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Amazon vs. the world — Tips on how new ecommerce companies can stay competitive

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The first rule of competing with Amazon: You’re not Amazon and maybe you don’t want to be. 

No doubt Amazon is in an enviable position. And yes, you and every other new merchant does have something in common with Amazon —the fact that the mammoth company was once a new merchant itself.

If Jeff Bezos could build a world-changing business from his Seattle-based garage in 1994, it’s possible the next ecommerce genius is somewhere out there, destined for a similar path. But with 55 percent of online product searches starting on, it’s safe to say that Amazon is going to be hard to catch at its own game.

How big is Amazon’s head start? Consider that with a market capitalization approaching $500 billion, the company’s value is higher than the total market value of the eight largest traditional retailers combined.

Amazon has a big head start

So, if you’re launching a business, hoping to be the next Amazon, chances are you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. As the first of its kind, Amazon had timing on its side.

And it has clearly doubled down on that advantage.

Amazon has relentlessly focused on the future, at times operating at a 0.1 percent profit margin to reinvest and experiment with new revenue streams. That’s how it evolved from an online bookstore to the largest internet retailer in the world and a player in cloud computing, consumer devices, entertainment and groceries. The company now offers a smorgasbord of products available with free, expedited shipping for its estimated 60 to 85 million Prime members, who enjoy additional benefits such as music and video streaming and now special deals at Whole Foods Market.

Sure, Amazon’s success can be intimidating, but new businesses have the flexibility to build a loyal following within a niche market by finding creative ways to set themselves apart.

“Nothing is inevitable,” Yory Wurmser, a digital retail analyst for eMarketer, reminded us in an interview late last year. “It’s impossible to say that Amazon is going to crush everyone else.”

How to beat Amazon at your own game

Here, then, are four ecommerce tips on how to thrive by being the unAmazon:

  • Sell a unique product: People go to Amazon to find certain items, but 70% of Amazon consumers browse for the same items on other sites as well. By offering a unique product that can’t be duplicated easily, or one that is sold exclusively through your store, it forces consumers to think beyond traditional shopping priorities like price or shipping and consider your overall buying experience. Consider Ulta Beauty CEO Mary Dillon, who launched a deliberate campaign to make her company “less Amazonable.” When Dillon arrived in 2013, she began by re-evaluating the 75 percent of its catalogue that is also available on Amazon, according to Forbes. She very deliberately began stocking items that were available only at Ulta.
  • Provide quality content: Amazon provides the bare minimum of information when it comes to product explanations and reviews. So retailers can build loyalty by offering original content that helps customers see the benefits of their products, or provides them with detailed instructions, or conveys useful information that they can incorporate into their daily lives. If you are helping consumers in their daily lives, it doesn’t matter how big or small your company is.
  • Provide exceptional customer service: From incorporating a brick-and-mortar experience that allows your customers to engage with your products physically, to providing easy shipping and return policies, exceptional customer service can be a significant differentiator when faced with a question of who to shop with. Small businesses have the luxury of being able to provide personalized attention, such as answering live inquiries via phone or chat and resolving issues quickly.
  • Incorporate email campaigns and social media: Use email and social media to proactively target your audience on the channels they are most fluent in. Without the need for approval on every social media post, new small and mid-size businesses can use targeted campaigns that might engage customers with humor or offer direct-to-consumer promotions or rewards. Make consumers feel that they are a part of something — something that is not Amazon.

Winning is relative when it comes to the larger game

For those launching or thinking about launching an ecommerce venture, ignoring Amazon is not a wise strategy. But obsessing over Amazon isn’t the way to go either. Think of Amazon as a guide: Yes, it set the tone for risk and innovation. And it’s setting the bar for customer expectations while showing the way to meet those expectations. It provides ecommerce tips by example. But as big as Amazon is, it’s left room for competition — competition from those, in particular, who figure out how to be what Amazon isn’t.

Mike Cassidy is Signifyd’s lead storyteller. Contact him at [email protected]; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy. Amada K. Hirsch is a digital content writer and author.

Mike Cassidy

Mike Cassidy

Mike is the head of storytelling at Signifyd. A former journalist and a retail geek, he covers ecommerce and the way technology is transforming digital commerce. Contact him at [email protected].