Asia, and in particular my home Taiwan, is in a startup frenzy. Not a week goes by without a new startup contacting me. Because this is Asia, which has a long history of making things and the most brilliant engineers in the world, most of these startups make hardware. Established companies too are making use of the rapid changes in technology and are launching new products at record speed.
All of them have the same plan: they ask me to come up with a name, create a logo, a brand identity, CIS; perhaps make a video then build a website with an online commerce function, or manage their crowdfunding campaign and social media accounts. As important as all these things are, one crucial element is always missing from the business plan: a retailer marketing strategy.
Depending on your target market, you will need a strategy for the locally dominant company. But because almost all my clients want to sell in the United States first, I will talk mostly about Amazon in this article. However, much of what I will cover applies to other retail platforms and even traditional brick-and-mortar stores.
Online retailers are not websites, they are ecosystems
Amazon isn't just a web shop. It is most of all a review website. Everyone checks Amazon for product reviews. If your product is not reviewed there, it doesn't exist. If your reviews are bad, it won't sell.
Amazon is not merely an online retailer anymore, it is an ecosystem with a best-selling voice assistant that is redefining shopping as we know it. The company is expanding its technology into everything from drone delivery to the grocery business and recently brick-and-mortar stores without checkout.
Amazon Prime is used by over 70% of American households. That means free shipping. Your own website with your own warehouse (perhaps in Asia) can never ever compete with that. Brand-owned e-commerce solutions, bar a few lucky exceptions, don't work. Consumers don't want to pay for shipping. Most buying processes on brand websites break off on the page where the shipping costs are displayed. If you don't believe me, check your Google Analytics or Facebook Pixel data. Psychologically, the page with the shipping charges is saying to the user: "Hey, look at that. Perhaps you can get this product cheaper somewhere else." Having shipping charges is bad UX, period.
Even if your brand doesn't want to interact with Amazon, your customers certainly do, and more do so every day as the company expands. With more and more people shopping online, logistics and sustainability will become hot issues. A lot of deliveries with old trucks means air pollution and global warming; only big retailers will have the resources and innovation skills to combat this trend by embracing e-vehicles, drone delivery, and data-based logistics optimization. As they do so, even more consumers will flock to Amazon and its peers. It will one day be the biggest company on earth I think. Read more about that here.
How to develop a Retailer Marketing Strategy
By now you should have realized that every startup, every brand, every new product launch needs a retailer marketing strategy. Now let's find out how to go about developing such a strategy.
Step 1: Open Your Eyes
The first step is to check out similar products and examine what people say about the product. Let's say there is a top-loading, cold-water washing machine on Amazon, and you are trying to build one. Careful study of the reviews will tell you that 90% of customers do not like top-loading, cold-water washing machines. There goes your business plan. I know it sounds ridiculous, but no hardware startup that contacted me in the last two years had done this simple step of verifying consumer preferences.
Reviewing data is hugely important in many ways. It allows you to find out what people really care about in a product and how they use it. If every phone at a certain price point has hundreds of reviews saying that "the short battery life sucks", then you need to build a phone at that price point which has a significantly longer battery life. You can save yourself a lot of time, money, and hassle, but opening your eyes before starting the tinkering.
Step 2: Get a feel
Even if a product category is accepted by consumers, you can learn even more by carefully analyzing the reviews on retail platform. What do consumers love about a specific product? What do they hate? What excites them? Emotions are the key to successful marketing, and if your new product cannot awake emotions, then it will likely fail.
Step 3: Embrace opportunities
Once you have confirmed that the product you are trying to launch is worth launching, you need to understand how consumers buy it. Do they use the Amazon website? Do they prefer to see the product in real life before buying? Is testing and comparing key to success? Will consumers be talking about that product, or is it a routine purchase (social media marketing opportunities! Cf. Kindle vs. washing powder) Are they using Amazon Prime Video? Are they ordering it through Voice AI Alexa?
Amazon and other retailers offer a wide variety of choices, so you will have to look beyond the obvious. For example, will your product fit into an Amazon Go scenario, and what does that mean from geo-fencing standpoint? How many of your customers are consuming content on Youtube, Twitch, and do you have opportunities for a partnership?
A comprehensive opportunities audit is key to developing a good marketing plan and refining your product offering!
Step 4: Data, data, and more data
You really need to make use of all the data Amazon and other retailers offer. Amazon Retail Analytics (ARA) and Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) offer great insights into what works, and what doesn't, from consumer preferences to product categories, hobbies, activities, etc. If 90% of the people who bought a specific type of bag also like "Hiking", then optimizing your stylish new backpack for avid hikers makes perfect sense.
Thus you can avoid designing the wrong product from the start. Go to Facebook and study what people are saying about it there. Check for any hashtags and Twitter accounts, or whatever your local social media networks are. Research into data must also include the third-party apps that connect with Alexa for example. What people are doing with AI greatly influences which products they will stumble across, and ultimately buy.
Step 5: Redo your business plan, redesign your product
After gathering all these insights you will perhaps realize that certain aspects of your product design or marketing strategy, or even your entire business plan, will need redoing.
Starting a business or launching a new product is not about what you and your team can do (in terms of hardware engineering capabilities, say) but about what you can do for your prospective customers. Are you really meeting their needs? Are you really delivering a product or service that will convince them? Are you solving your customers' problems?
Step 6: Decide how to work with your retailer
There are a lot of different ways to work with retailers. Amazon, for example, offers fulfillment services which greatly reduce the need for companies to deal with warehousing and logistics in a country where they don't necessarily have a presence. Even though Amazon does charge for its services (and the more you use, the higher the fee), it usually comes cheaper than having to deal with all the logistics, shipping, delivery, returns, and customer complaints yourself. And because Amazon customer service is commonly acknowledged as very good, it may even improve the value of your own brand by trusting them.
I have used Amazon as an example because it is so dominant has so much data on consumers. But I realize your target market may not be covered by Amazon, or you may not want to work with them. That is beside the point. What you should take home from reading this article is simply this: Startups and new product ideas should always start with a close look at the dominant retailers, online and offline. Always look at the data out there, or hire an experienced marketer to do that for you. Doing so will save you tons of money in the long run.