How big are Flash Sales Sites? An Infographic.

We had a look at how flash sales sites work and got into some details regarding their business model.

So, just to get a better understanding at their size and growth rate, I’ve prepared an infographic which I hope you’ll enjoy:

Flash sales sites stats as infographic
Flash sales sites stats as infographic

If you like the information, be sure to visit our sources here and here.

What are Flash Sales Sites and How do They Work?

Visits to Flash Sales Sites have doubled 2011 to 2012. Source: Time.com
Visits to Flash Sales Sites have doubled 2011 to 2012. Source: Time.com

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 5 years you’ve probably heard about a little thing called flash sales sites. Well … maybe not so little. It seems that, according to Gilt founder and ex-CEO Kevin Ryan, the flash sales sites you’ve probably heard about, such as Gilt, Fab and Rue La La have been doing great with turnovers between $100 million and $1,69 billion.

These are all new fresh companies so how come have they managed to grow so fast? How do they work? What is the business model and who are the most prominent players on the market?

Let’s start with number one:

What are flash sales sites?

By now you may have pretty clear idea that flash sales mean generously discounted merchandise. It may be fashion, home products, electronics or others. Customers expect flash sales sites to deliver well .. cheap(er) products.

The whole idea is by no means new. Brick and mortar stores used to and still do it from time to time (usually seasonally) in order to unload overstocks. At some point someone realized that there is a business opportunity there:

Say you have a dozen retailers each having 10 products that went unsold in the previous seasons and they want to get rid of all these stocks. They can either deal with all the hassle of organizing a sales operation to unload extra stocks or someone can just buy the whole merchandise, at an even lower cost and then resell it and turn a profit.

At first companies buying these products didn’t need to sell it at a discounted value. They would just buy the whole unsold stocks and try to sell it (they were usually successful) on a different market. Example: buy discounted merchandise in the US and sell it in Eastern Europe where last year’s collection is not only “good enough” but “great”.

[Read more how retailers connect channels with Omnichannel Retail]

In time the whole “moving to a different market” operation proved to be a little too complicated, with global recession, countries getting a little more protective with their own economy and so on. So a new business model came up:

How do flash sales sites work?

Flash sales develop a large targeted potential buyers database, test these potential buyers to see which is the right product mix and then buy unsold inventory and resell it at a large discount. Sometimes – they don’t even do that. They just attract potential customers to several discount offers which become active when a certain number of buyers is reached. They ensure this way that they are able to purchase the merchandise without reporting losses.

The logistics in this business is a little tricky if you are dealing with “volatile” stocks and can sometimes turn to frustration from customers as orders sometime take weeks to arrive.

Increase in customer lifetime value.
Increase in customer lifetime value.

However, when purchases are made, flash sales sites customers are more likely to buy again, according to this study. Customer lifetime value increases 385% for flash sales sites, whereas traditional online retail shows an increase of “only” 94%.

So – business is a-booming. Buyers flock around flash sales sites, they buy more than on traditional online stores and the business model seems to be more stable than Gorupon’s.

Who are the champions and who are the contenders? Let’s start with number 5:

Which are the top largest flash sales sites?

5. Fab.com

Although Fab is moving to a no-flash-sales model, the company still features some of the sales that made them famous.
Although Fab is moving to a no-flash-sales model, the company still features some of the sales that made them famous.

4. Ruelala.com

Ruelala.com
Ruelala.com

Ruelala had a dashing growth in the previous years but few know it is part of GSI Commerce, which in turn is a subsidiary of eBay so yeah, Ruelala is part of eBay.

3. OneKingsLane.com

One Kings Lane was launched in 2009 by female entrepreneurs Susan Feldman and Alison Pincus
One Kings Lane was launched in 2009 by female entrepreneurs Susan Feldman and Alison Pincus

One Kings Lane.com is a place where customers can get a great curated product mix for home. The revenue was roughly $200 million in 2012.

2. Gilt.com

Gilt, although not turning a profit is approaching the $1 billion turnover threshold fast.
Gilt, although not turning a profit is approaching the $1 billion turnover threshold fast.

1. Vente-Privee.com

Largest and one of the oldest flash sales sites - Vente-Privee, unlike its crappy URL is actually awesome with its 2013 Euro 1.3 Billion Turnover.
Largest and one of the oldest flash sales sites – Vente-Privee, unlike its crappy URL is actually awesome with its 2013 Euro 1.3 Billion Turnover.

The award for the largest flash sales site goes to Vente-Privee, which has had a 40% increase in flash sales in 2012. Their sales went up to € 1.3 billion (aprox. $1.69 billion). They’re living large. So large that in order to celebrate this great feat they bought a theater. No, really.

How big are flash sales?

Now, if you’ve find flash sales interesting, you might head over to this link right here, where you can have a look at an infographic showing more information on the subject at hand.

flash-sales-pic

 

The Top 7 Most Important Factors in Building (Better) Ecommerce Companies

eCommerce has really picked up pace in the last ten years and is on its way to becoming a really serious competitor to classic retail. Needless to say, many companies jump the ecommerce wagon. Some are internet savvy, some are retailers with many years of experience or, in the most fortunate case, both. However, that most fortunate case is usually rare. The internet and the classic commerce are still, for most of us, worlds apart.

ClickNow

The main reason ecommerce is still a pretty damn hard thing to do is it takes a lot of know-how regarding both commerce and the internet. When starting or expanding an ecommerce operation you will be faced with decision regarding management and sales platform, marketing (“do I do Social Media, should I go for Search Marketing or maybe Affiliate marketing?”) but also more real-world issues such as “What are the products I will be selling?”, “How do I store these products?” or “How is my product going to reach my client?”.

While there are many, many variables and data you will be faced with, you still need to keep an overview on the most important factors that will make your ecommerce business successful or not. Here are the most important 7:

  1. Choice of Products and Product Display
  2. Stocks availability
  3. Pricing
  4. Shipping
  5. Customer Care
  6. Search (yes, search)
  7. Innovation

As you notice I have not mentioned marketing. Marketing makes a difference when all those above are working well together. That is not to say marketing is not important. It is. Unfortunately marketing cannot save you when your store isn’t performing its base functions.

[See how these factors connect to create Omnichannel Retail]

Further on, keep in mind that as an eCommerce company you are first and foremost a technology company. If you are a classic retailer this part will be the hardest thing to wrap your head around. You use technology to deliver products at the best price and with the best customer care possible. As such you need to stay constantly focused on market changes (your product market) and technology changes (think how important search engines are for online-first businesses) and adapt those changes to your 7 pillars of ecommerce excellence, as follows:

1. Choosing the Product Range and Product Display

What makes Amazon such a great business? One might argue things like “Wide variety of products”, “Great prices”, “Fast delivery” or “Great customer experience”. All these, and probably more, are true. All these make Amazon the leader in US’ largest online retailers but I would like you to focus on the following screen:

Amazon tracks, stores, analyzes and than recommends based on that recommendation products you are likely to buy.
Amazon tracks, stores, analyzes and than recommends based on that recommendation products you are likely to buy.

What you see there is my recent history on Amazon (I am quite fond of eCommerce, as you’ve probably noticed). Now if you would be Amazon you could basically market anything to anyone (well, almost anything to almost anyone). Why? You can show your customer a version of your product choice based on his or her particular interest,  particular history of browsing and buying.

So with Amazon basically each customer gets his or her own version of the store. 

But you are not Amazon. You don’t have the same product choice, the same data, the same infrastructure. You will need to create a specific product choice and focus on your specific niche.

Ex.: Say customer X wants to buy a computer. Where would he go? Probably to an IT related online store. Say he needs to buy a mouse after he bought the computer. He would, if the first shopping experience was good, go to the same place and make an additional purchase.

If you are not Amazon you will need to make a clear choice regarding your product range. You cannot be a fashion retailer and also deliver groceries. It just doesn’t makes sense. It doesn’t make sense business wise and it doesn’t make any sense for your customer.

After you have chosen your product range you will need to expand it. Say you started by selling clothes. There are a few product categories that would go great with that type of products:

  • shoes
  • accessories
  • bags

Once you got that settled you will notice that there are specific ways you will need to display your product. As a fashion retailer you will need models and show your customers how those clothes would look on them. Such a choice of display won’t make too much sense if you would be selling, say, laptops. No one actually cares how they look when typing, unless they own a Mac and they are typing in a Starbucks.

2. Stocks Availability

Picture this: you are shopping in your favorite brick and mortar store. You’ve just tried on a couple of jackets and you’ve found that one, great looking, discounted, jacket. You have it in your hands. You have the money. You head over to the cash register and take out your credit card. Surprisingly, even though you’ve spent the last 20 minutes searching for it, trying it on and then deciding to purchase it, the item is not actually in stock.

That is not very nice, isn’t it?

Customers feel tricked when they try to purchase something that is not actually in stock. That usually happens when your warehouse stocks system aren’t synced with your ecommerce site. It’s really frustrating and you need to make sure that never happens to your customers.

Key take away: Keep your stocks updated real time.

3.Pricing

Pricing – how do you do it? Do you just go ahead for the smallest price possible? Should you rather adjust your price according to the market and the other competitors?

Pricing should take you in the shortest time to a profitable operation. The pricing operation is mostly an internal decision (the price should first depend on your OWN resources and costs) while still trying to keep up with the market. Here are several things you should consider while looking at your pricing options:

  • You will probably not turn a profit from the start. As such – focus on creating a competitive price that will, at some point help you turn profitable.
  • DO NOT go for the lowest price on the market. Try to earn customers by offering discounts, vouchers, having a great customer care and a great product range. Anything but the lowest price. That is always an unsuccessful choice. Of course – you will get a couple of customers but these are not really the customers you are looking for. Plus a low price usually means a very low profit or loss. It’s better to have a slow but steady increase in customer base than a fast increase that will, in time, bankrupt your business.
  • Keep in mind the operational costs. While most startups focus on technology and marketing costs, they usually overlook many operational costs such as staff, warehousing, shipment and others.
  • Think highest possible price instead lowest possible price. Keep in mind that you are not your marketing. While you may want to be seen as a low pricing company you need to maximize your profit. Find the best balance between profit and managing to stay competitive in the market.

4. Shipping

Here's a box from ASOS. It's branded, easy to use and it usually carries things people love.
Here’s a box from ASOS. It’s branded, easy to use and it usually carries things people love.

Shipping is an important part in your business. Doh! It is, for best or for worse – the most important physical contact your customer has with your company, unless you also have brick-and-mortar stores. You should make the best of it.

Here are some ways of making a great impression with shipment:

  • Treat the delivery box as the most important part of your visual and physical identity. Because it is. Have a look in the right hand area at this ASOS box. It has a clean, functional design, it’s beautiful and people love receiving it. The experience is close to receiving a gift, as most have already paid for their purchases. Don’t spoil the experience.
  • One size shipping DOES NOT fit all. Adjust your shipping model to your market. If you are delivering groceries people will expect them as soon as possible (usually within 24 hrs) and are willing to pay to get this. If you are a discount shop people are willing to wait a little bit longer as long as they know they get a better deal.
  • If possible – offer free returns. It’s great when trying to build trust. People will think the pros and cons of buying from your web store and a free return is a great incentive.

5.  Customer care

This is one of the most important pieces of building a strong, reliable eCommerce brand and, unfortunately, one of the hardest to manage.

Zappos has turned great customer service from a cost to a competitive advantage
Zappos has turned great customer service from a cost to a competitive advantage

While CRM (customer relationship management) systems and technologies have improved greatly, most of what your customers would call customer care still relies on people answering calls, people delivering merchandise, people in charge of packaging. People, people, people. Customer care is about bringing the right kind of people on board, making sure they understand what makes your company great and making sure they always do their best in handling customer needs.

It’s a hard thing to build. Good customer care is subjective. However, there are a couple of things you can do to improve your chances at keeping your customers happy and returning:

  • Build a culture around your customers. Make sure that anyone involved in your ecommerce operation knows how important it is to keep customers happy. After all, it’s not like jobs depend on it. Oh, wait. They do.
  • Make sure you track your customers purchase history and make this purchase history as clear as possible to your call center operators. You won’t be able to attain a perfect score. Just don’t ruin your best customers’ experience.
  • Don’t judge your customers. There are no “dumb questions”. There are no calls that take too long. After all, if Zappos can handle a 9 hours and 37 minutes phone call, you can spend a few extra minutes with those who buy your products.

In the end customer care is actually treating your customers friendly, polite and helpful. If you can manage that , you will build a great shopping experience.

6. Search

Amazon's search engine, A9.
Amazon’s search engine, A9.

While it could be a little awkward to add search, basically an ubiquitous and often overlooked eCommerce feature, it actually is one of the most important tools in helping your customer reach its desired product as fast as possible, without hassle.

How many items are listed on Amazon? Millions. There are so many products that Amazon decided that it didn’t need just a search engine “feature”, but a search engine program. At launch A9, Amazon’s Search platform,  was rumored to be a competitor to Google but it turns out Amazon just wants to guide its customers as efficient as possible to the products they are looking for.

Don’t underestimate the importance of search. We live in a search-engine era where we need to find what we are looking for in matters of seconds. If your search feature doesn’t do that, maybe its time to work a little bit more on that.

7. Innovation

kindle dx
The Kindle DX

Remember: as an eCommerce company, you are a technology company. I will say it again. You are a technology company. Get used to it. Now – as any technology company, you need not only keep up with market developments such as mobile commerce or social commerce, you need to lead the way.

The largest eCommerce companies lead by innovation. Weather it is Amazon’s Kindle, Ebay’s Market Place or even AliBaba.com’s online payment system, Alipay – they all innovated their way to the top and continue to develop to stay there.

Conclusion

These are the top 7 most important factors that make or brake eCommerce companies. Focus and improve each one of them but remember that commerce has always been about a) delivering products, b) at a great price, c) before and better than anyone else. It still is. We’ve just added a layer of technology on top of it.

5 Reasons Customers Will Shop Online (Other than Price)

When it comes to online retail conventional wisdom states that customers will choose the virtual over brick-and-mortar store mainly because of the price. While this may be true , it’s only partially true. Price is a big factor and probably the most rational factor when it comes to shopping online. However, choosing online shopping takes more than the rational.

why people buy online graph
According to this PWC study, while still being important, price is not the only factor favoring the decision to purchase online

Above you can see a chart on a recent study by PWC, that shows some of the reasons driving customers to shop online. Lower prices and better offers is the second most important reason people will buy online followed by the speed factor and things like better variety and better product information.

[See more about what customers expect from Omnichannel Retail]

So – if you are managing, owning or part of an online retail operation, you should know your customers motivations.

Here are the top 5 reasons, other than price, that drive people to buy online:

1. Shopping online is convenient for anyone, anytime.

The usual trouble with business hours is that they are the same for pretty much everyone. Both shoppers and retailers. While movies portrait people as care-free, on-the-go individuals, the reality is that much of the time people are either stuck in an office, stuck in traffic or just at home, spending time with the family. Say customer X remembers he needs to buy a new pair of shoes at 2 PM, while still at work. Will it be possible for him to drive to the closest store? Will he just go online and buy his favorite pair of shoes, from a wide selection of brands and offers. Of course it’s the latter which brings us to …

2. Shopping online is easier and less stressing

Think about shopping centers. Picture the people, the crowd, the options. Hear the noise. Now think about looking for a parking space, walking to the mall, walking some more from store to store. Trying on. Maybe going home empty handed.

Now picture doing all that in front of the computer, listening to your favorite music, comparing the best deals, without anyone trying to convince you what is the perfect fit. Shopping online is just easier. Customers choose it because it’s stress-free, it’s rational and you can get the best deal without spending a whole afternoon looking for a pair of pants.

3. Shopping for products unavailable in the near area

Not longer than 10 years ago, most shoppers would have had to choose between the products available in the nearest store or not buy anything at all. There was no “shopping for that special bottle of wine I saw last year in Paris”. If the local wine store was not selling it, well … it simply wasn’t worth the hassle to look for it anymore. Now consumers can just “google” a particular brand or product and someone, somewhere, will be ready to sell it and ship it.

4. It’s easier to compare offers

To be fair, this one has a lot to do with price but than again comparison and especially easy comparison is a matter of convenience rather than pricing. Comparing prices online is way easier than any of the options offline stores have.

5. It’s just so much better to talk about

Remember the last time you talked about visiting a store while chatting with your best friend? Probably a long time ago. Truth is conventional retail stores are just so … available to anyone. Uninteresting. Common. You cannot brag about a new, indie, never before heard store that still offers a lot of products. Shopping online is just much more conversation-worthy.

Conclusion: if you are selling online – please don’t focus solely on price. It is so yesterday.

Bridging the gap in multichannel shopping

Online retail is the wonder kid of retail – it is young, energetic, it is growing fast yet it is still in its infancy. Based on 2010 estimates online retail amounted for no more than 7% of total retail purchases, as seen below.

Evolution of online rtail share
Evolution of online retail share

The figure may not be exact as it amounts for purchases that happen exclusively online. Users tend to mix retail channels in their quest for a better shopping experience. They might know the brick-and-mortar store brand and order online because it is more convenient. They might also discover the online store, find the product best suited and than “feel” it in the physical store.

Multichannel tracking has not changed that much since the days consumers would receive coupons in magazines and advertisers would track these coupons to get a better view on what’s efficient and what is not in their marketing efforts.

What is Multichannel Shopping?

First and foremost – what is Multichannel Shopping? As you probably have noticed or done so yourself, shoppers tend to use multiple ways of combining online and offline activities. Here are the most important:

  1. Shopping across multiple channels (brick-and-mortar stores, online shops, mobile apps, phone order etc.). Consumers will try to use the best channel available at the time. Say you are a avid online shopper but this evening your brother celebrates his anniversary and you forgot to buy him a present. You will rush over to the closest store and buy something from there, after you have searched for that store and the gift online.
  2. Using more channels to purchase goods from a single retailer. Users that are accustomed to a certain brand will try to buy as often as possible from that particular brand. They will mix offline and online purchases, depending on the specific occasion, while staying loyal that brand.
  3. Using multiple channels to complete a purchase. Users will use multiple channels sometimes, to get the best deal / the easiest way to get the goods. They might browse the online store, order the product on the phone and purchase / pay for it in the brick and mortar store.

How can we track Multichannel Shoppers?

As retailers increasingly look for new ways of tracking consumers and increasing sales they use a combination of old(er) and new(er) strategies, such as:

  1. Multichannel loyalty programs – this programs are usually extended CRM programs, using identifiers such as member cards, phone numbers, unique ID’s or others. Consumers are encouraged through loyalty points incentives to use their ID’s on the different channels
  2. Multichannel consumer life cycle – tracking the consumer through different channels by combining online and offline purchase steps (Ex.:buy online, pay offline, support on the phone)
  3. Track users through wi-fi and mobile use – a rather cutting edge yet extremely promising strategy of trading free on-location internet (everybody wants some), combining it with personal online data (such as Facebook user accounts) and seeking trends in collected data, in order to increase sales and understand the consumer life-cycle better.

What is your take on multichannel shopping?

Top 5 Largest Online Retailers – Who Are These Companies And How Did They Make It To The Top?

Here are 5 companies whose combined online sales  in 2011 amount to almost $75 Billion, US and Canada only. Let’s also have a look at their background and how did they manage to reach the top 5. The winner is one of the fastest growing companies in the world, a company born and raised online and probably the future of global retail. Let’s first have a look at the runners up:

5. Dell Inc.

Online sales: $4,609,728,000
2011 Growth: – 4%

dell logoDell is the only company in this top to have a negative growth.  The decrease in sales is a direct result of global PC sales contraction in 2011.  If your company is not named Apple and your business has something  to do with PC’s, than 2011 was probably one of the worst years for you. In fact Dell’s PC’s shipments declined 8% throughout the year so that makes dell.com’s sales 200% better than the overall company performance.

Dell was one of the first companies to integrate ecommerce in their sales process. Its e-commerce operation started off as a static page in 1994, integrated online sales features and soon enough they were selling more than $1 million a year, which as you might remember, was $1 million more than most of the companies.

Dell’s innovative approach to online commerce (customize and buy) was a result of:

  1. its business model that allowed companies and individuals to order customized computers via mail orders pre-internet era
  2. an increase in losses due to aggressive competition from its arch-nemesis – Compaq. Dell recorded losses of nearly $100 million in 1994, before launching Dell.com.

Following the launch Dell expanded its online operations in Europe and Asia and by 2000 it was already the market leader in PC sales worldwide. It stayed in the pole-position until 2006, when HP reclaimed the throne. Not bad.

4. Walmart.com

Online sales: $4,900,000,000
2011 Growth: + 19.70%

walmart logoWalmart is big. Really big. It operates more than 10.000 retail units in 27 countries. It’s net sales in 2012 increased 5.9% to 443.9 billion dollars. Big as it might be, Walmart did miss the start and that’s one of the reasons it’s “only” no.4 on our list. But worry not – the company expands its operations online as aggressively as it does with its brick and mortar stores and soon it will be fighting for the top position.

Jeremy King Walmart
Jeremy King – Walmart’s CTO

The company, whose first store opened in 1962, had launched Walmart.com in 2000, after it incorporated it as a separate company, based in Silicon Valley. Accel Ventures had a minority stake in the company at the time but the two agreed to disagree and in 2001 Walmart bought back Accel’s share.

As of that moment Walmart.com worked as a subsidiary of Wal-mart Stores, Inc. and it slowly started its development. CEO Mike Duke, an alumni of Georgia’s Institute of Technology, showed he meant e-business when it turned the company from a rigid, unambitious company to one of the biggest challengers to Amazon’s ecommerce reign.

Walmart started @WalmartLabs, and brought aboard the ship hundreds of talented engineers and business people, all focused on retail, social media and mobile. Yup, they do have all the buzzwords they need and as of 2011 they also have Jeremy King, one of the leading engineers at eBay, back in the day.

In 2011, Walmart agreed to purchase Kosmix, a social media startup founded by Venky Harinarayan and Anand Rajaraman in 2005. It’s worth to mention this just to get a glimpse in the kind of people and technology the company is now bringing aboard:

  • Mr. Harinarayan and Mr. Rajaraman previously founded and sold Junglee to Amazon for a reported $250 million
  • The two were angel investors in Facebook
  • Kosmix was funded by Lightspeed Venture Partners, Accel Partners, Dag Ventures and … wait for it … Jeff Bezos’ personal investment company Bezos Expeditions

Walmart is now acting as a Silicon Valley start-up when it comes to ecommerce – it’s lean, it values technology talent and it has a vision and a strategy.

[Read more about how Walmart and Apple are implementing Omnichannel Retail]

3. Apple Inc.

Online Sales: $6,660,000,000
2011 Growth: 27.40%

apple logoAs I am writing this post Exxon surpassed Apple to become, once again, the largest company in the world. However, Apple is still valued at $413 billion and it is still the coolest thing in technology. The company started its online sales operations in in november 1997, an year after acquiring NeXT Computers and bringing back Steve Jobs.

The whole online store was based at that moment on NeXT’s WebObject’s technology. This allowed fast implementation (1 year was needed to implement the whole online store) and a great online experience. As Steve Jobs declared at the time, $12 million worth of sales were generated using the online store, in the first month.

One of the cornerstones of Apple’s development for both offline and online sales was the Apple Store – the physical, brick and mortar, beautifully designed, concept store. When the first Apple Store was opened in 2001, Jobs wanted an experience rather than a shopping center. The Macs were beautifully designed, they worked better than most PCs but were still compared in terms of specs to PCs, as most consumers were not considering computing an area were design, experience or feeling had anything to do with a purchase decision. That was what the company needed to change.

The Apple Store - the greatest showroom an online store can get.
The Apple Store – the greatest showroom an online store can get.

The Apple Store started as a Store-within-Store experience when Steve Jobs stopped retail contracts with most retailers, except CompUSA. In exchange for being the exclusive Apple Dealer, CompUSA agreed to offer Apple a 15% area of all stores, and the right to have its own sales-person on-site.

People would walk in, experience the Apple ecosystem and even if they didn’t buy right then they would still remember the brand and later purchase online.

The Apple Store was a move that greatly helped Apple sell online. It was the most beautiful showroom, before online retailers even thought about having offline stores to increase market share.

The online shopping experience changed when, following 2001’s launch of the iPod, Apple released the iTunes Store in 2003. 5 years later, the iTunes Store was already the largest music vendor in the US and in 2010 it was the largest music vendor in the world. In Q1 2011 Apple’s iTunes Store revenue alone was $1.4 billion.

Along came the iPhone and, just as the company previously revolutionized the music industry with the iPod, the iPhone changed mobile, software and well…basically anything we humans do.

Apple’s retail concept is not just a store, it’s an ecosystem. It’s growing fast and it’s got a solid lock-in on its customers. Right now Apple’s online sales can only go up.

2. Staples Inc.

Online Sales: $10,600,000,000
2011 Growth: 3.90%

Staple logoThe first company in this list to cross the $10 billion in online sales threshold is Staples, the largest office supply chain in the world. Staples has more than 2000 stores in 26 countries but it plans to slash its brick and mortar space by 15% and focus on online sales.

The first store was opened in 1986, when the company was funded by certain private equity firms, including Bain Capital, co-founded by Mitt Romney (yeah, that Mitt Romney) who stayed on board for the next 15 years to help with the company strategy.

Staples.com was launched in 1998 and had a steady growth ever since, unlike its offline operations. Although often overlooked as a key competitor in the online retail arena, Staples did beat Apple and Walmart in this top so we should give credit where credit is due.

It’s main online sales channels are Staples.com, StaplesAdvantage.com and Quill.com. The infrastructure is based on IBM hardware and software and the company is ready to heavily invest in developing its online operations. It even started its very own innovation hub called E-Commerce Innovation Center.

Ok, long story short – the early bird catches the worm. Staples may not be the coolest brand in this list, but it was on of the pioneers in this field and it’s making lots of money online and unlike OfficeMax, and Office Depot, its main competitors, it has the best chance to make a shift online when its stores will stop being profitable.

1. Amazon.com Inc.

Online Sales: $48,080,000,000
2011 Growth: 40.60%

amazon logoYes, I know it may come as a shock but Amazon is, indeed, the largest online retailer in the world. It leads the online retailers’ top by a very long margin and it will continue to do so for a very long time, if we are to look at its continuous growth, its innovative practices and  its aggressive expansion.

The company was founded in 1994 by Jeff Bezos and Amazon.com went online in 1995, way before any of the other companies in this list were. Amazon was one of the few companies to exit the 1997-2000 dot-com bubble still intact. It would take another year after that for the company to turn a profit – in 2001 Amazon had its first profitable quarter – $5 million in profit on revenues of over $1 billion. Not very much but it proved its model.

kindle dx
The Kindle DX

It got sued by Barnes & Noble and Walmart (you might recognize these companies as some of those most affected by Amazon’s growth), it acquired some great startups (such as Kiva, Zappos, IMDB.com) and in 2007 launched its revolutionary device, the Kindle.

The Kindle was so successful that it changed the way we think of books and overall media. Right now Amazon sells more ebooks than hardcover in the UK. It is the biggest Android app seller in the world and it has access to its customers purchasing intentions through Kindle’s usage stats.

Although there is so much to say about Amazon one thing is clear: it is the top online retailer and it is eating into the large offline retailers’ sales too. Soon enough it might take their place.

I hope you enjoyed this list. Keep in mind that this post is based on Internet Retailer’s top 500 online retailers and features companies in the US and Canada. Figures are based on 2011 sales provided by different sources, usually the companies themselves. I recommend having a look at the full top and, as I will also do, purchase the full guide.

Will Amazon change classic retail?

amazon logoAmazon has already changed the way we think about online retail and its influence and disrupting force of change and inovation has just began to sink in. The company reported a $48.07 billion revenue in  2011, making it by far the largest online retailer, followed by Staples  and Apple ($10.6 billion and $6.6 billion respectively). The company started by selling books and later expanded into CD’s DVD’s, MP3, ebooks but also jewelry, electronics, furniture, apparel and even food. Here are some of the reasons why Amazon is going to be a game changer in offline retail in the following years.

 

Lack of innovative competition.

It was probably Jeff Bezos visionary strategy that led the company but it also had something to do with established industries refusing to change. As you probably know it was Amazon that bet big bucks on eBooks and eBook readers but it was the lack of competition that made it so successful in that department. While the team at Lab 126, Amazon’s Kindle research team, was working hard to launch its first viable product, the competition was ignoring or at most distantly observing the emerging market. It took Barnes&Noble 2 years to launch Nook, after the first Kindle hit the market.

After eBooks proved to be such a successful story Amazon moved on to selling what the market demanded – tablets that run an Android powered, Amazon flavored operating system, allowing the company to research consumer preferences (by analyzing Kindle Fire web traffic), and most important – selling apps. As a direct result of this move Amazon is now the largest Android apps seller, closing in to the iTunes AppStore.

Amazon has a few tricks up its sleeves

Amazon is not just a retailer. It is a brand loved by customers partly because of its previous underdog image (long time gone as it is estimated to overtake Walmart by 2020) and partly because it sells things people love – books, music, apps even jewelry and furniture. But there is more. Here are some of its “to be loved” products:

1. Amazon TV 

Amazon is known for selling media. Books, music, video – it’s all media. Why not join the soon-to-be-trendy market for digital TV? It has already shown it can use it’s market share to launch a digital product that streamlines media consumption (the Kindle) – so why not TV?

The company’s model features low cost (even under production costs) hardware retail as a way to create an infrastructure to deliver content profitable so TV might just be the natural choice in post-Kindle business development.

2. Amazon Offline stores

Amazon Lockers is the first step toward an offline presence. It may sound strange but Amazon will need to create offline stores in order to tackle the offline retailers. Why? Online retail is big and is growing fast but if you look at the bigger picture it is still only 8.9% of total retail revenue, even in the US.

Such a bold move may be a little different than what we expect. Brick and mortar stores have basically stayed the same for the past century so maybe there is a need for a change. Amazon Lockers may be the store of the future, not just an experiment.

3. Amazon’s private label

So far Amazon worked as a rather large market place for all kinds of products and suppliers. It may be time for the company to tackle some of the largest and most profitable companies in the world. There is speculation of an Amazon private label, that could produce everyday items such as personal care, child care or clothing. Such a bold move would really be disruptive as the competitors in this market are P&G, Unilever and others such.

The global economy can’t handle the “classic retail”

The global supply chain puts too much burden on consumers. P&G’s margin was down from 25% (dec 2008) to approximately 7% (dec 2012). To handle the global operations, marketing costs supporting dozens of brands and still turn profit in a recession means that P&G’s products must start with a rather large margin, supported by mass market advertising.

Amazon is a different kind of business. It doesn’t need large margins. It’s flexible and fast. It can adapt and can tackle markets even before incumbents notice it as a threat. My bet is that Amazon’s influence, not only on retail but on global economy as a whole, is just beginning to show.

Mobile, Social search, Photos and iOS integration makes Facebook Stocks Rise

After dropping more than 50% since the IPO, Facebook’s market cap restarted growth following Mark Zuckerberg’s on-stage interview at TechCrunch Disrupt. The company closed today with a 7.62% increase in its share price. Several factors could have lead to this fortunate turn of events but the keywords are: mobile, social search, photos and iOS integration.

facebook market capitalization growth
A surprising growth in Facebook market capitalization

Facebook’s focus on mobile

On stage, Mark Zuckerberg made it very clear that Facebook is focused on mobile growth. A very bold statement, probably targeted at investors that so far have had their fair share of drama, was “On mobile we are going to make a lot more money than on desktop”.

Facebook has more than 488 million mobile users and the numbers are growing fast, due to increase in smartphone and mobile internet adoption. Recently the company introduced new ways for advertisers to target mobile users through sponsored stories. The advertisers were not so fast to switch to mobile ads, however: although mobile revenues are estimated at about $72 million this year, the figures are below Twitter’s estimates.

This situation is sure to change as Facebook’s focus seems to follow the mobile trend.

Facebook search

Probably the most important thing Zuckerberg mentioned was the fact that Facebook now serves 1 billion search results per day, “without even trying”. To put that in perspective – that is 10 times the number of Bing searches and approximately 30% of Google’s searches. Imagine that – 30% of the world’s largest search engine.

With social input Facebook search can potentially deliver better results than Google. After all, Google is not really good at answering questions but rather locating information. Facebook users usually ask their friends for help on different issues and this type of behavior creates a huge pool of data Facebook can use to answer questions in a very efficient way. Even “without trying”, Facebook has recently started monetizing its searches through contextual ads.

Facebook and Instagram Photos

instagram facebook
Image source

Zuckerberg mentioned that there is no hidden agenda in Instagram’s acquisition. They want to help the app grow and so far they increased exposure by 1100%.

Photos seem to be a very important area in future Facebook development. Although it’s obvious that photos have a positive psychological effect on users and increase revenue through photo-page delivered ads there is probably something that we don’t know yet.

iOS integration

Facebook is deeply embedded in iOS 6

iOS is the most popular mobile operating system on the Internet, with an astonishing 65.27% of all mobile internet users. Today Apple announced several news, including the long awaited iPhone 5, the new iPod touch and some social features based on Facebook and Twitter social relationships.

Having been integrated in the world’s most popular OS means big exposure for Facebook. Even more – it means an increase in revenues.

As I mentioned a few days ago Apple and Facebook were planning and started rolling out a deeper iTunes integration. Although Facebook is just starting monetizing its mobile users, Apple is one of the best at this game. Using Facebook’s social features Apple can sell even more, bringing a new stream of revenues for both companies.

It seems as though George Soros knew what he was doing when he purchased Facebook stocks

Internet Economy to reach $4.2 trillion by 2016. 5 reasons this figure is an understatement.

In a report made public earlier this year Boston Consulting Group stated that the Internet Economy in G20 countries is expected to reach $4.2 trillion by 2016. The company also expects the number of internet connected users to reach 3 billion (just for the record – there are now approximately 2.2 billion).

At first sight this might seem like a huge figure but I believe that the company understated the importance and potential growth of the internet economy. Yes, I believe $4.2 trillion is an understatement. Why?

1. $4.2 trillion means less than 7 times Apple’s market cap. Yes, Apple might be the largest company ever, in terms of market capitalization but it’s just one company and it means the combined brain and sales power of less than 50.000 employees.

2. The internet economy is still in its infancy. We have just began discovering viable business models that work on the Internet. Companies such as Apple, Google or Amazon innovated and improved on existing business models but are yet to reach their full potential. Amazon for example, has launched its first Kindle device 5 years ago. After half a decade its customers are buying more ebooks than printed editions. This kind of growth could not be expected or planed.

3. We do not have the economic models to understand Internet’s impact. Most of our economy is based on theories that were thought of and published in a time the concept of Internet was closer to science-fiction than academic research. More recent economic theories such as the behavioral economics approach are closer to reality and better at predicting the evolution of the internet economy.

4. The report understates the economic importance and impact of mobile internet. Fixed lines have helped us reach a 32% internet penetration. Mobile connections exceed in many developed and developing countries 100%. Smartphones and internet connected devices will replace older mobile devices. In less than 10 years I expect Internet penetration to reach past 70%. With such a high adoption rate Internet Economy is bound to exceed greatly the $4.2 trillion figure.

5. The figures are probably based on current growth and vastly underestimate innovation. Innovation is the key factor in understanding internet economy growth. The large ecosystem comprised of entrepreneurs, investment funds and talented engineers has taken the world by storm for the past 20 years. Ever since the dot com bubble this ecosystem has had its fair share of skepticism that is still deeply embedded in the economic world. Year after year pundits are proven wrong by this ever increasing sector. Innovation can’t be planned or measured very well for now but it is there and companies that foster innovation manage to increase their market share.

The internet economy has already surpassed in some of the G20 countries some very heavy economy sectors such as energy, agriculture or automotive. This trend will continue. By 2016 industries that have not been surpassed by the Internet will be the exception, not the rule.

Amazon sells more ebooks than paperback and hardcover books. How come?

Amazon is already selling more ebooks then we might expect. For every 100 paperback and hardcover books, Amazon delivers 114 ebooks to its readers in UK. The fact is astonishing as this is sure to trigger the same long-term effect as iTunes had: it will change the publishing industry just like iTunes changed the music industry.

kindle dx
The Kindle DX

Change happened gradually. Legend has it Jeff Bezos saw the eInk readers and understood that such a device might be, in the wrong hands, Amazon’s arch-nemesis. In 2004 he order 30 eInk readers and asked Steve Kessel to setup a research facility for a future switch to ebook publishing.

In 2007 the team at Lab 126, Amazon’s subsidiary in charge of Kindle’s R&D, launched the first product. It was a big hit. Users could choose from 88 000 books, which was way above any other competitor in the ebook reader market.

The elements involved in Kindle’s success are invisible when we look at the product. The sleek design, the beautiful typography or the eInk technology are not enough to understand the ecosystem that lead to Amazon’s results. Let’s have a look at some key factors involved in Kindle’s adoption and evolution:

1. The existing clients: When Amazon launched the Kindle it already had more than 65 million customers. Even at a low adoption rate Amazon would have had the greatest chance to succeed selling ebooks.

2. The large selection of electronic books: The 88 000 books available at launch were more than any of the competition had to offer its readers. 5 years after the first generation Kindle Amazon has extended its ebook offering largely.

3. Impulse buying: In 1999 the US Trademark Office issued a patent to Amazon.com regarding 1 Click buying. By using previously entered credit card information the user can skip the shopping cart hassle and purchase any item with the click of a button. This patent was never awarded in Europe but Amazon created a impulse-buying consumer behavior that lead, in time, to the success Kindle is right now. By using this technology Amazon makes sure that consumers don’t think too much about purchasing. They just do it. Psychologically this resolves the so called “buyer’s remorse”.

4. Instant delivery through Wi-Fi and the Whispernet 3G network: one of the greatest things about the Kindle is the fact that you don’t have to wait until it’s shipped. The books are being delivered anywhere in the world instantly. The Whispernet network is nothing short of genius and its benefits in customer satisfaction greatly exceed the costs.

5. Syncing: the current lifestyle of many of Amazon’s customers doesn’t allow them to read to peacefully enjoy reading a book for more than an hour at a time. Our attention span has greatly decreased as modern jobs leave little time for personal development. Kindle is available as a standalone application on the PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad etc. Basically we can read our book wherever we are, whenever we can. Using internet connection the books are synced cross device and readers can enjoy books whenever they can.

6. Evolution of indie publishing: The Kindle allowed many indie authors to self publish their books. As these authors entered a market they couldn’t previously tap into prices have dropped and the book selection has increased. It’s not yet clear whether buyers are reading or just collecting the books. However – they pay for them and that means a shift in spending that will lead to further changes in book publishing.

The 6 facts above are the things we don’t usually see when looking at the Kindle but they are very important. One cannot try to understand Kindle’s success without understanding the ecosystem Amazon has built to support ebook sales.

In 2011 Amazon launched its Android powered Kindle Fire. This year the company is generating 89% of iTunes App Store revenues selling Android Apps. Read more on the subject here.