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The A-word

Retailers don't even have to talk about Amazon to be talking about Amazon

By: Eric Johnson
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Photo: rvlsoft/Shutterstock
   I spent Monday in Orlando at the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) annual Supply Chain Conference.
   Midway through the afternoon, I met a longtime friend who asked which breakout session I had attended in the morning, to which I replied that I saw a retailer and manufacturer talk about how they weighed supply chain velocity versus cost.
   My friend’s first question was “did they talk about Amazon?” To which I immediately replied, “actually, they didn’t mention it once.” After a second of reflection, however, I realized that the entire session, and really almost every conversation I’ve had over the past few weeks, has been tinged by what Amazon is doing.
   So I joked to my friend, “they didn’t mention Amazon, but they didn’t really have to either. It’s sort of like going to church on Sunday. Everybody knows who the preacher’s talking about.”
   It really is no exaggeration to say that Amazon looms inexorably over the retail industry. I sort of picture those alien space ships in the movie Independence Day hovering over humankind’s most treasured landmarks, ready to blow them to smithereens.
   Make no mistake, retailers are eager and willing to fight back. I’ve heard several retailers talk about the moat they have, the key characteristic about their model that’s defendable against Amazon. Several weeks ago, it was Target talking about their physical footprint across the country being an asset that Amazon won’t be able to soon replicate.
   At RILA, Tractor Supply Co. Chief Executive Officer Greg Sandfort talked about the unique nature of his company’s stores, how they really served as hitching posts for the local community and how customers preferred to shop in-store for that sense of community in rural areas.
   From a fulfillment perspective, he talked about the range of bulky, heavy, and odd-shaped products Tractor Supply sells, and how they largely don’t fit a pure online model.
   Sandfort said the positive of Amazon is that it’s made every retailer focus on what type of company they want to be in three to five years. Those that won’t survive are the ones that try to guess what company Amazon will be in that time span.
   What’s clear is that we have arrived at a point where e-commerce retail is not talked about as a separate discipline or emergent trend. E-commerce and bricks and mortar are part of the same discussion now. And looming over all of these conversations is the company whose name need not even be mentioned.