Thinking About Thinking

Investment Opportunities In E-Commerce Despite Amazon’s Dominance

Posted in Uncategorized by larrycheng on May 13, 2015

Many venture capitalists shy away from e-commerce due to Amazon’s dominant, market leading position. The concern is that Amazon can kill any upstart e-commerce company and doesn’t always operate in economically rational ways when they want to win. While there is truth to being concerned about Amazon in this market, the reality is there are some segments of e-commerce that have characteristics which make it more defensible versus Amazon. Given the size, scale and growth of e-commerce more broadly, the winners in these other segments can still be billion dollar companies in their own right. That’s why Volition has made a number of e-commerce investments and will continue to look for strong growth companies in this market.

Here are some of the segments that have better embedded defensibility from Amazon’s competitive threat:

  • Vertical Commerce: Sometimes product knowledge and merchandising is key. It’s true in offline retail and is true in online retail.  Companies like Chewy.com (pet food), Wayfair (home goods), Fanatics (branded sports) are following in the footsteps of Zappos (shoes) by building dominant vertical e-commerce companies.
  • Full-Service: E-commerce to date has been a self-directed experience. You know what you want, and you go buy it. But, not all consumers are self-directed – some need advice, especially in the apparel segment. Hence, stylist-enabled e-commerce is growing aggressively. Stitchfix is leading women’s mid-market and may be the next $1B e-commerce company. Bombfell is leading the men’s mid-market segment. And Trunk Club led men’s luxury prior to being acquired by Nordstrom from $350M.
  • Rental: Not everyone wants to buy, some want to rent. That’s a very different fulfillment back-end and user interface than traditional e-commerce. Rent the Runway is one of the leaders in women’s luxury, but others like TurningArt are doing well in art.
  • Subscription: While Amazon is trying to make more inroads into subscription e-commerce, they are still more likely to be viewed by customers as transactional. But, the consumables category is made for subscription and has spawned some leaders like Dollar Shave Club (shavers), Honest Company (soaps, etc.), Chewy.com (pet food), Blue Apron (meals), and many others.
  • Custom Products: While Amazon sells off the shelf products, there’s a large market for custom made products. Billions are spent each year on custom products from t-shirts, mugs, photos, etc. Companies like CustomInk and CustomMade are building promising businesses in this segment.
  • Clubs: Different business models can lead to different market leaders. In the offline world, there’s Wal-Mart as a traditional retailer, and there’s Costco as the membership-based retailer. In the online world, there’s Amazon as the traditional e-commerce player, and there’s potentially Jet (and others) leading the membership-based model.
  • Perishable: Does Amazon want to store and fulfill perishable food?  Maybe, maybe not. That’s led to an opening for the home delivery of ready to cook meals. Blue Apron started out fast in this segment, but many others like Plated, HomeChef are coming on strong in this market which will not be winner take all.
  • Full Stack Commerce: Amazon generally resells other manufacturers products. But, these companies vertically integrate in their product category to be able to offer customers a fundamentally different price to value experience. Warby Parker is well known in glasses, TheBouqs (flowers) and others have emerged.
  • Flash Sale: A new model is hard for an incumbent to react to – such as the flash sale model marked by deep discounts of limited inventory products. Zulily, RueLaLa, Gilt Groupe and others have built valuable businesses leveraging this model which has largely eluded the traditional e-commerce companies.

The channel shift from traditional retail to e-commerce continues to be one of the largest, most predictable secular shifts in the technology industry. Amazon has been and will continue to be the dominant leader in e-commerce, but there will be valuable leaders created in other segments of e-commerce as well.

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