Amazon’s most popular product has never once appeared on its list of bestsellers.
But if you’ve ever bought anything from Amazon, then you’ve most certainly bought it.
Amazon is a time machine, selling you back the most precious, finite commodity in existence.
Think about it. I buy paper towels from Amazon versus the Safeway in my neighborhood. What am I really buying? Time. When I order a book instead of grabbing it at my local bookstore? I’m getting time. And Amazon’s giving me an incredible deal on it.
Here’s my back-of-the-napkin math:
- 40 Amazon orders in 2017 x 0.5 hour (average time for an in-store visit) = 20 hours
- Cost of Prime membership ($99) / 20 hours = $5/hour
That’s right: I got 20 hours of life back last year for about $5 per hour (and, frankly, that’s a conservative estimate). It’s far less than minimum wage and far more valuable to me than even those paper towels or that book I’ve ordered.
Amazon has astutely recognized the crux of a uniquely modern problem – the incredibly diverse demands for our time – and spent the last two decades building an empire around delivering it back to us.
The thing about time… Consider first the fundamentals of time. It’s a resource spent constantly at the same rate – and none of us knows how much of it we ultimately have (grim but true). It is also finite. The notion of “time saving” is a ridiculous lie we tell ourselves; the truth is that each moment is a moment spent, gone forever.
Layer in innovation. On the one hand, the proliferation of technology makes our lives easier but it also takes our time with it. Invent the car? You get places faster, but now you have a commute. TV and radio? Now we can relax, learn, be entertained – but all with a hefty side of commercials. Email? You stay connected (good) but you’re always connected (not so good).
The demands on our time are compelling. In all of human history, there has never been such an abundance of options to choose from as there is today- and they’re increasingly high quality. In addition to life’s ever-present fundamentals (eat, rest, family, work, caretaking, education, etc.), for instance, we also have Netflix, podcasts. Pandora, Spotify, FaceTime, Instagram, hundreds of television channels, texting, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp, etc. Non-digital experiences are more broadly accessible and often cheaper than in years past: travel, sports, movies, museums, zoos, surfing, skiing, dinners out, meal kits, I could go on and on and on.
But few companies excel at the supply side. If the demand side for our time is huge, the supply side is relatively small – and Amazon is most certainly at the top of this heap. There is no other company better at selling us back our time, and they’ve built an incredibly complex and effective apparatus that does just that. (As an aside, Amazon even helps the average business get in on the action: AWS is a time machine, eliminating the need to set up and maintain your own servers).
There are certainly others, however, who are nailing the supply-side of time (think Instacart, TaskRabbit, Starbucks order-ahead, Google Maps, and Waze). Hell, even the “Skip Intro” button on Netflix is a genius bit of time machinery. They’re all performing functions where people do the mental calculus and say, my time is worth more than this. It’s worth it to me to have someone else pick up and deliver my groceries. It’s worth it to me to type a query into Google instead of hitting my neighborhood library. It’s worth it to me to hire this tasker versus build this Ikea table myself.
Incidentally, these companies aren’t the first time machines ever conceived. Cars are time machines (walk to work and tell me a vehicle isn’t a time machine). Planes are time machines (drive across the country and tell me a plane isn’t a time machine). Shoot off a quick text instead of calling – and tell me that’s not a time machine.
Retailers must get smart about the demand/supply time paradigm. Most have suffered the result of existing in a world that’s now endlessly and effortlessly entertaining: shopping is just not as high on our collective list of things to do as it once was. If they want to survive, retailers need to borrow from Amazon’s good example and make shopping an experience that gives time back to busy, distracted consumers who feel strapped for this limited commodity. Alternatively, they need to get very creative with compelling experiences to compete on the very crowded demand-side of time.
In each scenario, retailers must perform extraordinarily well to win. It’s a stark choice – either/or, do or die. For retailers in this new paradigm, it’s not remotely hyperbole to say mediocrity – in either a) building a time machine of their own or b) being a hyper-compelling time consumption experience – equals death.