Retailers should look to the past to compete against Amazon

Amazon has engulfed nearly every aspect of retail and is positioned for more. Its North American sales have quintupled since 2010. Between 2015 and 2016, Amazon captured well over a third of all American online retail sales—including 43 percent in 2016. Moves to vertically integrate its supply chain by solidifying an ocean freight license, marketing in-home deliver, and creating a $1.5 billion cargo airline would make the 1920s robber barons blush. Traditional retailers looking to compete against Amazon face even bigger obstacles: Amazon’s market capitalization. In the last 10 years, retailer mainstays Sears, JC Penny and Kohls lost an average of 82 percent of their valueAmazon gained 1,934 percent, allowing it access to the cheap capital the finances its growth.

It isn’t just the company’s world-class logistics traditional retailers are facing—it’s the threat Amazon poses to different retail segments combined with its reputation among consumers. The recent Whole Foods acquisition instantly erased $12 billion in shareholder value from six major food retailers. Meanwhile, consumers love Amazon. It is one of the most trusted brands in America. It controls one of the world’s least exclusive clubs: in 2017, 80 million Americans were members of its Prime 2-day shipping and entertainment program (by contrast, France has a population of about 69 million people).

How can retailers compete with Amazon? It’s an 800-pound gorilla that is beloved by consumers, with exceptional operations and a limitless pocketbook.

This is an attempt to scratch the surface of the tactics and strategies that powered history’s Fortune 100 retailers. The analysis is based off a data set created from Fortune Magazine, industry publications, Capital IQ, and public financial documents. It was then organized across 10 industries, 22 supersectors, and 30 sectors through Russell’s Industry Classification Benchmark (ICB). Drawing on this data, six major insights emerged—each powering the eras’ greatest retailers. Some are obvious, some aren’t. All are required if modern retail executives want to compete against Amazon.

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