Monday, November 30, 2015

What about Amazon's need for speed?

Perhaps the one memorable line from the weakest Star Trek film -- Star Trek V, The Final Frontier -- was uttered by William Shatner's Captain Kirk: "What does God need with a starship?"

I asked a variant of that question last week, when online retail juggernaut Amazon demonstrated a re-usable rocket that, after completing its mission, returned safely to its launch pad. I'm not sure who's ordering Adele CDs on the moon, but it's impressive to know that Amazon's been thinking about this.

Jeremy Clarkson, By Ed Perchick (flickr) ,
 via Wikimedia Commons
Then I asked: What does Amazon need with a rocket ship?

Next, over the Thanksgiving holiday, Amazon posted a video of ex-Top Gear bad boy Jeremy Clarkson, using his wry sarcasm to provide an update on the Amazon delivery-by-drone technology, called Prime Air. Looks like it'll be a hit, assuming you have few trees or overhead electrical feeds. (Clarkson, along with Top Gear alumni Richard Hammond and James May, are filming a new automotive adventure show for Amazon Prime Video.)

Now, Amazon's increasing benefits to employees (after the New York Times' August expose of a supposedly brutal corporate culture at headquarters). And Amazon opened a pop-up physical bookstore in Seattle, not far from its headquarters.

Clearly, Amazon has plenty of PR firepower. But not aimed at driving sales. Not one of these innovations, no matter how tech-sexy, will goose the company's online sales in 2015. Or, for that matter, affect the company's stock price -- which has climbed steadily since August to nearly $675 a share. Without drones or rockets.

What do Clarkson, rockets, drones, and Amazon have in common? A need for speed?

Best guess: Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder and CEO, is repositioning the company. Sharply differentiating it from any other retailer. Wal-mart, for example, has thousands of employees and hundreds of gigantic stores -- but probably doesn't have a re-usable rocket.

We may need to get more curious about a Bezos universe of products and services; think Richard Branson's Virgin Group empire of airlines, telecommunications, music, etc.

Because when we see this kind of showmanship from a company that's dominant in selling stuff, we ought to start asking: why does a retailer need a rocket ship?