Amazon: Mass Customization –Target: Germany

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It was already on the cards – and now it is actually happening: Amazon is launching its Custom program on its German website too.

There was speculation about this move back in mid-2017 and the announcement that the Custom program would be available on the German website was then made in September. Visibly customizable products have featured in the Amazon portfolio of some stores for a short while now. It’s time for an overview. It all started in September 2015 with the Beta version of Amazon Custom for the US website. Very soon there were 400,000 items that could be customized directly on the product site; there are now around 1 million products that can really be classed as mass customization products, as we understand the term. This vast range includes business cards, which to my mind are very reminiscent of what Vistaprint produces. But it is anyone’s guess as to whether Vistaprint really uses Amazon Custom as a channel. The fact is that Custom is now going to make life considerably “easier” for German vendors that want to use Amazon as a sales platform for customizable products. There are new opportunities or even positioning options for German print providers on the table – or are there? But more of that later – the first thing to do is clarify what Amazon Custom is all about.

The prerequisites for offering customized products include vendors having a professional account and handling shipping themselves. The product site only needs to be set up in the regular Amazon design and customization options added using templates. Of the three options that, according to Amazon Seller Central, are available to vendors – choice of material, size and shape, text customization and product customization – I could only find the latter two options among the existing modest number of customizable offerings. Doesn’t sound that “threatening”, you would think.

The three product customization options available via the platform; Source: https://services.amazon.de/service/amazoncustom.html

Well now, you would think that any company that generated gross sales of more than 14 billion in 2016 just in Germany and that is growing considerably faster than the other Internet giants would be well capable of expanding further into mass customization and print. Although an accurate figure for 2017 is not yet available, this year there are again likely to have been at least 43 million – if not more – regular Amazon users just in Germany alone, in line with the increase in sales – in other words enough potential buyers of Custom products. But a large customer base and extreme reach are not the only things that matter – another aspect that is definitely relevant in the online print industry in the D/A/CH region is Amazon’s rise to become the No. 1 product and price search engine. Even if it doesn’t advertise the fact – most consumers obtain the information they want via the Seattle-based eCommerce giant’s website.

“Customer base, prominence and the search engine issue – Amazon is expanding in plenty of business segments. The European online print industry will certainly not be spared that fate.” – Bernd Zipper

And what’s the story with mobile shopping opportunities for these very basic mass customized products? You’ve opened the app/browser, selected your product, opted for “Customize now” – and then lo and behold: “…This item cannot be customized using mobile devices…”. It doesn’t work either on smartphones or tablets. That’s likely to please a lot of print providers, especially as Amazon generates a not inconsiderable portion of its total sales via mobile devices and some print providers in turn showcase part of their offerings in mobile format, some even providing mobile-compatible editing environments.

Amazon Custom is (to date) not mobile-compatible; Source: amazon.de

For small print providers and mass customization novices, this program means: anybody who wants to give selling and producing customizable print products a go without having a “proper” store of their own, can do it via the Custom program. And I’m not saying that Amazon will evolve into a mass customization and print flagship in Europe soon. But for some providers – dependent of course on your perspective – recent developments suggest there is a very fine line between opportunity and threat. And I don’t need to labor the point that Amazon is very adept at eCommerce in every respect.

The print product customization options on Amazon are modest, but not necessarily less than what’s offered at some online print stores; Source: amazon.de

But what the online photo print providers in particular should be keeping track of is how Amazon’s own photo print service is performing. Photos on canvas, aluminum prints, photo books, photo gifts and all sorts of cards and calendars – as far as print products that you can order online are concerned, Amazon has incorporated several more items into its Prints program in the USA in a short space of time. It seems to be paying dividends, given the number of Prime customers who are only too delighted to take advantage of the online storage and delivery benefits. And that’s despite the fact that the print products are no cheaper than those offered by other major players. And if Amazon keeps to the same timetable with Prints as it has done with Custom, then the eCommerce giant’s photo print offering is due to reach the European market in 2018. Although I am not yet aware of any partnerships with specific print providers, that is not to say that there isn’t anything in the pipeline. I’m not the only one who finds this enthralling – so too does everyone else involved in this segment.

My take: although you still have to look hard to find any print products with the “Customize now” adjunct, plenty of them are certain to be added very quickly in the future. The US version has already demonstrated that it works even without separate category pages. German platform users will have to gage for themselves whether offering directly customizable print products is really lucrative or not. Amazon does at least charge a not inconsiderable price for broad reach and possible capacity utilization. As far as online print in general is concerned, the following still applies – the dangerous combination of new products that could really poach sales from some providers and the circumstance that Amazon is considered by many as the No. 1 (price) search engine should set the alarm bells ringing. What print providers with “real” stores of their own need to do is find a way of overcoming their dependency on search engine rankings and increasing their visibility on the Internet. And while I am at it – I have a piece of advice for all print providers: why not check out whether Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) is something that would benefit you. Or should Amazon just keep all those customers searching for customizable products to itself? With the aid of Custom and AMS this colossus could just do it perhaps, and indeed without taking any roundabout routes.

Founder and CEO of zipcon consulting GmbH, one of the leading consulting companies for the print and media industry in Central Europe. The technology and strategy consultant and his team actively support practical implementation in a wide variety of customer projects. His work involves developing visions, concepts and strategies for the players active in the print production process across a wide range of industries. His areas of expertise include online print, mass customization, strategy and technological assessment for print, and the development of new strategies in the print and media environment. Bernd Zipper is the creator and chairman of Initiative Online Print e.V. and, in addition to his consulting activities, is an author, lecturer and sought-after speaker, orator and moderator. His visionary lectures are regarded worldwide as trend-setting management recommendations for the print and media industry. (Profiles also in Xing, LinkedIn).

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