Friday, July 24, 2009

Amazon Acquires Zappos

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In lieu of a *Deal of the Week* this Friday, I wanted to put in my two cents about the recent Amazon acquisition of Zappos, which was formally announced on July 22, 2009, and is expected to finalize by the end of this year.

Naturally, I am a huge fan of and my first fear (like everyone else's) was that this sale/merger would compromise the high level of quality that has been synonymous with the Zappos brand since day one (and believe me, the Style Bard has had an eye on this site since well before it was the household name it is today).

This "quality" I mention was showcased primarily in two ways: 1) customer service and 2) relateability.

In the first case, Zappos demonstrates a dedication to customer service by not only understanding what the online consumer wants--fast shipping, an easily navigable website, lots of choices--but also via sales support, in the form of a friendly and knowledgeable staff who answers calls and replies to web inquiries in a respectful, timely and helpful way. After sales support is also evident (your access doesn't disappear once your credit card is approved)--in fact, it's just as easy to return shoes to Zappos as it was to buy them (free, and typically overnight), which makes overall interaction with the e-tail site much more appealing.

In the second case, Zappos demonstrates its brand as a unique entity by creating a voice and culture that goes above and beyond a cute name and clever marketing. A stellar example is the Zappos blog, which is always a fun read, full of insider tidbits and eclectic extras. The team at Zappos seems convivial and quirky--highly relateable, like friends you just haven't met yet. (Personally, the blogs always made me secretly yearn to work for Zappos in some capacity, even though they are based in Nevada, a long commute from New York City.) Effectively, Zappos comes across a genuine and humane brand, rather than a well-oiled corporate machine offering first-rate service simply because it seems competitive and profitable to do so.

These two prominent brand features went a long way in establishing Zappos as a lead retailer online--of shoes, then handbags, then apparel and now highly diversified subsets including ski and skate equipment.

Now Amazon is taking control of 100% of shares in the company, so what happens to these Zappos hallmarks? Well, in a letter to his employees, CEO Tony Hsieh says:

We realized that Amazon's resources, technology, and operational experience had the potential to greatly accelerate our growth so that we could grow the Zappos brand and culture even faster. On the flip side, through the process Amazon realized that it really was the case that our culture is the platform that enables us to deliver the Zappos experience to our customers. Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) made it clear that he had a great deal of respect for our culture and that Amazon would look to protect it.

Affiliates of Zappos (including the Style Bard) received this letter as part of an overall announcement about the merger. It was mostly short and informative--("Our brand will continue to be separate from the Amazon brand and we plan to continue to run Zappos as an independent entity.")--but the inclusion of the CEO letter was undoubtedly meant to reassure; and it works. The letter conveys a sense of at-ease confidence; familiar and exhaustive, transparent and jocular.

Upon reading it, I do believe that Zappos intends to preserve its culture. Preemptive to loyalist complaints, this seems to be the very heart of the CEO letter (a focal point that is driven home so hard that the word "culture" is repeated 21 times throughout). But then, fellow shoe-blogger Manolo says it best in his reactive post:

Of the course, Jeff Bezos is claiming Amazon intends to maintain the Zappos culture intact.
Okay, but please allow the Manolo to take the wait and see attitude.

Yes, I think everyone has a right to remain skeptical--customers and affiliates alike. Hopefully, our doubt and renewed interest in the future of Zappos will only further encourage them to demonstrate (if not build upon) the brand's recognized devotion to quality and service in coming months.

Ultimately, I have to think that because it behooves Zappos as a company to maintain their sense of self--their "culture"--for the gratification of their public (regardless of whatever changes and turnovers occur behind closed doors), there is every reason to believe (fingers crossed) that Zappos will remain Zappos, and loyal customers--such as Style Bard Shoes readers--will encounter the same personality and ease of shopping to which they are accustomed.

Furthermore, now that the internet has exploded with comparison of Zappos' ideal customer service standards to Amazon's (which have been called, to quote Manolo again, "Meh") we might even be so optimistic as to think Amazon might reconsider how they're currently running their own retail programs. Perhaps we will witness some in-house improvements, geared to meet the precedent set by Zappos? Maybe this will even spark a 'net-wide trend, evincing the value of dedicated customer service? Committed online shoppers (such as myself) can only hope.

Learn more from the lips of Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO:

Leave a comment and let me know what you think: is this the beginning of a beautiful partnership, or the end of an era?

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