Amazon’s age of discovery
New shopping feeds show Amazon is exploring how to show users what they want, not just what they need.
New shopping feeds show Amazon is exploring how to show users what they want, not just what they need.
Amazon has long been the primary ecommerce site to visit if you know what you want to buy. With a new wave of pilots, the retailer is showing signs that it wants to help users discover new items they didn’t knew they wanted – both on Amazon’s marketplace and beyond.
Over the last two weeks alone, Amazon rolled out the following:
These releases are separate products on different surfaces, but they unite around a common intent to bring Amazon products to users in the places where they are browsing. Today, navigating to Amazon is like going to the mall. With these features, Amazon’s mall is coming straight to shoppers in the place where they are spending time.
Amazon built a massive lead in ecommerce by becoming the everything store, and the destination for online shopping. The search-based shopping experience is honed to deliver users the results they are seeking, and make it as easy as possible to check out. By the late 2010s, Amazon’s constant, data-driven honing of this experience helped the company overtake Google as the top point of origin for new product searches.
But over that same decade, a new form of ecommerce was springing up. Direct-to-consumer brands honed social media-based advertising that met shoppers while they were scrolling Facebook. Instead of seeking out a specific item, consumers increasingly found themselves buying a new pair of pants when they meant to log on to check out their friends’ wedding photos. Influencer marketing only further embedded commerce into the social media experience. When powerful targeting algorithms combined with the visual experience of platforms like Instagram and TikTok, it proved to be a potent mix for driving conversions from ads on social platforms to checkout pages on brand websites.
To be sure, Amazon has been no stranger to advertising on social media, as any Prime Day Instagram feed will tell you. But for the most part, the shopping experience on Amazon itself didn’t change through the years of DTC disruption. Amazon.com kept all of the hallmarks of the marketplace that are designed to help shoppers find what they came to buy, pick from the largest selection possible, locate the item that’s right for them at the best price possible. There’s little space for interactivity and visuals in that mix. That shopping experience is also now the basis for a massive advertising business, so it is unlikely to undergo massive change quickly.
But with these new features, Amazon is signaling that it is learning the lessons of social media-based ecommerce, and its ability to turn casual users into customers with the right content. The additions described here are nascent – as all three are either new or merely experiments. Yet the results of these tests could inform a new phase of building at Amazon. So let’s take a look at each, and their implications:
Amazon Inspire. (Courtesy photo)
Announced in December, Amazon’s long-awaited visual shopping feed went live in early May. The in-app feed offers shoppable short-form videos and photos featuring products shared by influencers, brands and other customers.
Here’s how TechCrunch described the experience at launch:
To get started with Inspire, you have to open the Amazon Shopping app, sign in to your account and then tap the Inspire “light bulb” icon on the bottom navigation bar. You will then be prompted to choose from over 20 interests, including categories like makeup, skin care, pets, gaming, plants, hiking, interior design, travel, running and more to personalize your Inspire feed.
You can double-tap anywhere on the screen to “like” the content you see. As for the scrolling experience, it’s like using TikTok’s vertical video feed, where you swipe up from the bottom to see the next video. Engagement buttons are on the right side of the screen, just like they are on TikTok.
If you see something you like, you can scroll horizontally through the small buttons that display the products in the video at the bottom of your screen. When you click on a product, it will appear in an overlay window on top of the video. You can select the “See all details” button to be taken to the item’s product page where you can make a purchase or add the item to a list.
What it means: Inspire is taking a more person-centered approach to visuals, and prioritizing engagement in a way that has been rare on a marketplace that is laser-focused on moving users to checkout as efficiently as possible. It’s a big change, but shopping is still the main behavior. All of the content features products, as opposed to the mix of memes and dance crazes that you’d find on a TikTok feed.
Whether users want a shopping-only feed remains to be seen, but the potential upside for Amazon is that people will end up scrolling on Amazon just to watch the content. Maybe they’ll end up buying something, too. But even if they don’t, they will ultimately spend more time on Amazon. For now, Inspire just a test and occupies a small piece of real estate on the app, but the results could say a lot about whether Amazon can bring more social elements to its mix.
Amazon Anywhere. (Courtesy photo)
The metaverse may not be here yet, but Amazon is seeking to make good on the promise of crossing physical and digital shopping now. This new feature brings storefronts featuring physical goods to video games and other digital worlds. Initially, a shop will appear in the augmented reality game Peridot. Here’s how it works, per Amazon:
After seamlessly linking your Amazon account to Peridot, you can find Peridot-branded products such as T-shirts, hoodies, phone accessories, and throw pillows featuring artwork of magical creatures from the game. You’ll see the familiar product details, images, availability, Prime eligibility, price, and estimated delivery date as you would in Amazon stores.
It’s easy to then tap the “buy” button and check out using your linked Amazon account without leaving the game. Products will ship to you like any other purchase from Amazon, and you can track and manage orders via the Amazon app.
What it means: This is an example of Amazon introducing shopping into an experience where users may not have been seeking it out, and going beyond Amazon.com to reach them. A player probably doesn’t log into Peridot thinking they are going to buy something, but now they have a way to do so. Enabling in-game purchasing is another step that makes the process easier. This is similar to introducing a shopping ad to a user scrolling on social media, except in this case the browsing and buying experience is even more embedded.
More games and virtual worlds are likely to gain shops in the future. Amazon Anywhere also includes tools for developers and creators in virtual worlds to curate products from Amazon’s selection, including a brand’s own merchandise.
Amazon ads will soon be showing up in Pinterest feeds, thanks to a recently-announced partnership between the companies. It’s the first time Pinterest will be accepting third-party ads.
The ads aren’t live yet, but executives have said it works this way: Pinterest will now host shoppable ads from brands that advertise on Amazon. Users who click on a Pinterest ad will be taken to an Amazon checkout page.
What it means: Here, Amazon is making a direct play into social media-based advertising. It will help users that are browsing for ideas on Pinterest to discover products they can buy on Amazon. Coming at a time when Pinterest is seeking to elevate commerce within its user experience, there will likely be a lot for Amazon to learn about how people interact with shoppable content on a social feed from this partnership.
There are also important implications for Amazon advertising here, which is an increasingly important part of the company’s business. Right now, purchasing Amazon ads buys a brand space on Amazon’s website. Now, it could also buy space on Pinterest, and still leverage the first-party data that powers the placement on Amazon. It implies that shoppable ads can be a vehicle to extend the reach of retail media, which describes advertising on ecommerce marketplaces, to social media platforms.
Through shoppable content, Amazon’s reach figures to extend further across the web. Increasingly, shoppers may run into Amazon, wherever they happen to be browsing.
The retailer's marketplace is expanding quickly.
When it comes to ecommerce growth, was the pandemic a blip or a new trendsetter?
As we move further from the height of COVID-related closures, it’s a question that will start to be answered through the lens of history.
So far, the narrative of ecommerce growth in the U.S. from 2019-2022 has gone like this: Ecommerce’s share of overall retail saw a huge spike at the height of the pandemic in 2020-21, when goods in general were in demand and online shopping was necessary to preserve health and safety. Experts looked out and saw a permanent exponential change in the penetration of ecommerce as a share of retail that would last beyond the pandemic. Then, in 2022, everyone went back to stores and the trendline came back to 2019 levels. Growth was no longer exponential. There was still growth, but it was not happening as fast as during the pandemic period.
With this in mind, it’s worth pointing out that 2023 is the first year that there likely won’t be a pandemic-influenced swing to influence ecommerce growth. It is also a year where demand has suffered challenges amid inflation and interest rate hikes.
So as we seek to determine the importance of ecommerce to overall retail, it’s worth it to continue taking a close look at what growth trends retailers are seeing now, whether ecommerce is remaining resilient amid consumer pullback and how retailers are preparing for the future.
The latest example arrived this week from Macy’s. It’s a fitting one for the times. Overall, Macy’s is seeing a slowdown as consumers pull back on discretionary purchases, with sales declining 7% in the first quarter versus the same quarter of 2022. Digital sales were down 8%.
Macy’s is particularly susceptible to the macroeconomic headwinds that many brands and retailers are facing, as spending among the middle-income consumers it counts as a primary customer base is particularly softening, said GlobalData Managing Director Neil Saunders.
But while ecommerce is slowing overall, the importance it gained to Macy’s business during the pandemic is remaining in place.
In 2019, ecommerce made up 25% of Macy’s revenue, CEO Jeff Gennette told analysts on the company’s earnings call. That jumped to a high of 44% in 2020. By 2022, digital reached 33% of sales after the pandemic boom. In the first quarter of 2023, it remained at 33%. So, while the trend line dipped after shoppers returned to stores, ecommerce share still settled in at a higher post-lockdown point than it was before the pandemic.
This came in a quarter in which traffic was “relatively good” across both online and in-store, Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette said. It was “flattish” online, and slightly up in stores.
“We do expect that this is the reset year with the penetration between them,” Gennette said. “But we do expect more aggressive growth in digital in the future versus stores as we think about '24 and beyond. And that's going to be foisted by a lot of ideas and strategies.
Over the last year, the retailer has made investments in boosting ecommerce, even as shoppers returned to stores. In a bid to boost the assortment of goods available online, Macy’s launched a marketplace in September 2022 that welcomes goods from third-party sellers.
The marketplace had an “outstanding” first quarter, said Macy’s President Tony Spring, who is poised to succeed Gennette as CEO next year. Gross merchandise value increased over 50% when compared to the fourth quarter of 2022, while the average order value and units per order for marketplace customers was 50% above those not shopping at the marketplace.
Macy’s is continuing to build the marketplace even as it racks up sales. The retailer added 450 brands, ending the quarter with 950 brands.
This is helping to draw in new customers, as well as younger existing customers who are buying more items, resulting in increased basket size.
“We're very excited as to how marketplace is really attracting the Gen Z customer, particularly in categories where it was not economically feasible for us to carry in the past,” Gennette said.
In the end, Gennette said a strong digital and social presence is key to attracting younger consumers. That's a different type of shopper than other age groups.
“We know the younger customer starts first online,” Gennette said. That behavior will still be in place as the generation gets older, and gains more buying power in the process.
Going forward, Macy’s is seeking to expand the model to other retail banners in its portfolio. Bloomingdale’s will open a marketplace in the early fall.
The Macy’s ecommerce trajectory isn’t that different from the wider U.S. ecommerce narrative detailed above. With one quarter of 2023 data, there is evidence that ecommerce share settled out at a higher point after the pandemic than where it started before COVID arrived. There is flattening now, but the retailer is taking it not as a sign of a slowdown, or a signal to change course. Rather, it sees changing consumer behavior as a reason to build for the future.