Is Amazon the new Wal-Mart? On Wired, Tim Carmody discusses a comparison by a Morgan Stanley analyst who noted that Amazon’s recent earnings show a similar revenue pattern to Wal-Mart’s in 1991. Carmody suggests there are other similarities as well, pointing to Amazon’s pricing policies and relations with overseas manufacturing partners.
He also brings up a comment by Steve Jobs from 2002, comparing competitors such as Dell to Wal-Mart and saying they were not innovating (at least in terms of what Apple considered innovation). Amazon, on the other hand, basically “innovated” the entire modern e-book market into being with its Kindle, and seems ready to undercut Apple’s iPad with its own inexpensive tablet.
Personally, I find the comparison interesting for what it says about how public attitudes toward commerce have changed. Wal-Mart was successful because it grew like a fungus, putting stores in everywhere it could. I remember, growing up, when a Wal-Mart opened in our small town of Cassville, Missouri (population: 2,890 by the 2000 census) and caused a local mom-and-pop variety store to go out of business. At the time, I hadn’t thought a town like Cassville would even support a Wal-Mart, but it’s still there and thriving. And over the last couple of decades, that story played out all over the country.
But just as Wal-Mart is everywhere, Amazon is everywhere and nowhere. You don’t go there to shop physically, you browse their website and place an order, and if you subscribe to Amazon Prime you get your goods in two days. And no longer just for books, Amazon offers a selection of all kinds of goods that can exceed the offerings in a Wal-Mart the way its book offerings can exceed a bookstore’s. And it’s just become normal to shop that way. It’s sort of like the shift from printed books to e-books, by analogy.
I wonder if Amazon will ever “kill off” Wal-Marts, the way it bids fair to do for bookstores (and the way Wal-Mart itself killed off mom-and-pop local businesses)? Probably not; when you need physical goods in a hurry you need them in a hurry. But if Amazon grows over the next twenty years like Wal-Mart grew over the last twenty, how different will our world end up looking?
It is no secret that Amazon, from day one, patterned itself after Walmart and went after all the Walmart back-end managers it could get, prompting a lawsuit from Walmart. Conversly, Walmart is very much aware of Amazon and have made no secret of their intent to grow Walmart.com in the biggest online retailer by expanding on their B&M inventory and leveraging store pick-up and ship-to-store, two things none of the bookstore chains, dead or surviving, have even tried. So far, however, Walmart’s digital content plays have been underwhelming; barely noticeable in music and video (how many know they own Vudu?), and zero prescence on ebooks. Don’t expect Amazon to supercede Walmart but between the two they just might wipe out Best Buy.