It’s been a big week for Jeff Bezos – on Tuesday, the world’s richest man saw his net worth top $197.8bn (£150.9bn), the highest fortune Forbes has recorded in nearly four decades of tracking billionaires; on Wednesday, Amazon UK rolled out a same-day delivery tie in with Morrisons, offering the supermarket’s entire range anywhere in the country; and on Monday, I started an experiment to see if my family and I could get through the week on Amazon products alone. It’s hard to know which event thrilled Jeff the most.
Of course, they are all linked. At the end of July, Amazon announced that Prime members like me (who already pay £79 a year for premium delivery and streaming services) could enjoy same-day delivery from Amazon Fresh, its grocery platform, at no extra cost in the South East: the next stage of Bezos’s dream to sell everything everybody could ever need on one site.
“If you’re not in grocery you’re not really in retail,” explains Andy Halliwell, a senior strategist at digital consultancy, Publicis Sapient. The tech giant first signed a deal for Morrisons to supply a limited range for the site’s grocery debut in 2016, but its new dedicated platform that will allow you to do a full grocery shop (initially being trialled in Leeds) “is Amazon going big or going home.”
Orders will be hand-picked from local stores by Morrisons staff and delivered to customers by Amazon in cooling bags at the back of a van. In the US, newspapers report that this boots-on-the ground approach means aisles of Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market had “become a battleground where well-heeled shoppers fight for elbow room and choice salmon cuts with harried delivery couriers.”
So, has Bezos bitten off more than he can chew? “My guess is that Amazon is losing money on every order,” says Halliwell. “For all supermarkets – even Tesco – every online sale erodes profit margins. Amazon is investing heavily to steal market share as fast as possible because it’s expecting a second wave of coronavirus. It doesn’t expect to be people’s first choice but imagines delivery slots will fill quickly during lockdown – as they did, first time – so aims to become the de facto second choice.”
Supermarkets all accept the shift to online grocery shopping is “irreversible”, said Waitrose boss James Bailey on Thursday. “What would have previously been a gradual upward climb in demand has, with the outbreak of Covid-19, turned into a trajectory more reminiscent of scaling Everest… One in four of us now do a grocery shop online at least once a week – double the amount in 2019.”
Certainly, in the battle to survive the coronavirus crisis, Amazon has had a good war. But has Bezos achieved his dream? Is Amazon an everything store? Could, say, a dad and two teenage daughters spend a week consuming just what Amazon can provide? I was dubious. “Try it anyway,” said my editor. “It’s the future. You’ll be a pioneer.”
The first indication I had that the future hadn’t arrived came about three minutes into my briefing session with my daughters, last weekend. “So, all food, all drink, all clothes, all music and all TV – through Amazon!” I told them. Tess, my 16 year-old, regarded me with pity.
“Does it have Spotify?” she asked.
“It has Amazon Music Unlimited!” I said, to be met with a withering silence.
“But I’ve got my GCSE’s party this week, I need a dress.”
“Well you’re in luck – look at all the dresses Amazon has!”
She flicked the screen. “It’s got no brands.”
“Of course, it has… it has American Apparel… Fruit of the Loom… Tommy Hilfiger…” But she was gone.
I gave up and signed in for my first big food shop. My eldest daughter Rosa – 18 and back from college – sped past in her running shorts. “What do you want for lunch?” I called.
“Whatever,” she shrugged audibly.
“No, but come and look, I can order it now and it’ll be here by lunchtime…” I paused… “Well, it’ll be here sometime between 2pm and 4pm.”
“That’s lunchtime,” she nodded with the professional timekeeping of a student.
I turned back to the laptop. This first shop was an all-encompassing top-up-the-fridge number – Tropicana, avocado, wild rocket, Evian, Hoegaarden, Morrisons spinach and ricotta tortelloni. Oh God, I am so middle class. I kept adding stuff in a bid to reach the £50 mark to earn £10 off my first Morrisons shop, paid £42.36 (so cheap) and sat back. It was 2pm. Half an hour later, Amazon texted me: “your Prime Now shopper has started working on your order. We’ll let you know if there are any changes!” and I was away.
The goods arrived bang on time at 3pm in proper cool brown grocery bags – the kind I’d coveted since I first watched TV programmes set in New York. And yet… the Hoegaarden was missing.
I went back online and saw 11 items in my shopping basket, totalling £23.38 and including the beer I’d ordered and, I thought, paid for. There were my Magnums, my Nature Valley variety pack and my Warburton crumpets. This made no sense. Could it be that the fun stuff like lager, ice cream and crumpets were somehow quarantined from the nourishing wild rocket salad? I paid for it anyway. It had my lager.
I’m usually pretty deft with the online shopping, jumping fairly callously between Sainsburys, Waitrose and the odd Tesco top-up, depending on how much I’m spending, who I’m buying for and when they’ll deliver. But the multiple Amazon platforms had me confused. Loo roll, for instance, is available via Amazon Prime, with next-day delivery, as well as via Morrisons and Amazon Fresh for same-day delivery. Not to mention that the same brand is available from an avalanche of “other sellers” called things like WowBoxme, UK Business Supplies, Regal Essentials, Cambridge Retail and Homes Deco. It felt like a bunch of shops having a fight over my personal hygiene – but at least in the next lockdown they shouldn’t run out.
The next day, Rosa’s boyfriend offered to cook fajitas. In my head, I would wander through the house thinking up an interesting recipe and just ordering the ingredients out loud: “Alexa! Buy spring onions, sour cream and beetroot”. In practice, I took so long trying to make it work that Rosa took over and bashed away at the laptop. She filled a basket, went to checkout, pressed pay and was told there were no available slots. Did she want to join a waiting list? She did. They said they would text her when slots became available. They did. The earliest delivery slot was the following day. Fortunately, that first shop had been generous one. By Thursday, I’d got it nailed, and our £20 Amazon Fresh order arrived within two hours.
We sat down to watch TV. Me, I love the Amazon offering. Man in the High Castle, Mozart in the Jungle, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel – intelligent, high-concept shows. I snuggled down. Rosa slid upstairs. She had Harlots on BBC iPlayer. “It’s free,” she explained. “You have to pay extra for everything on Amazon.” She paused. “Everything I want to watch anyway.” Tess was out at a party, obviously.
So I took the Echo Show up to my room – it’s an Alexa device with a video screen. I could call up a movie, hear the news, check the weather and set an alarm then lie back to doze with the sound of a campfire crackling away. Which is when I realised… Amazon is great for a 54 year-old guy. It could probably even supply a blanket for my knees before the film I was watching had finished. But this year, Apple is rumoured to be launching its own version of Prime. I suspect I know which one my daughters will choose.