Amazon Hybridizes Brick-and-Mortar and Online Grocery Paradigms

Amazon looks to capture online grocery by establishing a physical presence to supplement its digital tactics


While industries like fashion and travel are awash in digital, grocery has lagged in digital adoption.  While the picture looked bleak following the dot-com era’s dismal failure with Webvan [1], that hasn’t stopped Instacart, Amazon, Google, Uber, Peapod, Safeway, Walmart, and FreshDirect from playing in the space and attracting capital.

Exhibit 1: eCommerce Grocery Players [2]


Business and Operating Model Rundown

These firms’ business models, and thus digitally-enhanced operating models [3], differ:

  • A brick and mortar grocer may enhance convenience to supplement buyers’ existing habits and familiarity, meanwhile leveraging its logistics capability and physical presence. One method to bring grocers into the 21st century is “click and collect”, grounded in a branded website. [3]
  • Instacart delivers value on convenience, speed, and selection, for which it charges a premium. Instacart had adopted a lower-cost model, has relied on the sharing economy, and has built partnerships with Whole Foods/Costcos to bring their selection and speed to fruition. [3]
  • Walmart acknowledges the busyness of grocery shoppers, catering to parents who need a large load at low prices, without having to traipse through the aisles with kids in tow. Walmart uses pickup hubs to shift to a new mode of grocery uptake.
  • Amazon has traditionally leveraged its image as the online everything store with a willingness to compete on price to win customers. Amazon leveraged successful tactics from its ecommerce business for AmazonFresh, with some flexing around perishables’ challenges.  Last month, however, a Wall Street Journal article surprised the grocery and investing worlds by breaking the news that Amazon is reportedly exploring a convenience store model [4].  You read right, Amazon in brick and mortar…!

Amazon’s Tactics to Leverage Digital

AmazonFresh uses digital to reach customers more directly, providing convenience, competitive pricing, and an intuitive user experience.  Meanwhile, it tries to optimize logistics, minimize sales taxes, reduce warehousing, and control shipping costs to derive the greatest benefit versus the traditional grocery model [5].

Diverging from it’s pure online play into convenience stores is an interesting strategy.  Specifically, it intends to introduce convenience store selling perishables, meat, and milk, with non-perishables available through mobile request [4].  Amazon is also planning on developing pickup models to compete with Walmart, with license-plate reading technology to decrease wait times [4].

Through this approach, these stores can serve not only as “onramps to the company’s online grocery service” [6], but also as broadening mechanisms for their delivery network [7] using the back of the house as a logistics stopover closer to customers.  Some believe that “harmonizing the channel experience for customers” [8] through an omnichannel approach is the key to winning in grocery, though most players seem to have some multi-channel approach.  However, scale and reach can remain problematic if relying on a physical presence.

What Amazon Can Do More of

First, Amazon can leverage the fact that “he who controls the relationship with the consumer controls the game” [9].  Second, Amazon can leverage the trove of data it collects, capitalizing on consumer behavior recognition [8].  These pose a huge risk to brick-and-mortar grocers, even through algorithms suggesting other products of interest or through its product ratings.  Third, Amazon can continue to attract the profitable customers who are more likely to end up online: dual-income earners prioritizing convenience [8].


First, online grocery may not take off.  Amazon has only captured 1.1% of the food and beverage market based on 2016 projections [4].  The primary barriers customers report are a preference for selecting their own goods, that traditional channels are not as inconvenient as expected, and that 61% find grocery shopping enjoyable [10, 11].  Additionally, delivery prices dissuade some buyers, yet they are not the main barrier to adoption [12].

Second, a sufficient ROI on capital investment poses a risk for Amazon’s new strategy.  Webvan’s “costly business model of building and operating refrigerating warehouses” [13] stunk it.  Interestingly, omnichannel strategies have been shown to be costlier at least for non-perishables.

Exhibit 2: Cost to Serve by Channel [2]


Third, “there is just so much variability in the grocery delivery model, that it’s always going to be a more costly delivery, and it doesn’t lend itself as easily to economies of scale as packages do” [4].  For instance, previously successful strategies around timing box delivery to maximize full truckloads may not translate here, especially since “the logistics are nightmarish” for perishables [1].

Moreover, already “vanishingly thin” [1] margins may not be sustainable or worthy of the investment, especially if Amazon and Google and Walmart pursue a race to the bottom [14].

Parting Questions

  1. Will online grocery will take off?
  2. Will Amazon capture this space? What strategies would make Amazon more successful?
  3. How different will Amazon’s operating model be from others pursuing omnichannel strategies (say Walmart)?


Word count: 788


[1] Mitchell, Dan.  “Next up for disruption: The grocery business.”  Fortune.  4 Apr 2014.

[2] Hodson, Nick and Lauster, Steffan.  “Opportunities and Challenges in Online Grocery.”  Strategy&.  23 Jan 2016.

[3] Bacos, James et al.  “The Future of Online Grocery.”  Oliver Wyman.

[4] Bensinger, Greg and Stevens, Laura.  “Amazon to Expand Grocery Business with New Convenience Stores.”  The Wall Street Journal.  Updated 12 Oct 2016.

[5] Wessel, Maxwell and Christensen, Clayton.  “Surviving Disruption.”  Harvard Business Review.  Dec 2012.

[6] Alba, Davey.  “Amazon is Opening Grocery Stores so You Don’t Have to Shop in Them.”  Wired.  12 Oct 2016.

[7] Palladino, Valentina.  “Amazon to challenge Walmart with new brick-and-mortar grocery stores.”  ArsTechnica.  12 Oct 2016.

[8] García López, Enrique, Said, Rémi, and Westphely, Khiloni.  “How to win in online grocery: Advice from a pioneer.”  McKinsey & Co.  Dec 2014.

[9] Stuckley, Barb.  “How Google and Instacart Are Hijacking The Grocery Business From Supermarkets.”  Forbes.   2 Feb 2016.

[10] “Are Groceries the Next Big Driver of Global eCommerce?”  Morgan Stanley Research.  22 Jan 2016.

[11] “The Future of Grocery: E-Commerce, Digital Technology and Changing Shopping Preferences Around the World.”  Nielsen.  April 2015.

[12] Huang, Yan and Oppewal, Harmen.  “Why consumers hesitate to shop online: An experimental choice analysis of grocery shopping and the role of delivery fees.”  International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol 34 Iss: 4/5, pp.334-353.

[13] Bensinger, Greg and Plank, Willa.  “A $5.39 Bag of Chips?  Doing the Math on an Instacart Order.  The Wall Street Journal.  13 Jan 2015.

[14] Halzack, Sarah.  “The staggering challenges of the online grocery business.”  The Washington Post.  20 Jan 2015.


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Student comments on Amazon Hybridizes Brick-and-Mortar and Online Grocery Paradigms

  1. I think it’s really interesting how these companies are attempting to capture such a niche space. While I do see why Amazon would want to enter into it, considering they are already selling all other items, the operational logistics around it seems very aggressive to pursue. I don’t personally think this is going to take off.

    While convenience is important – at which point is convenience too much?

    We are getting to the point where everyone has their groceries, packages, meals, and household goods delivered to their door. I’ve ever seen start ups that deliver gas to your car! Many of these smaller companies playing in the space are funded by VCs counting on the space to take off while the companies are burning cash and have huge net losses. Even plays like Google and Amazon are negative in these spaces. While it’s important to try to adopt to customer trends (like wanting convenience), doing it in a profitability way is absolutely crucial and is currently not a top priority to many of these companies.

  2. Great article, thanks for sharing. I think Amazon is making a great move by building “brick and mortar” for perishables. I don’t think that in-store grocery shopping will ever go away, but we all acknowledge the inconvenience of grocery shopping, specifically for people like busy mothers and dual-income households. The problem that I personally have with grocery delivery is that the inability to select the “best” perishables of the lot makes me feel like I get low quality produce. It sounds like Amazon is trying to address that issue, among others, with these stores. The biggest advantage I see compared to traditional competitors such as Kroger, is the lower fixed costs associated with this model, specifically as we see more e-grocery competitors come on the scene. As a member of a dual-income household with a young child, I look forward to trying out the service!

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