Wall Street loves to pit Amazon against legacy retailers, but the most recent buzz has the two sides cozying up, with the web giant touted as a potential suitor for Macy’s Inc.
It’s a crazy “if,” but as far-fetched as that might seem, it’s still too sexy a notion to ignore.
Financial firm Cowen & Co. argued that although a deal is unlikely, a combination could benefit both parties. Amazon could boost Macy’s online and mobile offerings, lend distribution and supply chain expertise, attract Millennial customers and employ its data to inform inventory decisions. Meanwhile, Macy’s could help Amazon gain access to important apparel brands and potentially speed its customer deliveries.
“The partnership would be tremendous, as Amazon could gain the traffic of loyal department store shoppers, acquire physical customers as the cost of acquisition goes up incrementally online and utilize Macy’s real estate assets to strategically showcase an array and option of products and sectors,” said Oliver Chen, a Cowen retail analyst. “Amazon needs better brands, a more curated assortment, a physical place to return items, and customers could use help with ensuring fit — Macy’s would also give Amazon greater credibility in curation and fashion authority.”
Whatever case could be made, many experts eye such postulations as more fantasy than fact. It’s just not Amazon’s style, they say.
As the e-tailer enters physical retail, it is rethinking all aspects of what a store looks like and it hasn’t typically been Amazon’s approach to make large acquisitions, said Ed Yruma, managing director, equity research analyst at KeyBanc Capital Markets.
“Why would they buy a retailer that has too much space?” Yruma said. “Amazon could get real estate in any prime center. I don’t see it.” Even so, the analyst did offer that an apparel component for Amazon’s physical retail aspirations is “inevitable.”
If Amazon founder Jeff Bezos did want to buy Macy’s, he could look across the Pacific and learn from online competitor Alibaba, which is working to take private China’s 29-door Intime department store chain.
Daniel Zhang, chief executive officer of Alibaba Group, has noted: “We don’t divide the world into real or virtual economies; only the old and the new. Those who cling onto the old ways of retailing will be disrupted, and brick-and-mortar businesses will be able to create value for consumers if they are integrated with the power of mobile reach, real-time consumer insights and technology capability to improve operating efficiency.”
Shoptalk chief retail strategist Sucharita Mulpuru said that parallels could be possible if Amazon were to acquire Macy’s.
“Most of these types of investments could be about testing and learning,” she said, although Intime is much smaller than Macy’s, which has more than 700 stores.
But Mulpuru said that it didn’t seem Macy’s was keen to sell and added that, “I honestly don’t know why any Amazon investors would be excited about it.”
Although Amazon makes waves with the smallest move, its push into physical stores has been slow.
Mabel McLean, director of Amazon IQ at research firm L2, noted the e-tailer’s retail footprint is “extremely limited.” In two years, it’s opened a few bookstores, just more than 30 mall kiosks and has 10 planned “click-and-collect” locations. The most recent concept is a Seattle convenience store pilot called Amazon Go, which mimics Amazon’s digital efficiency by eliminating the checkout process.
McClean argued that if physical retail locations were a more viable concept for Amazon, there would be more of them by now.
Buying a legacy retailer such as Macy’s would mean a new set of operational responsibilities that are “completely outside of Amazon’s core competencies,” she said.
Amazon could buy real estate without acquiring a preexisting entity and it’s worth noting that the company’s rumored takeovers of Radio Shack and Sports Authority never came to fruition.
“It boils down to how valuable you think the Macy’s brand is,” McLean said.
Although it would acquire Macy’s vendor relationships, she noted: “It’s not like they are acquiring a relationship with LVMH. It’s mid- to low-market clothing lines that are already willing to distribute through Amazon.”
If Amazon is interested in those loftier brands, it could make sense for them to acquire luxury marketplaces — like a Lyst or a Farfetch — but keep them operating under their existing branding, à la Zappos, which the web giant bought in 2009.
Mortimer Singer, president and ceo of Marvin Traub Associates, said a marketplace would help Amazon build both flexibility and scale.
“Think of Kering, which has many brands,” he said. “When Gucci isn’t doing well, or YSL isn’t doing well, they hedge each other. It can be all things to everybody if you have a different mask to the customers.”
But if Amazon did acquire Macy’s, what would that look like? The best bet is: like nothing the market has seen from Amazon before.
“They have a lot of department store retail space that is completely out of line with the type of concept stores they have been piloting in the market,” said L2’s McLean. “Even the format of Macy’s is at odds for what would make sense.”
And McClean said the concept of Amazon Go wouldn’t really work in fashion.
“I don’t know how much scale there is to gain in revolutionizing the checkout experience in apparel,” she said. “Maybe if you have an expedited checkout, but is that what makes or breaks the experience, from a consumer perspective?”
Amazon is known for efficiency and self-service, but does that translate into the fashion space?
“Where Amazon goes next is probably all about taking the friction out of commerce — that is their number-one thing,” said Andy Hobsbawm, cofounder and chief marketing officer of Evrything, which is an Internet of Things smart products platform that recently linked with Avery Dennison to make apparel. “Their definition of success is ‘more things in the order basket that convert.’”
This ethos is at odds with how many view shopping in fashion, which tends to be more focused on discovery than the “get-in-get-out” mindset that characterizes the digital era.
“The Internet has become a very direct medium because it is so measurable, but just because you can infinitely measure programmatic advertising returns doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t also emotionally connect with people,” he said.
The apparel created by the Evrything and Avery Dennison partnership has technology that can link to a customer’s smartphone to automate a loyalty rewards program, power product reordering in the vein of the Amazon Dash button, make related product recommendations and can allow for automated checkout like that being piloted in the Rebecca Minkoff store in New York’s SoHo.
Hobsbawm said this technology is possible now and thinks it should be more widespread. It could be a way for Amazon to translate its approach into apparel.
For now, any moves by Amazon, physical or otherwise, are exciting, simply because it’s become such a powerful commerce machine that has managed to make ideas like delivery drones and “dash” buttons a reality. Whether it can or would turn Macy’s into a hyper-efficient conversion machine remains to be seen.
“Amazon has shown again and again they can do amazing things, and their content business is a great example,” said Hobsbawm, who pointed out that the company’s TV series offering might have originally faced the same levels of doubt from the traditional film industry.
“I wouldn’t put it past what they can do, but what do they want to do?” he said. “I don’t think they are interested in the experience and the brand, other than, ‘Does it help me sell more stuff?’”