Amazon and Absolutism

Ripcord is a weekly newsletter we started to highlight one timely and important insight about the new consumer economy, cutting out the clutter and getting to the point. This newsletter also features updates from Loose Threads Intel and the Loose Threads Podcast. Sign up.  

I've always been fascinated and perplexed by the rhetoric that brands use when talking about Amazon. It's usually a combination of uncertainty, confusion and absolutism. Most of this, understandably, comes from fear. As every day passes, the saying "Amazon can't get into this" or "Amazon won't get into this" becomes increasingly perilous and false. The world has never seen a company like Amazon before—it's unlike any conglomerate ever created, something I will expand upon soon—and anyone that claims to objectively know what the company will and will not do is lying.

But in the fashion and apparel space, much of the talk and protest around Amazon comes from the company's bland, robotic and soulless aesthetic. It's one of the primary reasons brands have held off selling on Amazon, where executives have used words such as "disdain", "deplorable" and "disgusting" to describe its look and feel. Jean-Jacques Guiony, the chief financial officer of LVMH, even publicly said "there is no way we can do business with [Amazon] for the time being" because of the lack of control Amazon gives merchants over their presentation.

This topic was the focus of an op-ed I wrote in Business of Fashion yesterday about Amazon's Aesthetic Paradox and how the company has prioritized making things profitable over making things pretty.

Companies are a reflection of their culture. They cannot be good at everything all at once. However, of all of initiatives that Amazon is tackling, from highly scaleable technology infrastructure (Amazon Web Services) to logistics (Fulfilled by Amazon) to recently food and grocery (Whole Foods), making things look nice is not a hard task. It's just not Amazon's highest priority right now. It's much more complicated and defensible for them to master operating hundreds of distribution centers with tens of thousands of robots buzzing around than it is to make a website convey the aesthetics that brands are asking for.

That's not to say that Amazon's aesthetic is stuck in the 20th century. It definitely improves, albeit slowly, but it does improve. See the screenshots below of Amazon's homepage from 2010, 2013, 2016 and 2017.

Amazon.com is not the most beautiful thing you have ever seen but it's getting better month after month. Amazon just takes its time to learn and iterate. At any time it could be running hundreds if not thousands of aesthetic tests across its platform, trying to find the right mix that powers sales. That is, after all, the goal. Design to Amazon is mostly form and function, not only aesthetics. There are a lot of pretty things in this world that make no money, and it's very clear that Amazon is trying to be the opposite of an art project. With its sales rising every year, it's clearly doing something right.

Even so, there are signs the company is improving its aesthetic more quickly. The recent Shopbop redesign was a big leap forward. It also recently released a tool called Brand Stores that lets merchants create their own storefronts with the React framework (developed by Facebook), which is bundled into Amazon's increasingly expanding marketing suite.

If I were running a brand or retailer right now, I would be incredibly careful what I say about Amazon in public. In private, I would do everything I could to help the company figure out how to improve its own offering. Amazon will happen whether you want it to or not. It just depends whose side you want to be on when it all shakes out.

Check out the entire piece in Business of Fashion for a more detailed look at how Nike and Amazon have figure out how to co-exist with the soon-to-be biggest company in the world, and how understanding Amazon's culture is the key to successfully working with them.