What’s special about Amazon? In a word, nothing. Convenient, yes. Easy, yes. Fast. Everything. Anything. Yes, yes and yes. But special? Not so much. With Amazon’s ever-expanding creep into every consumer industry, there is nothing niche or specialty about it. And even though they may sell specialty goods – and may sell them cheaper or ship them faster, Amazon will never be specialty.
Before industrialization emerged, most food items were made locally by hand, in small quantities by apprenticed artisans using the highest quality ingredients. As cities grew and innovation along with them, convenience and reach became paramount. Distribution expanded with our new highways. Competition and affordability naturally followed. Our post-depression and World War II era consumer welcomed mass production. In the 50s, TV Dinners were all the rage. In the late 60s and 70s, America fell in love with the likes of Julia Childs and Alice Waters and the gourmet revolution emerged. In the 90s, ethnic cuisine became chic. Sprinkle in the obesity epidemic, the new and evolving research on preservatives, the carcinogenic qualities of processed foods and conscientious eating – the specialty food industry got its legs.
Enter e-commerce. Hard-to-find and ethnically-diverse became accessible with one click. Health could arrive neatly boxed at your door. Gourmet and high quality were finally available to those of us who didn’t live in well-cultured, metropolitan cities. All-natural was a buzz. Organic was new and exciting. Free Trade was exotic. By the time non-GMO arrived, the majority of us that didn’t know what it meant still had to have it.
Search “authentic Italian” on Amazon. You will find whatever your heart desires – and a hundred more of the same. But when you are scrolling down the page after page of results, do you feel special? Does the mass-market, never-ending virtual shopping aisle harken you back to Arthur Avenue where the fresh baked cannoli filled the bakery windows, the butcher’s sausage was ground fresh that morning and the cheese shops screamed affinage? Do you hum Puccini in your head? Of course not. If I want Arthur Avenue I’m going to have to board the 4 train, but since I live in Dallas, the internet will have to do. But from my point of view, if I want Italy in Manhattan, I go to Arthur Ave. If I want Italian on the web, I go to the proprietor’s site. And I am not alone.
What does a brand’s own website tell me that Amazon can’t? Everything. When I walk through the mall, the storefront is what attracts me. If done well, in one glance I can tell what that store’s unique reason for being is. I not only know what they sell, I know why people buy it. If my interest is peaked, I want to go in and learn more about the brand. I want to be visually immersed in the culture. I want to see what makes the offering special? If I can sense that, I want to be educated. I want to invite a discussion with a well-informed sales person. If the owner is present, all the better. And if I make an investment, I want to know I am guaranteed a good experience.
All of that is magnified ten-fold if I am buying a gift. A gift is a reflection of me. I don’t ever want it to convey convenience or ease – and certainly not fast or cheap. I want to see what the wrap looks like and I want the name on the box to excite my recipient and the in-box experience to scream special. And I definitely don’t want my gift to announce, before my recipient has even had a chance to open it, “One-Stop-Shop!!!”
I require the same things when I shop online. Well, let me back up. Full disclosure – I am an Amazon shopper. I love Amazon. When I needed a Skylander Trap Team Master Character Pack and Portal for my son, I wouldn’t have thought to go anywhere else. When I re-order my Ayurveda hair shampoo – I buy it in bulk with my Prime account. Amazon has saved my life in a last-minute crunch and it’s almost entirely supplied my last two Christmases. But it’s not special.
When I want to shop specialty, especially if I want to send a gift, I want it to be special. If it’s a brand I don’t know, I want to learn about it before I buy it. I want to be able to tell my recipient why I chose their gift. User reviews are wonderful, I read them all the time, but they give me no real sense of the heartbeat of a brand. I don’t care what makes a Skylander’s heart beat but I want to know why the heritage ham I’m ordering for Easter is different and why the sour cherry jam I’m sending my mom is going to be as tasty as it is a delight to open. And I want the name on the box to be the same as the name on the jar.
And lastly, I want to see the whole darn offering. If I am endorsing a brand, whether I am buying for myself or buying for others, I want to see everything that brand has to show me. I don’t want to see just the inventory overages nor best sellers. I want to see the whole product line together and I certainly don’t want to be limited to items that have the longest stay-fresh date or just happen to sell best on Amazon. I want to get a preview of things I might not be looking for that day, but may come back to if the brand inspires. And I certainly don’t want my gift recipients to feel I chose their gift because it was discounted, or because I could get free shipping with Prime. I want them to feel… yes, special.
It’s interesting to look at how trends swing like pendulums. I am glad the Amazons and the Walmarts of today have made healthful and conscientious eating so available and affordable. I cherish how easy they have made certain areas of my consumer life. I hope they continue to grow and stretch and make our American lives more of a one-stop-shop. But everyone wants to feel special. The more homogeneous our shopping continues to be, the more many of us will seek that need through food. The specialty food industry has a unique preservation proposition in an Amazon world because of what Amazon can never be, no matter how big it becomes. As a specialty food business, it’s imperative we know that audience and speak to them loudly through our marketing. We are alive and well. As Julia Child has said, “If you don’t pick your audience, you’re lost because you’re not really talking to anybody”.