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It's the world's largest e-commerce retailer, yet Amazon breaks all the established rules.

So just how does Amazon get away with it?

Whilst pondering my latest purchases from Amazon I found myself slipping into something I often tend to do these days, analysing the site in my head and thinking about how it could be improved.

And suddenly it struck me. Amazon breaks nearly all the established "rules" of e-commerce, ignoring best practices left, right and centre, but still turns revenue and profit figures that most retailers would kill for. 

Let's examine this argument in more depth:

  • Amazon bids on irrelevant PPC terms where it can't fulfill the order. Sometimes the product is out of stock, sometimes it's no longer on sale.
  • The product reviews often display polar opposite opinions on the same page, often lacking justification. How does that aid the customer purchase decision? I'd argue that it doesn't.
  • Product information is almost always below-the-fold.
  • The horrific mega-drop-down navigation on the home page has only recently been replaced by slightly friendlier refinement-based navigation. Even so, it often takes four or five clicks before you hit your desired landing page via navigation.
  • Many products rely on their suppliers to provide descriptive content. Often this results in scant descriptions that are not optimised for SEO - let alone for the customer - and don't provide a consistent tone of voice.
  • Amazon allows its own customers to undercut their product prices in the Amazon Marketplace. What high street operation would put up with that?
  • The cross-sell recommendation engine demands significant tweaking before it starts to offer truly relevant results. Just because I bought a christening present last month doesn't mean I want to be presented with more christening presents every time I hit the site. And if I click into a product out of curiosity, I don't want it to be assumed that I'm interested in anything similar. But it's up to me to tell Amazon that.
  • The product returns process is complex and varies widely by supplier.
  • The checkout is text-heavy, looks complex and offers a break-out to return to the home page at the order confirmation stage - a real best-practice no no.

And remember this is from a company that claims to be the most customer-centric operation on the planet. 

So the question remains - how does Amazon get away with it?

  • The product range has enormous width. They've nearly always got what you're looking for. The core product range has a very simple message; if you're looking for books or dvds, we've (nearly) always got it.
  • For customers that know what they want, the internal site search is excellent and produces fast, relevant results.
  • Selling prices are low relative to the high street (though not always relative to web competitors).
  • The delivery message is easy to understand and the actual delivery of goods is extremely reliable.
  • It was first to market in the entertainment product field.

Next time you receive advice on best practices for ecommerce, rather than swallowing them wholesale it's worth remembering the Amazon example.

It's time to think 'is this change right for my customers?' Will the change disorientate long-term customers? Will the positive impact on new customers override this?

Can I test this change before I roll it out across my site? Do I know what my customers really want, and if not, how am I going to find out?

Sometimes breaking the rules is the right way to go...

Chris Moffatt

Published 30 August, 2012 by Chris Moffatt

Chris is Online Director for Kidcount and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect via LinkedIn or Twitter

7 more posts from this author

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marcus osborne

A good piece.

I think that they understand the importance of data, the correct data and how to use it although personally, I'm beginning to tire of the daily efforts to sell me stuff.

Also, first mover advantage helps, especially when you keep improving the offering.

over 4 years ago

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Chris Dalrymple

"Sometimes breaking the rules is the right way to go..."

But aren't Amazon succeeding in spite of this rule breaking, rather than because of it?

They break a number of best practice rules, and their customers (myself included) put up with them. But wouldn't they sell even more if they sorted some if these issues?

over 4 years ago

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Derek Jansen

Keen observation Chris. If anything, this just reminds us of the power of big brands and the trust that they provide/create.

And it's not only eComm rules its breaking - basic SEO as well!

over 4 years ago

Andrew Nicholson

Andrew Nicholson, Founder at The Guku

The checkout is text-heavy Chris? Are we on the same site? Most regular Amazon users will be making use of Amazon one click - the most hassle free sales device on the web. It's the crack cocaine of ecommerce. Use it once and before you know it you're hooked and remortgaging your house to pay off spontaneous purchases you made whilst drunk on the night bus home.

Buying stuff on Amazon is almost too easy. You can buy a £40k watch simply by pressing a harmless looking yellow button :)

over 4 years ago

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Chris Moffatt

@chrisdalrymple You may well be right there - perhaps there's untapped potential

@andrewnicholson My issue with the checkout was for non 1-click purchases, but you make a good point there

over 4 years ago

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Anna Corp, Online Marketing Manager at Debenhams

They "get away with it" because they test, test and test some more to find what works.

over 4 years ago

Hugh Murphy

Hugh Murphy, Global Marketing Excellence Manager at 3M Safety & GraphicsEnterprise

Chris misses one simple compelling reason I shop on Amazon several times a week - one-click purchase with 'free' delivery included in Amazon Prime. It means within ten to twenty seconds I can pull out my iphone, order pretty much anything, knowing it will turn up on my doorstep two days later, trusting the price will be competitive, and with no need to create usernames, enter passwords, type in my address, look for my credit card, etc. Why on earth would I shop anywhere else?

over 4 years ago

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Tym Barker

I completely disagree Chris.

You say,

"...product reviews often display polar opposite opinions on the same page".
- Well if they didn't, I'd be suspicious.

"Product information is almost always below-the-fold".
- Yep, exactly where it should be. The price, Add to Cart button, etc. is front and center. Proven in most tests to increase conversion rates.

"...it often takes four or five clicks before you hit your desired landing page via navigation".
- I suspect most serious buyers don't navigate the menus. They search for their item, then hit "Add to Cart" - which is above the fold :)

"scant descriptions that are not optimised for SEO - let alone for the customer".
- But still better information than 95% of other ecommerce sites. Also, search for any item on Google and let me know when Amazon isn't on page 1.

"Amazon allows its own customers to undercut their product prices in the Amazon Marketplace. What high street operation would put up with that?"
- They are NOT a high street operation. They make it clear they want to have the lowest price and fastest shipping. And they execute those promises like no other business in the history of retail.

"The product returns process is complex and varies widely by supplier."
- I completely disagree. Their customer service and return process is second to none in my experience. If you buy from their alternate suppliers using Amazon Fulfillment you get exactly the same service. Even non-fulfillment suppliers provide very good service (as good or better than most ecommerce stores) in my experience.

"The checkout is text-heavy, looks complex and offers a break-out to return to the home page at the order confirmation stage - a real best-practice no no."
- Are you kidding me? Whenever I have to shop at another ecommerce site (i.e. only when Amazon doesn't have the product), in most cases I end up CRINGING at the checkout process I must go through compared to Amazon's checkout - and I don't use 1-click.

over 4 years ago

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Chris Moffatt

@tym barker You're welcome to disagree with my analysis - do you work for Amazon by any chance? :) I'm glad I've generated debate with the article.

@anna corp Spot on!

over 4 years ago

James Perrin

James Perrin, Digital Communications Specialist at Feefo

This is really interesting. However, whilst I agree with what you're saying, I think there are simpler reasons why Amazon don't necessarily have to play by the rules. Hugh hits the nail on the head - it's all about the ease at which Amazon make purchasing. If they're not the easiest, then it will be because they're competitive in terms of pricing. And if it's not the pricing, it's because they are a well-known and established brand.

All of the rules for SEO and Ecommerce are sidelined when it comes to big brands - and Amazon is as big as they come in terms of online shopping. For the average consumer, some of the Ecommerce best practices you have detailed simply do not matter for a big brand like Amazon, for example having product information below-the-fold. That's because they can rely on being a trusted brand, that they're pricing is competitive, but above anything else because they're quick and easy. That's the bottom line for consumers.

over 4 years ago

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Chris Moffatt

@james perrin Great points. Convenience and speed are at the heart of their success.

over 4 years ago

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TymB

@Chris

Not at all. I just know they're the largest online retail site in the world, extremely successful, and I love shopping on that ecommerce site more than any other in the world.

I shake my head wondering exactly what "best practices" or "rules" you guys are following. Like @AndrewNicholson said, "are we on the same site?"

over 4 years ago

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Ian Gregory

What most people are allering to in the comments here but without actually saying it is the fact that Amazon has established a global brand that is most importantly tried tested and trusted to deliver on its promises. In my opinion that is why people persevere with the site and its featues/usability to return time and time again.
Other less known ecommerce sites have to work much harder at the ux in order provide a very good experience and help to establish their brand and win loyal customers - something Amazon has already achieved.
I do agree though that their marketing could be so much more effective seems to be so much wastage.

over 4 years ago

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Jordan Drury

Excellent question.

I'd argue that Amazon benefit hugely from the trust factor. For any household item, if you can't find it anywhere else, Amazon is the default option - even if it's slightly more expensive than other stores.

You know that you'll get your order delivered on time and in good condition; the fact that the website has some clunky UX at times doesn't matter particularly - it's easier to buy from Amazon than to sign up with an unknown indie.

Path of least resistance.

over 4 years ago

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Jason Cross, Marketing Director at Incentivated

I think @Anna has hit the nail on the head. They haven't "broken" any rules - they have used (enormously) multi-variate testing of their website in a live environment for well over a decade, exploring every tiny little element of their customer's journeys and visits, rolling out what works through gentle tweaks. Look at their site now compared to 10 years ago through the wayback machine, and it's a vastly different place - but the average customer would probably be hard pushed to believe it.

And, as for SEO.. surely they are the proof of the pudding: they deliver what they promise for millions of customers. No wonder search engines put them at or near the top of every product search!

over 4 years ago

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Paul

@TymB Completely agree with you.

over 4 years ago

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Tom Williams, Account & Sales Executive at Maginus Software SolutionsEnterprise

From reading the comments I would say that all the observations are correct.

Amazons strength relies heavily on the repeat visitor factor. The customer has gotten used to the Amazon quirks and even bye passes a number them with Prime and Apps. Once Amazon is part of your buying habit it is extremely user friendly.

However, for new visitors or in frequent users of the site, they will find it cumbersome and complex at times. The refinement navigation can be poor even daunting especially if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking & the checkout breaks a number of rules and is quite long.

Apart from every days users of the site, Amazon will always be an aspiration site for most eCommerce providers but they have be aware why Amazon can break the rules and get away with it, not just say I want an Amazon site!

over 4 years ago

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Adam Wilkinson-Moore

They're breaking another rule now that they're using Yodel for shipping. Delivery is unreliable and the shipping information lies. This is so poor that the Guardian ran a story on the problem a few weeks ago.

If you can't fulfill your orders then you fail as an online retailer. They'll survive because of the sheer breadth of goods but trade will suffer because people like me won't order from them if there's any hint of shipping by Yodel.

over 4 years ago

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Paul Thewlis

Amazon 'get away with it' because they're one of the most established websites/brands out there. An authority virtually untouchable on price, availability and inventory. You might argue they're playing with different rules.

-- they're not trying to SEO themselves to the top of Google because they're one of the most advanced product search engines in their own right and their SEO works because of the level of content

-- they have product images, brief spec and price/add to cart options right above the fold. Who wants to see a 'manufacturers description' above the fold? It's the last thing you'd look at if you were in a physical shop.

-- the reviews and marketplace lower prices show a valuable level of honesty which is exactly what people are looking for from a retailer

-- the returns process is simple as can be (or at least I've always found it remarkably easy)

I do agree with you on the log in recommendations however. Having bought my partner a variety of veterinary nursing books 5 years ago and gifts like the Twilight books etc I'm still bombarded with those titles when I log in. Something has to be said for demographics, despite my purchase history.

over 4 years ago

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Ben Adams, Product Owner - Web and Mobile at B&Q

"Amazon breaks nearly all the established "rules" of e-commerce, ignoring best practices left, right and centre"

'Normal' rules and best practice are only established based on what retailers are able to do given the constraints they have with their technology estate and the legacy of their business models. Amazon built their proposition logically both from a business and technology perspective, they were never constrained and follow their own rules, their own 'best practice'. Doesn't this mean Amazon's established rules are actually the best ones?

over 4 years ago

Steve Wind-Mozley

Steve Wind-Mozley, SVP eCommerce at BBC Worldwide

I love the smell of debate in the morning! What we have to remember when looking at the pioneer that is Amazon, is that they have spent a lot of time and money in building a user base and educating them to use their site.
They have been able to sustain operating losses whilst doing this (something many traditional company FDs would baulk at) and as a result "own" an entire UX dogma.
Experienced user's know to use search, technophobes use human proxies to buy (does your partner know that you have Amazon Prime and a payment card set up for 1-click? If so do they say, "could you just order x for little Jimmy's birthday" knowing that, for you and the investment you have made in Amazon in terms of learning their system, it is a very quick win?)
Sorry, a bit rambling, but the point is, unless you can create your own UX dogma (expensive and normally requires early mover advantage -look at the Apple iOS UX vs other mobile devices), you can't really afford to ignore the common "rules" or, as I prefer to think of them, "guidelines" unless you are unique, relevant or very well funded.

over 4 years ago

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Paul McLaughlin, Head of Revenue, Yield & Online Conversion at Parkdean Holidays

Tym certainly likes his Amazon :)

over 4 years ago

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Charles Barsley, Digital Analytics & Optimisation Manager at SelfridgesEnterprise

Perhaps working in eCommerce we're not the typical Amazon customers, but I like the Amazon recommedations and that you can "program" by rating your purchases, and by ticking to exclude purchases you have made as gifts. When I want to know what authors to read next I just let Amazon tell me what I should read!

over 4 years ago

Robb Sands

Robb Sands, Managing Director at Carbide Media

Unlike much of their competition, they aren't bidding for net positive ROI on a one-click-one-sale basis.

They're running mad width as a massive brand builder and top of funnel exercise. Get you on site, then sell you what they have in stock.

When you've got their margins and numbers of different products in stock, then cross-sell opportunities are there.

Again, the real value comes from people thinking, "my first point of reference will be Amazon - they have everything" in much the same way people use eBay.

over 4 years ago

wayne horton

wayne horton, Digital Merchandising Manager at Sony Playstation

"Amazon allows its own customers to undercut their product prices in the Amazon Marketplace. What high street operation would put up with that?"

The % that Amazon picks up per third party sale is in a lot of cases probably higher than the margin that is generated by buying and selling the product themselves, without all the hassle.

There are also no shipping or storage costs for them.

just look at what Rakuten are now doing with PLAY.

Makes sense.

over 4 years ago

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Ben Goodwin

I think the comment on letting marketplace sellers undercut them is a little short-sighted...

Amazon relies on being keenly competitive on price. If Marketplace sellers are able to undercut them for new items, this means they are not. So, instead of going to buy something from Amazon, seeing it's too expensive, and buying from another site, consumers buy it from Marketplace and Amazon get their cut anyway.

It also means that they can do simple look-ups to find where there prices aren't competitive, rather than having to do laborious, time-consuming and expensive competitor analysis. It gives them a very quick indication that a new product is over/under priced.

over 4 years ago

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Jo Burns, Head of Ecommerce at Guardian News & Media

I think that in some cases the margin they get through marketplace sales might be higher than that they would actually realise when selling directly (without the attendant stock risk)
The main reason for their success is the 'Hoover' factor, the brand is now synonomous with the industry.
When I worked there (some years ago now!) Marketplace was being pushed as a way of getting into product areas they would never handle directly (or at least in a very low risk way)

over 4 years ago

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Jo Burns, Head of Ecommerce at Guardian News & Media

What wayne said

over 4 years ago

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John Smith

Amazon may have its faults but its success lies in the fact that it is a pioneer, they seem to always have plenty of what you are looking for used and new and its so easy to checkout. I may be wrong but you don't even have to sign up any more.

over 4 years ago

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OfficeGopher

We also sell through Amazon and the whole data thing is a real pain for us. With over 20000 Stationery products and the fact that its driven by EAN/UPC numbers it is very time consuming, especially when sum EAN codes are squated on!

Depending on the market the commission rates can sometimes be crippling!

But then I suppose that's how they can afford PPC on irrelevant keywords!

over 4 years ago

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jimmy

This article is awful and whoever wrote this has no idea what they are saying or any knowledge of the ecommerce space--it is laughable at best. I mean NO comprehension of what the general sense of a good shopper/ing experience on retail sites is, nor what resources go into creating one.

Get writers with actual insight and perspective, econsultancy.

over 4 years ago

Andrew Nicholson

Andrew Nicholson, Founder at The Guku

Calm down dear. Everyone's entitled to their opinions, and whilst I don't necessarily agree with everything Chris says, I do have a lot of respect for him as a writer. How's about contributing an article to Econsultancy yourself @Jimmy?

over 4 years ago

Malcolm Duckett

Malcolm Duckett, CEO at Magiq

@Chris, you have it right... Amazon's results cannot lie, they are the only real measure of success.

You can chase design awards, or go for cool concepts, or “obey the rules” but it's the bottom line that matters. That's why measurement and customer insight is so important to success.

Be driven by your real visitor's behaviours – not just the theory.

One example of this is that in over 12 years of looking into how visitor's behave on web sites, the one message we have learnt is that if the users BELIEVE that the site has what they want they will battle thru any level of rotten navigation and design to get to it.

One of the most extreme cases I analysed was researching how long customers were taking to find the flight they wanted on one of the world's largest airline sites - the answer was about 5 clicks and 3 minutes. But the typical time on site was almost 30 minutes! So what were they doing with the extra 27 minutes? Trying to get a lower price! They KNEW the airline offered the flight they wanted, but they were convinced that they would not be offered the best deal up front... smart customers!

about 4 years ago

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