Amazon: Mass Customization + Print – US Launch

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About one year ago and without much fuss, Amazon expanded its area of operations to provide mass-customized products. That means that even small print shops can utilise the mega platform.

The idea is really simple and feels quite familiar. Amazon Custom offers smaller print shops and personalisation specialists the option of utilising the full reach of the online giant’s platform to generate new sources of revenue. I have had a closer look at what exactly Amazon Custom currently has to offer.

Quelle: amazon.com
Source: amazon.com

Amazon Custom has been available in its beta version since September 2015 and serves the US market with around 400,000 products for personalisation. Just like with Amazon Prints, which was launched in September 2016, the online mogul didn’t even bother with a press release on the subject. One drawback, which may somewhat hold back the success of the program, is that the portfolio of mass customized products is currently limited to items for which each provider has to do their own fulfilment – meaning that Amazon has been a little more shy here than with the Amazon Prints project, which is directly connected to Prime and offers the pricing and delivery advantages that Prime customers have come to appreciate.

Amazon has had some experience with the handling of individual item deliveries in the “Handmade” category. Amazon Handmade – which is also available in Germany – is reserved for artisans and dealers of hand crafted items, which also includes art prints and other paper or carton-based products. Some of these items had already offered a personalization, but the focus in this category was not on customized printing or design, but on the unique feature of being one of a kind.

In the spring of 2015, potential sellers, i.e. customisers, were invited by Amazon to participate in the Custom programme; the platform is seamlessly integrated in the existing Amazon system and seems quite unremarkable, as it is not mentioned at all in the quick overview or in the Amazon “Departments” overview. It therefore feels more like a programme than a separate category on the amazon.com homepage. A search for products from the Custom environment on the regular amazon.com page will return items with the same editing and order functions – the only difference being that you are not rerouted via Amazon Custom.

Feedback from the Amazon seller forum suggests that offering products via Amazon Custom couldn’t be easier. The provider creates a standard sales page with the item, which can then be approved for editing using templates. A welcome email explains everything from the initial page setup to the correct and individual use of the Custom offering using links.

Zipperkopf_InteressantWichtig

“Despite the to date limited editing options, customers seem to like the quality of personalised products available via Amazon Custom. Happy customers always come back for more – which means more commissions for Amazon.” – Bernd Zipper

Currently, Amazon Custom “only” offers a very basic display of text and/or photos available for product personalisation. The button “Customize Now” leads the buyer to a screen in which he can design the desired item. After all: anyone customising a product will want to see what the end product will look like. Amazon therefore offers a preview widget in Custom, which serves as a little editor to add text and images. The scope of editing functions is to date limited to adding own images in JPG or PNG format and a five line text labelling of the item – no matter what product is selected. However: Only one image can be placed per item – a collage is therefore not (yet) possible.

Option for text or image customisation for a smartphone cover; Source: amazon.com
Option for text or image customisation for a smartphone cover; Source: amazon.com

In comparison with some other editor environments, the whole thing still seems a bit basic, but at least you can see what the end product will look like. A warning regarding insufficient image resolution and sizes for image files has already been implemented, which decreases the sellers’ risk that buyers might blame them for their own order mistakes. In terms of product quality and personalisation, this new service seems to be on the right track. After all: the items ordered so far have earned on average more than 4 stars. A mouse pad (Photos & Prints), for example, which can be customised with an image as well as text, currently has a rating of 4.9 stars from 67 customer reviews. Photo & Print items like printed bags, mugs, smartphone covers and greeting cards have been given similar high ratings by many customers – all of these are products offered by many online print shops. Some of the customisable items have not yet been reviewed – which doesn’t mean that nobody has ordered them.

A cheerful message as an example for a multi-line customisable print product; Source: amazon.com
A cheerful message as an example for a multi-line customisable print product; Source: amazon.com

There are a few areas in which I think it is noticeable that Custom is still in the beta phase: The text editing function for a customisable banner, for example, was removed from one day to the next, even though the item itself was still on offer. The banner was now useless for the category and the “Custom” option superfluous. I also find it a bit strange that Amazon offers their sellers only a handful of fonts for personalised text – but let’s not nitpick, it is still early days.

The drive towards expanding in the direction of mass customization is easily explained if we look at the coverage and potential Amazon has to offer. Amazon Germany currently already has around 44 million customers, which means that the portal reaches more than 70% of all German online users. This figure is even more impressive if we apply it to the number of users taking advantage of e-commerce offerings: around 85% of German online shoppers buy at Amazon. In 2015, Amazon boasted more than 300 million registered customers worldwide. If we look at the US alone, where Custom is currently exclusively available, the Amazon community has 121 million active customers and therefore a considerable number of potential buyers of Custom products (Source: statista.de). So what does all that mean for the online print sector? This new branch will allow Amazon to increase its already huge market power even more, but would really step on the toes of established providers in the segments for mass customization and individualised print order items. To get a better idea of the possible repercussions for the online print sector, let’s compare the above numbers with those of the largest online print provider in the market: Cimpress. Cimpress is an absolute specialist for mass customization and maintains subsidiaries in 19 countries around the world, reaching around 17 million customers per year worldwide – less than half of Amazon’s customer base in Germany alone.

The Cimpress management and its CEO Robert Keane have most definitely taken note of Amazon’s new offering. The company went on a buying spree last year (you can read all about it in my report here) to swallow quite a few businesses; the installation of around 20 large format HP Indigo machines at Cimpress locations in the Netherlands, Canada and Italy are yet outstanding for the second half-year 2016. The strategy is obvious: Modernisation and expansion of production capacities. Cimpress is a formidable adversary in terms of global sales – it remains to be seen if and to what extent Amazon Custom will cost this worldwide largest online print provider in actual revenues. I am, however, certain that the alarm bells have been ringing for Robert Keane for quite some time.

Amazon Custom is also a firm response to the encroachment by the Chinese market giant Alibaba. The world’s largest e-commerce market place offers plenty of mass customizable products too. Well. A run of “1” is not always possible – but still: Alibaba is unbeatable in terms of pricing and there are some indicators pointing towards Alibaba slowly but surely discovering the topic “print” as well.

My take: Should the online giant Amazon succeed in making the Custom programme more seller and user-friendly in the short or mid-term and should it carry the beta version forward to a proper release, then it will be able to supplement its entire portfolio worldwide with this add-on service. Because: The market opportunities for good-quality “Customised” products are enormous and have a huge growth potential as well. Once customers have gotten used to the fact that they can get everything they want from a single platform, then there might not be any reason to stray elsewhere …

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