Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Amazon's Blockbuster Innovation

In 2005, Amazon introduced its Prime Free Shipping program. This yearly subscription program promised free two-day shipping on any purchase the subscriber made from Amazon. Five years later, 13% of Amazon’s 130 million active users are Prime members. More significantly, 20% of the subscribers who purchased products from Amazon in the last twelve months are Prime subscribers. These Prime subscribers purchase two to three times as much as non-Prime subscribers over the course of a year. This Performance innovation removes an impediment to purchasing on Amazon. In fact, it increases the odds greatly that online purchases will be made on Amazon rather than on a competitive site. This has been a blockbuster innovation for Amazon. The innovation holds a special appeal to the larger customers in the market. The Prime subscribers may also offer Amazon an entry into a business that it has longed to gain, for several years, subscription video rentals. It appears that Amazon will introduce a streaming video product for its Prime subscribers. This new product will not cost the Prime subscribers any more than their normal subscription. Netflix’s Watch Instantly service cost about $96 a year so Amazon may have a price advantage on Netflix. Of course, Convenience and Price are only important provided Amazon offers equivalent Function, that is, streaming video content. We don’t know about that yet. Still, Amazon has proven to be an innovative company who can find ways to build a business in non-traditional ways. It continues to grab market share in the retail business.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Whirlpool and Electrolux Blink

The home appliance market has been a difficult place to compete during several periods over the last thirty years. It is tough again today. Sales of large appliances have fallen steadily since 2007. Competition is intensifying with the pressure of the South Korean competitors, LG Electronics and Samsung Electronics, on Whirlpool Corp and Electrolux AB. Whirlpool and Electrolux are suffering from rising costs for steel, copper, plastics and other raw materials. To offset these cost increases, the two companies plan price increases of 8% to 10% in the spring.

The problem: the Koreans aren’t playing ball. The two South Korean firms are pricing aggressively and have been doing so since Thanksgiving 2010.

The South Koreans are formidable competitors. At one time, LG was known as Lucky Goldstar, a seller of low-end, cheaply made, products. Today, it has a much better brand name and sells quality products. Samsung does as well. It is a leader in the large screen TV market. The products that the South Korean companies are pricing aggressively are not the low-end products. They are the mainstream, heart-of-the-market, products.

The domestic U.S. market is slow growing. So is the market in the rest of the world. The North American market is growing 2% to 3% a year. Europe is growing 2% to 4%, while Latin American and Asia grow in the 5% to 10% range. Large appliance companies will have no trouble supplying all the capacity the market needs at these demand growth rates. The industry is likely to have excess capacity for the foreseeable future.

If the two Western competitors institute their price increases without the two South Korean companies in a lock-step march, they will be in a Leader’s Trap. A Leader’s Trap occurs when one or more of the leading companies in an industry hold its prices high in the mistaken belief that customers will stay loyal despite the lower prices of competition. Leader’s Traps rarely end well. Either the Western competitors will lose market share or they will ultimately rescind their price premiums.

These four giant large appliance competitors are peers of one another. The only way to stop the Koreans from discounting against the Western competitors is to have a cost structure that scares them out of the discounts. The discounting competitors have to see that their discounts will only cost them margins because the other peer competitors in the market will match their low prices since they have equally low cost structures.

Monday, March 14, 2011

News Corp Responds to the Market for “Free”

The newspaper industry has faced a mighty challenge over the last few years. There is so much “free” content to complete with them. Newspaper revenue continues to plummet. Internet users are reluctant to pay for content. All the free content, supported by advertising revenue, has decimated the newspaper industry. The industry’s cousin, the magazine industry, is not far behind.

This trend can’t continue forever. Already, many people are asking themselves how much they can trust the information on the internet. The need for Reliability drives the demand for How many “free” web sites can earn enough from advertising to pay all their bills? An effective industry answer to “free” may be forthcoming in the News Corp online newspaper called “The Daily.” The Daily will cover general news, sports, arts and opinion in a format dedicated to the Apple iPad. In addition to the written content, the product will carry high definition video and 360 degree photos. The same product will be available in a few months for the Android-based tablet computers.

The Daily will sell for $.99 a week, or $39.99 a year, a very low price compared to newspapers. With this model, the product receives revenues both from the subscribers and from advertisers. Subscribers have the Reliability benefit of knowing that the content producer cares about facts, accuracy and readable writing style. Advertisers pay for eyeballs that follow a Reliable product.

The Daily is what we call a Next Leader product. This is a product that offers much better than industry standard performance for a low price to a specific subset of industry customers. The Next Leader can offer the very low price because it has a much lower cost structure than is typical in the industry. There are two basic types of Next Leaders. The first are Reformer products. This type of Next Leader product reduces the benefits for the user (usually Function benefits) while increasing the benefits for the buyer (usually Reliability and Convenience benefits) compared to the industry Standard Leader product. The second of the two types of Next Leader products are Transformer products. These products increase the benefits of the user but offer, at least initially, fewer benefits to the buyer than the Standard Leader product offers. The Daily is a Reformer product. It offers the Convenience of formatting fit for a tablet computer so it provides easier access for a segment of the industry’s customers. Its low cost structure results from its elimination of printing presses and distribution costs.

If this new tablet-based product offers a quality read, it will hasten the day when virtually every newspaper and magazine is offered first online and only secondarily in hard copy. The online versions will come at a fraction of the cost of the hard copy versions. Readership is certain to grow.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Long and Arduous Journey of the Airline Industry May be Reaching an End

The government deregulated the airline industry in 1978. Since that time, the basic pricing in the industry, as well as airline fortunes, have been more or less continuously on the downward slope. It has been a very long trip down.

The industry may be heading up again, though. In the third quarter of 2010, the average domestic airfare was 11% higher than a year earlier. Profits returned to the industry in 2010 behind higher prices. In some part, these higher prices were the result of the additional fees that most of the domestic carriers charged passengers for checked baggage, better seating, rerouting and so forth. Still, the industry was able to hold its higher prices.

These prices are holding because the major industry players are less enamored of discounted flying. All of the big airlines are finding ways to extract prices from industry customers. Now that airline capacity utilization is high, the industry is more careful about capacity additions. Higher prices are here to stay.

The consumer still is far ahead. Even at these higher prices, ticket prices are a bargain. In fact, ticket prices, adjusted for inflation, are 20% below the levels of 1995. The industry has continuously stripped benefits from the base product in order to save costs. In 2010, the industry added back a few of those benefits (for example, economy plus seating) for an additional charge. We may see more of that over the next few years.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Advent of the F-commerce Evolution

Don’t look now, but we are entering the world of F-commerce. What is that, those of you older than thirty will ask? F-commerce is selling through a Facebook page.

The trend is early yet, but likely to turn into a stampede. JC Penney and both have established full E-commerce stores within their Facebook page. The stores include check-out and other features you typically find on an E-commerce web site. Facebook claims that twenty-five of the largest retail sites are already integrated with Facebook, as are seventeen of the twenty-five fastest growing retail sites.

Think of Facebook as a virtual mall. There are all kinds of people wandering around there, talking to one another. Facebook offers a nice opportunity for a company to interact with customers and allow them to bring their friends into the conversation to evaluate styles and colors and so forth. If a company integrates its storefront with the Facebook page, its Facebook “friends” will never have to leave the virtual mall in order to purchase. This is an important product innovation.

Product innovations reduce customers’ effective costs in one of three ways: add information about the product and how it is to be used, reduce the resources the customer must use with the product, or improve the customer’s experience with the product.

This innovation improves the customer’s experience with the product by increasing the customer’s sense of security in using the product. It allows the customer to get her friends’ opinions on what she is purchasing. Secondarily, the Facebook store reduces the customer’s resources used with the product by reducing the time the customer must spend in using the product. The innovation reduces the steps the customer must take to make a purchase and it places the company’s product closer to the customer’s location.

This is going to be a train to the destination of millions of customers. Every mainstream retailer has to get on board.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Cost Reduction by Redesigning the Product

Over the last several years, we have studied many examples of cost reduction initiatives to improve productivity and create economies of scale. In simplest terms, there are four actions that improve productivity and economies of scale. First, reduce the rate of cost you pay for an input. Second, reduce the inputs that do not produce output. Third, reduce unique activities or components in products and processes by redesigning the products and processes. Fourth, spread fixed cost activities over new product output. The cellular telephone carriers are introducing measures to reduce their costs by redesigning the product.

The wireless carriers use cellular towers to broadcast their signals. The cellular product design offers signals traveling long distances, primarily for voice and for relatively low data speeds. A cellular tower is expensive but capable of sending a signal for several miles.

This cellular technology worked well until the evolution of the smart phone. The growth of the smart phone has put very high demands on the cellular tower infrastructure because of the heavy data usage it brings to the market. Since 2010, data has taken over the majority of network traffic from voice communications. Now the carriers and, in particular, AT&T with its Apple iPhones, is having difficulty keeping up with the growth in demand.

AT&T today and, likely a few others in the future, has found a potential innovative solution, adding Wi Fi access points. These Wi Fi access points are ideal for heavy data traffic sent at high speeds over relatively short distances. Wi Fi access points transmit signals over a few hundred feet. The Wi Fi access points are smaller, easier and cheaper to install than are cellular towers. This low-cost approach appears to make sense in areas with high density of users. AT&T has placed them in New York’s Time Square and Rockefeller Center, in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, in neighborhoods surrounding Chicago’s Wrigley Field and in San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center.

But there are some drawbacks to Wi Fi access points. Sometimes, a user has to take several steps to connect to a Wi Fi access point. Signals from the Wi Fi access points may interfere with one another, if signals come from multiple networks. Some smart phones do not have Wi Fi capability. These disadvantages have, so far, held back Verizon Wireless’s adoption of this apparently low-cost approach to providing service.

AT&T is leading this cost-saving innovation experiment. Their network strains force it to be creative and experimental. AT&T saves costs by redesigning the product itself using a less expensive technology with some shortcomings. If the AT&T experiment proves both cost effective and acceptable to cellular customers, every other wireless carrier will be forced to adopt it. And since a Wi Fi access point is largely a fixed cost, the wireless carriers with the highest density of membership within the Wi Fi area will have the lowest cost per unit. In most areas of the country that is likely to be either Verizon or AT&T. They will end up getting a unit cost advantage over their smaller competitors…if this works.