The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: 6 Lessons Learned from Amazon Prime Day

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Amazon Prime Day was a lot like a lounge singer’s suit. From far away it was glittery and magnificent; up close, it revealed itself to be cheap and shabby after years of sweaty use. Or, in Amazon’s case, cheap and shabby after someone clearly didn’t arrange the right sales with name brand companies.

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Prime Day was organized by Amazon as a celebration of the company’s 20th birthday, no small milestone in the eCommerce world. While it was officially open only to Amazon Prime members, the company gave free trials of Prime to anyone who wanted to sign up and participate. In the days leading up to Prime Day, Amazon promised the world a bigger, better sale than Black Friday. The sale was structured as a series of flash sales throughout the day, with new “Lightning Deals” going live every hour and staying open until they sold out or had been up a certain period of time.

Prime Day opened at midnight on July 15, and it almost immediately became clear that when Amazon had said there would be more deals than Black Friday, it literally meant more, because the deals weren’t better. The Twittersphere quickly branded Prime Day Amazon’s ‘yard sale day’ because the sales were mainly stuff that most people consider junk. For instance: a 24” shoe horn, cat calming collars, and highlighters.

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But Prime Day wasn’t all a wash – at least, not for Amazon. And I got a Fire Stick for $25, so I can’t exactly complain. Amazon’s sales shot up about 80% on July 15. They received some serious publicity, both leading up to July 15 and during the aftermath. Social media was alight with Amazon’s name. Sure, the stuff on social media wasn’t the most flattering – but at least no one was talking about Walmart, right? Additionally, Prime Day likely gave Amazon a good number of Prime sign-ups, which, I suspect, was Amazon’s real mission.

Ultimately though, Prime Day was a brilliant plan that went awry, and there’s a lot to learn from it for other retailers (and for Amazon themselves). Let’s start with what Amazon did well, and then we’ll move to takeaways from the more negative aspects of this promotion.

What Amazon did well:

1. Think outside the box for promotions.

Perhaps the biggest propellant for the success of Prime Day’s hype was the fact that no retailer (at least, no big box retailer) has ever just created a giant sale holiday the way Amazon did. It can be pretty scary to go out on a limb like this, but it’s really worth it. Surprising your customers with things no one else is doing is an important part of keeping them engaged.

Types of surprises should vary, of course. You can’t just keep inventing sales holidays – people will quickly tire and stop being surprised. Small types of surprises can be equally effective. Surprising someone with something extra at check-out, or with a thank you note can have some amazing results.

2. Timing is everything.

It’s important to have sales on Black Friday. It’s a day when people expect crazy sales, so you better be ready to comply. But everyone in the world is giving sales on Black Friday, so basically, it’s just like any other day. You’re one of a million. In the middle of July, though? No one’s offering insane deals. No one’s offered insane deals in at least six months, and it will be another six months until insane deals are offered again.

Not only was Amazon able to stand out in the crowd as the only retailer offering insane deals that day, but they approached a crowd that was hungry for these kinds of sales. As a retailer, don’t decide that February is a wash month simply because everyone’s bought all the winter clothes on sale and no one wants spring clothes yet. Push unique promotions that keep customers engaged during slower months.

3. Celebrate customer loyalty.

This sale was a way for Amazon to give back to the customers who pay to be a part of their loyalty program, and it was a way for Amazon to prove to potential customers that being in Amazon Prime pays. Certainly, Prime already has a lot of great features, like free two day shipping, but customers get used to the same old, same old, and they forget how valuable the loyalty program is. Throwing in surprises like this is a great way to get people excited about you and your loyalty program all over again.

What Amazon did wrong:

All that said, though, Amazon did really miss the mark for this sale. By the time July 15 hit, the world was primed (pun intended) and ready for what was promised to be the greatest sale of all time. To discover the bulk of products on sale were niche items like reflective vests and laminating pouches was a major letdown. How could Amazon have run the sale better?

1. Flash sales require flashy products.

Amazon got the idea right: flash sales are extremely effective. They cut down on comparison shopping, and the timers and “% claimed bars” encourage people to impulse shop like nobody’s business. Case in point: My husband bought me a Chromebook from Amazon that was supposedly on supersale, only to discover, post-purchase, that Best Buy had a Chromebook listed for the same price.

That said, however, flash sales require flashy products. That is, products you wouldn’t otherwise consider, except on a flash sale. Nobody wants to buy highlighters on a flash sale. They’re already cheap and they’re not particularly special. Zulily, a company who specializes in flash sales, says it best in their motto: “Something special every day.” Flash sales are where you buy big ticket items like expensive electronics, designer clothing, and furniture that you wouldn’t otherwise purchase.

Where Amazon really went wrong, though, is they combined the idea of a flash sale with a standard off-price retail sale model.

The best example of an off-price retail sale can be found at TJ Maxx, who has actually based their entire business model on this sale. The off-price retail model allows for essentially anything to be sold at a lower price, typically because these things are no longer in season and are being sold at an outlet. What really makes the off-price retail model work, though, is the idea of hidden gems in the sale. A store like TJ Maxx will hide incredible sales throughout the store as rewards for those willing to look hard enough. For every hundred regular purses on sale, you can find one designer bag on super-sale.

The problem with Amazon combining these two sales is twofold.

  1. An off-price retail sale is the antithesis of a flash sale. It requires careful searching and time. A flash sale does not give the time necessary to search deeply through the products to discover that one, special item.
  2. Amazon, as previously mentioned, more-or-less failed to provide the special items. Even with careful searching, there were very few truly great sales to be dug up. Virtually no name brands were involved and, even when they were, products were only about 10% off. This was likely the bulk of Amazon’s usual cut, and suggests that Amazon did not try to make partnerships with any big brands ahead of time for the sale.

2. Design your user interface with your customer’s journey in mind.

A huge problem immediately apparent with Prime Day was that the interface was not set up intuitively at all. Initially, the deals appeared in a scroll-through menu which displayed ALL the deals of the hour. You could filter it a bit, but it lacked any search capability whatsoever.  

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Ultimately, this made things really difficult to find, hindering people from hunting through the sale easily.

At some point around the middle of the day, Amazon must have realized everyone was having serious problems with the interface and they updated it to provide a bit more categorization.

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However, these links still took buyers to a page with a scroll-through menu that was unsearchable. It was still difficult to navigate.

What could Amazon have done differently? For starters, they could have kicked off the day with more categorized home page. They also could’ve used pages set-up like their usual sale pages instead of scroll-through menus, and made these pages searchable and extremely filterable. For instance, the page with electronics should have allowed buyers to search for all the tablets on sale, or all the laptops on sale.

Additionally, Amazon really missed a huge opportunity in their wishlists feature. Nearly everyone I know has an Amazon wishlist. Several people created wishlists specifically to track items they were hoping would go on sale. Amazon could have capitalized in a big way on these wishlists by providing notifications to customers when their items went on sale. This is not an unheard of thing for retailers to do. Steam, a video game company, does this regularly. They also could have offered a sale on wishlist items. While we’re probably still a few years away from a major sale that is also personalized (where the items on sale are different for each person and based on their search and purchase history or wishlist), it would not have been hard to offer 50% off one item in a wishlist. It’s possible that Amazon also could have analyzed what the most wished for products were and put those up for sale.

3. Set expectations that you can meet or beat for sales.

Amazon’s marketing team did a great job building hype for this sale. In fact, they did too good of a job. Promises like “better than Black Friday sales” had customers believing this could very well be the sale to end all sales.

The explanation for how the sale was going to occur appears to have been too complex or lengthy for customers to pay attention to, however, leaving many people believing that everything on Amazon would be on sale. As a result, what was a decent sale became a huge disappointment.

There were enough sweet deals to be found that more on-target marketing might have covered for the poor UI and odd sale model. Hyping it as better than Black Friday was certainly detrimental. Rather, the company could have focused on how it was a celebration sale of Amazon’s empire and of the customers who helped them achieve such a status. Stating that this would be a one day only, large sale would have achieved a similar hype but without as much disappointment.

Conclusion

Overall, you can’t call Prime Day a complete failure. Amazon tried something new and did well in some aspects, and not so well on others.

Retailers should not ignore what Amazon has accomplished (and failed at) here. In a world where retailers are trying to figure out how to set themselves apart, these lessons in sensationalist retail are important and we will likely see retailers scrambling to implement what they’ve learned in the coming weeks.

What lessons from Amazon Prime Day did you learn? Add your thoughts in the comments!

Image by Abby Kahler

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Cara Wood

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Cara Wood is a marketing associate at Capterra and a graduate of Mary Washington! When she's not hard at work at Capterra, she can be found horse-back riding, reading and just generally having a good time at life.

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