While Amazon is the dominant force in many of the west’s retail markets, there are two areas that Jeff Bezos’s behemoth is yet to really conquer: groceries and fashion. While it has stepped up its involvement with expansion of Amazon Fresh (and Pantry in the UK), news of its growing interest in clothes has been less high profile.
The ecommerce giant has signalled its intention to chassé further into the fashion world, posting several senior job openings in its clothing division over the past few days. Today Sky News reported that Frances Russell, former boss of Marks & Spencer’s womenswear, business is joining the Seattle-based company – an interesting choice given M&S’s well-documented failure to turn its fashion fortunes around.
The hiring spree has stoked further anticipation of Amazon’s expected launch of an own-brand clothing range. That wouldn’t be an impossible task – the giant certainly has the bucks to build something big – but success would surely be hard to come by in such a label-conscious market.
This isn’t Amazon’s first foray into the fashion world. It’s been selling clothes since 2008 and added over 100 brands to its stable last year, including Gucci and Hugo Boss, in an effort to improve its reputation as a haven for the fashion-disaster prone. Last summer, it opened Europe’s largest fashion photography studio in east London.
Amazon may be expanding into clothes, having sold over a million items in the week before Christmas last year, but as any glowering model will tell you, clothes and fashion are not the same thing. People go to Carnaby street boutiques and Next online alike because they believe those shops have a style for them - in other words, because they belong to the company’s target demographic. Amazon’s target demographic, on the other hand, is everyone.
Last year, Asos chairman and former Amazon UK boss Brian McBride told MT that he wasn’t afraid of Amazon. ‘It’s a different business from Asos,’ he says. ‘It’s about fulfilling - Amazon isn’t really creating demand.’
Amazon could outcompete even Lidl’s clothes range on price if it wanted to, but the fashion market doesn’t respond to price in the way that the book market does. If it’s cheap and common, by definition it can’t be fashionable. As a result, if Amazon wants to conquer fashion, it has to compete with cooler retailers with a narrower demographic, on their terms. This is a battle it’s not well equipped to win.
Maybe Amazon will indeed become the ‘ultimate fashion destination’, as its site says. Or, maybe Bezos knows Amazon can never become that, but is content for it to claim a secondary slice of the market, fulfilling demand but not creating it. Stranger things have happened.