Amazon has long pursued a strategy of winning by pricing low. Many of you will have experienced that strategy first hand with regular price reductions from Amazon Web Services, but it goes right across their business. Their approach has led to strong revenue growth but few profits which has analysts sharply divided – some believe they will never make large profits and the shares aren’t worth much whilst others believe that they are building controlling positions in market after market which will put them in great position to improve margins over time. I’m in the latter camp.
I just read the following story about how their low price ethos played out when they entered the DVD market in 1998. It’s a great case study about the importance of playing to your strengths, having a clear mission and running sustainable strategies. Stay with it through the first paragraph…
If you have bigger lungs than your competitor, all things being equal, force them to compete in a contest where oxygen is the crucial limiter. If your opponent can’t swim, you make them compete in water. If they dislike the cold, set the contest in the winter, on a tundra. You can romanticize all of this by quoting Sun Tzu, but it’s just common sense.
I worked on the launch of the Amazon Video store, Amazon’s third product after books and music. At the time of the launch, DVDs had just launched as a product category a short while earlier, so the store carried both VHS tapes and DVDs. The day Amazon launched its video store, the top DVD store on the web at the time, I think it was DVD Empire, lowered its prices across the board, raising its average discount from 30% off to 50% off DVDs.
This forced our hand immediately. Selling DVDs at 50% off would mean selling those titles at a loss. We had planned to match their 30% discount, and now we were being out-priced by the market leader on our first day of operation, and just before the heart of the holiday sales season to boot (it was November, 1998).
We convened a quick emergency huddle, but it didn’t take long to come to a decision. We’d match the 50% off. We had to. Our leading opponent had challenged us to a game of who can hold your breath longer. We were confident in our lung capacity. They only sold DVDs whereas we had the security of a giant books and music business buttressing our revenues.
After a few weeks, DVD Empire blinked. They had to. Sometime later, I can’t remember how long it was, DVD Empire rebranded, tried expanding to sell adult DVDs, then went out of business. There were other DVD-only retailers online at the time, but none from that period survived. I doubt any online retailer selling only DVDs still exists.
The key takeaway for me is that Amazon’s mission of being a low cost supplier coupled with the knowledge that they were financially stronger than DVD Empire made the decision to match the price cut a no-brainer and hence easy to take quickly, whilst DVD Empire probably should have known their bluff would get called.