From Slate.com yesterday:
I’m a frequent Amazon shopper, and over the last few months I’ve noticed a significant improvement in its shipping times. As a subscriber to Amazon’s Prime subscription service, I’m used to getting two-day shipping on most items for free. But on about a third of my purchases, my package arrives after just one day for no extra charge. Sometimes the service is so speedy it seems almost magical. “I Want It Today: How Amazon’s ambitious new push for same-day delivery will destroy local retail,” by Farhad Manjoo. http://slate.me/O8yt5C
Magical — a typical description of a successful zheng/qi operation. Written descriptions date back to Sun Tzu (chapter 5), but the basic idea hasn’t changed: Understand what the other players in your game expect (ideally by helping to shape those expectations), and then when you think the time is ripe, spring the unexpected.
The result in conflict can be paralyzing shock and disorientation (see, for example, Patterns 117). In business, if done well, it can be delighted and fanatically loyal customers, as I describe in Certain to Win, and Apple does so well.
Amazon’s strategy appears to be to use zheng/qi to offset the costs of establishing regional distribution centers and collecting local sales taxes:
[Retailers claim that] If prices were equal, you’d always go with the “instant gratification” of shopping in the real [CR: brick-and-mortar] world. The trouble with that argument is that shopping offline isn’t really “instant”—it takes time to get in the car, go to the store, find what you want, stand in line, and drive back home.
More important, and this is what I find so hard to understand, the people who run retail outlets don’t seem to realize that the one thing they can offer than Amazon can’t is interaction face-to-face with real people. Instead, they appear to regard people purely as costs, and so our experiences with their sales and service forces are often, shall we say, less than satisfying.
[Note: I’m also a subscriber to Amazon Prime and my experiences have been similar.]
On my way to Publix, my wife reminds me that we badly need a cyan cartridge for our HP printer. She says to get a multi-pack because “those things drink ink.” There’s a Staples not too far from Publix, so I stop in.
Well, the display rack for 564 ink has as many “We’re sorry we’re out. But you can order online” tags as it does hangers with product. They don’t have a multi-pack in stock, but they do have one regular size cyan (the only color they have — several sizes of black, which I don’t need right now.) They also have printer paper, which we do need, and there’s a Staples “Easy Rebate” so that I can get a ream for $.25 net. So I grab a pack, and with the ink, head for the checkout counter. So far, I have not encountered another human being.
My conversation with the checkout person goes as follows:
CP: What’s your Staples number
Me: < our office phone number>
Me: How do I claim the “Easy rebate”?
CP: You can go online.
That’s it. So I go online when I get back and a short 30 minutes later, I get a confirmation screen that we’ve filed for the rebate (“Please allow 4-6 weeks for processing.” I’m not making that up.) During the online chat, the agent admits that if you need to go back and correct something, the site will lock up.
You get the feeling that whether or not Amazon pays sales tax should be the least of Staples’ concerns at this point.
As soon as I got the rebate filed, I went over to Amazon.com and ordered the ink (the HP 7510 is a very nice printer, but boy does it inhale ink!)