amazon) third-party fees, Amazon is often a manufacturer’s highest cost-to-serve channel.
From the consumer perspective, Amazon’s weak points are a somewhat overwhelming consumer shopping experience, distrust of product and review authenticity, and environmental impact. Amazon’s future success is based on continued innovation in both the advertising platform and operations to help offset pure-play e-commerce shipping costs. They need to remain focused on overcoming consumer trust challenges regarding counterfeit products and fake reviews. Lastly, the past year of anti-trust activity may present new challenges and requirements for Amazon, affecting future profit flows.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Instacart is a grocery service platform that partners with more than 300 retailers in the US and Canada (over 40,000 stores!). Instacart isn’t a grocer or an e-commerce retailer; they’re a platform intermediary that sits on top of the retailer’s assortment and provides a delivery service. The consumer can order through instacart in two ways: Directly from Instacart.com or, oftentimes, also from the retailer’s web site, using Instacart’s technology and delivery service.
Instacart has two revenue streams: Retailers who pay Instacart to be listed on their platform or use Instacart’s fulfillment and technology on their web sites, and ad revenue from consumer brands (CPGs) who advertise on their platform. The more sales velocity brands drive on their items, the more Instacart’s algorithms continue to promote them, such as in their high-converting and coveted “buy it again” personalized merchandising. Instacart is generous with data on advertising results generally, but does not share retailer-specific data, a complicating factor when manufacturers want to attribute sales to a specific channel.
Instacart’s future is dependent on their ability to get the consumer to start their shopping experience on Instacart (vs. on the retailer’s web site.) As more brick and mortar grocers build their own online stores and order fulfillment, being positioned as an incremental traffic-driving platform is critical for Instacart. Otherwise, brands will seek to build or buy these capabilities, vs. renting them from Instacart. In addition, retailer product prices on Instacart are often higher to cover the increased costs of the platform. During the pandemic, Instacart flourished. However, normalcy is restored, will consumers still tolerate higher price points, or will they choose a lower-priced, BOPIS solution? It’s unknown.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
For many manufacturers, Walmart brick & mortar’s approximately 5,000 United States locations have long been an integral part of their business. However, the two years has brought significant and aggressive investment in e-commerce as Walmart goes head-to-head with Amazon. From in-store pickers to dark stores, BOPIS, fulfillment centers, and micro-fulfillment centers, Walmart’s throwing everything at the wall to bring down order fulfillment costs and find a path to profitable grocery e-commerce.
Walmart has a few “Amazon lookalike” programs: Walmart+ only launched one year ago and is already 21% of consumers, a strong contender for Amazon’s Prime program. To best compete with Amazon’s consumer reviews, Walmart allows manufacturers to syndicate reviews from their own web sites. Also, Walmart’s been growing its ad platform (Walmart Connect) to help offset the expenses of shipping directly to consumers. Their third-party platform also looks a lot like Amazon’s, but Walmart vendors and sellers still need to apply and be approved to join.
While Walmart has consolidated their brick and mortar and e-commerce buying teams to improve efficiencies, the platform is not self-service yet. Unlike Amazon, most e-commerce item changes, promotions, etc., need to go through a Walmart buyer, which can slow consumer brand success.
Unfortunately for Walmart, they’re held to different standards by Wall Street than Amazon. While Amazon’s viewed as a technology company, and was “permitted” to lose money for many years as they built their infrastructure, fulfillment, and lost money on free shipping while they acquired consumers, Walmart is held to the standards of an established retailer. Their challenge will be getting through this next “push” of e-commerce investment to drive scale and reduce costs.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
For Target, having an on-trend, inspiring assortment is key to their success and what keeps consumers coming back for more. For consumer brands, having shelf space at Target’s highly trafficked stores has long been a part of due course of business. Famously less interested in e-commerce, Target has remained focused on in-store and BOPIS (Buy Online Pickup In Store) consumer traffic.
Target has also recently gotten into the retailer digital advertising game with their Roundel advertising launch, however, the platform is not self-service yet. All advertising initiatives and changes must go through a Criteo Account Manager (Target’s ad platform provider).
Many brands are increasingly viewing Target as a competitor. Target is excellent at launching and growing branded private label products (such as Just in Motion that went to $1B within a year), and their recent launch of Mondo Llama art supplies dominates the shelf and is off to a strong start.
Given than on-trend, inspiring assortment is a critical success driver, it’s no surprise that Target has a high barrier to entry for brands and sellers. Buyers must approve all new assortment online, and their third-party marketplace is closed to a few trusted re-sellers.
Target’s success is steeped in truly understanding the consumer, matching the assortment correctly, and sticking with what they’re good at (vs. getting distracted by the competition.) Going forward, Target has to find ways to continue to win in key categories such as Grocery and Beauty to keep a foothold against Amazon and Walmart. This will also help them ensure repeat foot traffic in their stores.
While it may seem that Amazon, Target, Walmart, and Instacart are in a land grab for the e-commerce consumer, a closer look shows that their strategies and tactics are quite different. Understanding the key differences and how to optimize for them is key to manufacturer success on marketplace platforms.
The big question is, as Amazon, Target, Walmart, and Instacart duke it out for the e-commerce consumer, who wins? Do the consumers win, or are they a beneficiary of these aggressive tactics? Do the brand manufacturers win, as they have more e-commerce platforms ready to deliver products to consumers? Or perhaps the retailers win because they hold power of assortment decisions and command advertising dollars.