Amazon’s one-two punch: How traditional retailers can fight back

If you think physical retail is dead, you couldn’t be more wrong. Despite the explosion in e-commerce, we’re still buying plenty of stuff in offline stores. In 2017, U.S. retail sales totaled $3.49 trillion, of which only 13 percent (about $435 billion) were e-commerce sales. True, e-commerce is growing at a much faster annual pace. But we’re still very far from the tipping point.

Amazon, the e-commerce giant, is playing an even longer game than everyone thinks. The company already dominates online retail — Amazon accounted for almost 50 percent of all U.S. e-commerce dollars spent in 2018. But now Amazon is eyeing the much bigger prize: modernizing and dominating retail sales in physical locations, mainly through the use of sophisticated data analysis. The recent reports of Amazon launching its own chain of grocery stores in several U.S. cities — separate from its recent Whole Foods acquisition — is just one example of how this could play out.

You can think of this as the Amazon one-two punch: The company’s vast power in e-commerce is only the initial, quick jab to an opponent’s face. Data-focused innovations in offline retail will be Amazon’s second, much heavier cross. Traditional retailers too focused on the jab aren’t seeing the cross coming. But we think canny retailers can fight back — and avoid getting KO’d. Here’s how.

The e-commerce jab starts with warehousing

Physical storage of goods has long been crucial to advances in commerce. Innovations here range from Henry Ford’s conveyor belt assembly line in 1910, to IBM’s universal product code (the “barcode”) in the early 1970s, to J.C. Penney’s implementation of the first warehouse management system in 1975. Intelligrated (Honeywell), Dematic (KION), Unitronics, Siemens and others further optimized and modernized the traditional warehouse. But then came Amazon.

After expanding from books to a multi-product offering, Amazon Prime launched in 2005. Then, the company’s operational focus turned to enabling scalable two-day shipping. With hundreds of millions of product SKUs, the challenge was how to get your pocket 3-layer suture pad (to cite a super-specific product Amazon now sells) from the back of the warehouse and into the shippers’ hands as quickly as possible.

Make no mistake: Amazon’s one-two retail punch will be formidable.

Amazon met this challenge at a time when automated warehouses still had massive physical footprints and capital-intensive costs. Amazon bought Kiva Systems in 2012, which ushered in the era of Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs), or robots that quickly ferried products from the warehouse’s depths to static human packers.

Since the Kiva acquisition, retailers have scrambled to adopt technology to match Amazon’s warehouse efficiencies.  These technologies range from warehouse management software (made by LogFire, acquired by Oracle; other companies here include Fishbowl and Temando) to warehouse robotics (Locus Robotics, 6 River Systems, Magazino). Some of these companies’ technologies even incorporate wearables (e.g. ProGlove, GetVu) for warehouse workers. We’ve also seen more general-purpose projects in this area, such as Google Robotics. The main adopters of these new technologies are those companies that feel Amazon’s burn most harshly, namely operators of fulfillment centers serving e-commerce.

The schematic below gives a broad picture of their operations and a partial list of warehouse/inventory management technologies they can adopt:

It’s impossible to say what optimizations Amazon will bring to warehousing beyond these, but that may be less important to predict than retailers realize.

The cross: Modernizing the physical retail environment

Amazon has made several recent forays into offline shopping. These range from Amazon Books (physical book stores), Amazon Go (fast retail where consumers skip the cashier entirely) and Amazon 4-Star (stores featuring only products ranked four-stars or higher). Amazon Live is even bringing brick-and-mortar-style shopping streaming to your phone with a home-shopping concept à la QVC. Perhaps most prominently, Amazon’s 2017 purchase of Whole Foods gave the company an entrée into grocery shopping and a nationwide chain of physical stores.

Most retail-watchers have dismissed these projects as dabbling, or — in the case of Whole Foods — focused too narrowly on a particular vertical. But we think they’re missing Bezos’ longer-term strategic aim. Watch that cross: Amazon is mastering how physical retail works today, so it can do offline what it already does incredibly well online, which is harness data to help retailers sell much more intelligently. Amazon recognizes certain products lend themselves better to offline shopping — groceries and children’s clothing are just a few examples.

How can traditional retailers fight back? Get more proactive.

Those shopping experiences are unlikely to disappear. But traditional retailers (and Amazon offline) can understand much, much more about the data points between shopping and purchase. Which path did shoppers take through the store? Which products did they touch and which did they put into a cart? Which items did they try on, and which products did they abandon? Did they ask for different sizes? How does product location within the store influence consumers’ willingness to buy? What product correlations can inform timely marketing offers — for instance, if women often buy hats and sunglasses together in springtime, can a well-timed coupon prompt an additional purchase? Amazon already knows answers to most of these questions online. They want to bring that same intelligence to offline retail.

Obviously, customer privacy will be a crucial concern in this brave new future. But customers have come to expect online data-tracking and now often welcome the more informed recommendations and the convenience this data can bring. Why couldn’t a similar mindset-shift happen in offline retail?

How can retailers fight back?

Make no mistake: Amazon’s one-two retail punch will be formidable. But remember how important the element of surprise is. Too many venture capitalists underestimate physical retail’s importance and pooh-pooh startups focused on this sector. That’s extremely short-sighted.

Does the fact that Amazon is developing computer vision for Amazon Go mean that alternative self-checkout companies (e.g. Trigo, AiFi) are at a disadvantage? I’d argue that this validation is actually an accelerant as traditional retail struggles to keep up.

How can traditional retailers fight back? Get more proactive. Don’t wait for Amazon to show you what the next best-practice in retail should be. There’s plenty of exciting technology you can adopt today to beat Jeff Bezos to the punch. Take Relex, a Finnish startup using AI and machine learning to help brick-and-mortar and e-commerce companies make better forecasts of how products will sell. Or companies like Memomi or Mirow that are creating solutions for a more immersive and interactive offline shopping experience.

Amazon’s one-two punch strategy seems to be working. Traditional retailers are largely blinded by the behemoth’s warehousing innovations, just as they are about to be hit with an in-store innovation blow. New technologies are emerging to help traditional retail rally. The only question is whether they’ll implement the solutions fast enough to stay relevant.

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Every shot from the Masters will be posted online within five minutes


The Masters

Golf fans who are planning to watch the Masters this weekend will have yet more ways to check out the action. For the first time at a golf tournament, practically every one of the more than 20,000 shots from the first major of the year will be available to view on the Masters website and app within five minutes of a player striking the ball.

While these videos won’t be live, you’ll essentially be able to watch full rounds from the likes of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Speith without such trivial matters as watching them walk between shots. There is a caveat in that cameras might not capture shots in some instances, such as those from unusual lies, or if a group’s tee shots end up in wildly different spots.

The Masters attracts sports aficionados who might not typically watch golf as well as devotees, so it’s a high-profile way to debut this technology after a few years of development. It should be especially useful over the first two days when the field is at its most expansive, and a player might be unexpectedly putting together a killer round and rampaging up the leaderboard when they aren’t a focus of the TV broadcast. However, fans who are attending the Masters in person will have to stay content with play going on around them — cell phones aren’t permitted on the Augusta National course.

Meanwhile, IBM is using AI to automatically stitch together three-minute highlight reels of rounds. The Watson supercomputer will observe “excitement levels of sound, visual content and motion ” in celebrations and crowd noise to figure out which are the most significant and exciting shots. It will also look at factors like ball location, shot length, hole yardage and whether a ball landed in water or sand to help it determine the most interesting moments.

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Microsoft and Amazon will fight for the Pentagon's $10B cloud contract


Ivan Cholakov via Getty Images

Amazon and Microsoft are the two final companies in the running for the Defense Department’s $10 billion cloud computing contract. The Pentagon’s migration to the cloud, known as the JEDI project, was announced in 2017, with some of the biggest companies in the world competing for the prize ever since (although Google sat it out, citing “AI principles“).

And just like any reality TV show competition, there’s been a good chunk of drama getting to this point. IBM and Oracle also bid for the contract, but ultimately didn’t cut the mustard. That didn’t stop Oracle from launching a lawsuit accusing an Amazon employee — who had previously worked on JEDI — of having undue influence in proceedings. The Pentagon, however, claims this had “no adverse impact on the integrity of the acquisition process.”

Both Amazon and Microsoft have been focusing heavily on cloud computing in recent times. And while a government contract of this size would be a significant boon to both, motivation for success must certainly be driven by a degree of rivalry between the two competing companies. We’ll find out in mid-July at the earliest who comes out on top.

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On balance, the cloud has been a huge boon to startups

Today’s startups have a distinct advantage when it comes to launching a company because of the public cloud. You don’t have to build infrastructure or worry about what happens when you scale too quickly. The cloud vendors take care of all that for you.

But last month when Pinterest announced its IPO, the company’s cloud spend raised eyebrows. You see, the company is spending $750 million a year on cloud services, more specifically to AWS. When your business is primarily focused on photos and video, and needs to scale at a regular basis, that bill is going to be high.

That price tag prompted Erica Joy, a Microsoft engineer to publish this Tweet and start a little internal debate here at TechCrunch. Startups, after all, have a dog in this fight, and it’s worth exploring if the cloud is helping feed the startup ecosystem, or sending your bills soaring as they have with Pinterest.

For starters, it’s worth pointing out that Ms. Joy works for Microsoft, which just happens to be a primary competitor of Amazon’s in the cloud business. Regardless of her personal feelings on the matter, I’m sure Microsoft would be more than happy to take over that $750 million bill from Amazon. It’s a nice chunk of business, but all that aside, do startups benefit from having access to cloud vendors?

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Cloud Foundry ❤ Kubernetes

Cloud Foundry, the open source platform-as-a-service project that more than half of the Fortune 500 companies use to help them build, test and deploy their applications, launched well before Kubernetes existed. Because of this, the team ended up building Diego, its own container management service. Unsurprisingly, given the popularity of Kubernetes, which has become somewhat of the de facto standard for container orchestration, a number of companies in the Cloud Foundry ecosystem starting looking into how they could use Kubernetes to replace Diego.

The result of this is Project Eirini, which was first proposed by IBM. As the Cloud Foundry Foundation announced today, Project Eirini now passes the core functional tests the team runs to validate the software releases of its application runtime, the core Cloud Foundry service that deploys and manages applications (if that’s a bit confusing, don’t even think about the fact that there’s also a Cloud Foundry Container Runtime, which already uses Kubernetes, but which is mostly meant to give enterprise a single platform for running their own applications and pre-built containers from third-party vendors).

a foundry for clouds“That’s a pretty big milestone,” Cloud Foundry Foundation CTO Chip Childers told me. “The project team now gets to shift to a mode where they’re focused on hardening the solution and making it a bit more production-ready. But at this point, early adopters are also starting to deploy that [new] architecture.”

Childers stressed that while the project was incubated by IBM, which has been a long-time backer of overall Cloud Foundry project, Google, Pivotal and others are now also contributing and have dedicated full-time engineers working on the project. In addition, SUSE, SAP and IBM are also active in developing Eirini.

Eirini started out as an incubation project, and while few doubted that this would be a successful project, there was a bit of confusion around how Cloud Foundry would move forward now that it essentially had two container engines for running its core service. At the time, there was even some concern that the project could fork. “I pushed back at the time and said: no, this is the natural exploration process that open source communities need to go through,” Childers said. “What we’re seeing now is that with Pivotal and Google stepping in, that’s a very clear sign that this is going to be the go-forward architecture for the future of the Cloud Foundry Application Runtime.”

A few months ago, by the way, Kubernetes was still missing a few crucial pieces the Cloud Foundry ecosystem needed to make this move. Childers specifically noted that Windows support — something the project’s enterprise users really need — was still problematic and lacked some important features. In recent releases, though, the Kubernetes team fixed most of these issues and improved its Windows support, rendering those issues moot.

What does all of this mean for Diego? Childers noted that the community isn’t at a point where it’ll hold developing that tool. At some point, though, it seems likely that the community will decide that it’s time to start the transition period and make the move to Kubernetes official.

It’s worth noting that IBM today announced its own preview of Eirini in its Cloud Foundry Enterprise Environment and that the latest version of SUSE’s Cloud Foundry-based Application Platform includes a similar preview as well.

In addition, the Cloud Foundry Foundation, which is hosting its semi-annual developer conference in Philadelphia this week, also announced that it has certified its first to systems integrators, Accenture and HCL, as part of its recently launched certification program for companies that work in the Cloud Foundry ecosystem and have at least ten certified developers on their teams.

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