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The e-commerce revolution has sparked a number of major changes in the way customers interact with businesses. Massive changes in the way they browse, in the way they shop, and in the way they expect their entire transaction experience to go. One of the unintended side effects of these changes has been the shuttering of brick and mortar stores in favour of investing more resources in the digital side of the sales and fulfillment process. As we discussed in a recent post, brick and mortar stores are closing left and right as pressures on margins, overhead and bottom lines become even greater than they have been in the past. Recently, as in the aftermath of most sets of chaotic circumstances, a new pattern has begun to emerge. Instead of offline businesses moving online, a reverse trend has finally begun to establish itself, as traditionally online only companies begin to see advantages of having physical locations.
Arguably, Apple began to pave the way for this when they first took their successful online store offline, and opened the very first Apple Store location in the brick and mortar world. It was a runaway hit, and proved that there was possibility for online stores to make successful forays into the material world. Admittedly, Apple has some of the most fanatical customers of any brand in the world, and those customers tend to have relatively high incomes (or at least the willingness to spend their disposable income at said Apple Store), however the mold was broken and the floodgates may now open. Amazon is apparently gearing up for a pilot test of an offline brand to be known as 'Pantry', in an effort to compete with so-called 'big-box' stores like Walmart and Costco in the United States, and if they can also make it work, then the model has definitely been proven.
North America isn't the only region where online giants are eagerly eyeing the offline sector, however. In China, the popular competitor to Amazon.com known as Alibaba, which has been making headlines all around the world with rumours of a Western IPO and a renewed North American sales focus, is also seriously expanding its ability to conquer offline markets. One of the largest Chinese department store companies, Intime Retail, has recently accepted an investment from Alibaba of over £415 million, giving them a significant advantage over their rivals. As often as Alibaba and Amazon are spoken of as direct rivals, it's interesting to see how much more quickly Alibaba appears to move on its projects - Intime had already inked a deal with Alibaba to use their mobile payment affiliate system, Alipay Wallet, something that Amazon has only spoken of deploying as of yet. It will be interesting to see in the coming years how the two go head to head, as a clash of the e-commerce titans seems more and more inevitable.
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