My note about this Harvard case study is in blue at the bottom. Martin
This fictionalized case study will appear in a forthcoming issue of Harvard Business Review, along with commentary from experts and readers. If you’d like your comment to be considered for publication, please be sure to include your full name, company or university affiliation, and email address.
PedalSpark Case Study
Two years ago PedalSpark had hired Mark away from his marketing position at a children’s bicycle maker. That company had sold exclusively on its own site, and Mark’s expertise had served PedalSpark well with its first product. He was excited by the challenge of selling the new bike in an increasingly crowded market, but the question was how to do it.
His two direct reports were split. Gideon Bear, the sales manager, tended to favor aggressive approaches. He wanted to sell the new model on Amazon, which had, as he’d put it, “a few more customers than our site.” But Tamar Nourse, the product manager who’d recently come on board, was worried about whether the bike would stand out on Amazon. She thought that keeping the new model on PedalSpark’s site, where their team could control the entire sales process, would be better over the long term.
Bzzt. Mark glanced at his phone and saw a text from the CEO: Where are we on the online channel strategy? Looking forward to your presentation. The new model was almost ready, and the CEO wanted a decision soon. With the presentation scheduled in two days, Mark still had some time to think—but not much.
Giving Information to the Enemy
Mark closed his laptop and walked down the hall to Tamar’s office. He knocked on the open door. “Hey, got a minute?”
Tamar looked up and adjusted her thick-rimmed glasses. “Hi, Mark. What’s up?”
He sat down across from her. “So, about the bike. In the meetings with Gideon it feels like you’ve been holding something back. We have to make a decision, so I need you to tell me what you aren’t telling me.”
She took a deep breath. “Mark, I’m still new here, and I don’t want to rock the boat. But I really think selling on Amazon would be a terrible move for us.”
“The day we put the bike on sale, Amazon will start vacuuming up information about our customers, our margins, and the market’s potential. If it ever decides to get into the e-bike business, we’ll have hand-delivered all the data it needs to squash us.”
“I know worrying is part of your job, but is it possible you’re being a little paranoid here?”
“You should ask my B-school classmate Marta.”
“Who is she?”
“A few years ago she was the founder and CEO of a successful start-up. She’d had an idea for a new kind of tablet stand. She spent a year developing a prototype and finding a manufacturer in China that would work with her. Then she started selling on Amazon. Now she’s the former CEO of a company that doesn’t exist anymore.”
“Wow. What happened?
“For about a year the tablet stand got great reviews and sold well at $40 each. During the back-to-school season, she was moving a few thousand a month. Then a bunch of copycat products started popping up. She had to fight them off as best she could. She complained to Amazon, but it didn’t do anything, of course. Then AmazonBasics debuted its new tablet stand. It was a lot like hers, though different enough to avoid a lawsuit. It was also half the price.”
“E-bikes are a lot more complex than tablet stands, though. What are the chances Amazon will make one of its own?”
Tamar’s lips curled into a small smile. “I don’t know, but if we went head-to-head against Jeff Bezos, would you put your money on us? Amazon’s private-label products are projected to hit $25 billion in sales by 2022.”
Mark shuddered. “A dark thought to have before lunch. How do you figure our chances against the existing competition?”
“We do have great bikes, but quality isn’t enough on Amazon. Whatever your product is, there’s always a cheaper version, and usually that’s the one people buy. It’s a never-ending, anything-goes price war there. I’m guessing that isn’t what we want people to associate with our brand.”
Nodding slowly, the CMO rubbed his chin. “Good point, and I don’t disagree. Gideon is pretty keen on the Amazon idea, though.”
Tamar adjusted her glasses again. “I get why—more customers and more visibility. That may help us sell bikes in the short term, but what about the long term? If people buy the new model on Amazon, will they be loyal to the maker or to where they bought it? We built the PedalSpark brand by selling the luxury bike on our website. Why try to fix what’s already working?”
Trying Something New
That afternoon, Mark asked Gideon to meet him in the cafeteria for coffee. The sales manager poured milk into his steaming cup and swirled it around with a straw. “Amazon, Mark. You know what I think. What are you thinking?”
“Undecided. There’s a lot of risk in selling the bike there, but a lot of upside, too.”
“Yes! I’m glad you see that. Amazon Prime has over 100 million members, and it’s growing. Imagine the sales if a fraction of them ordered the new bike—and imagine how many of them will if two-day delivery is available. Someone gets excited about e-bikes on a Wednesday, and by Friday she has one of her own to ride. The possibilities are endless.”
“It’s fun to daydream about, Gideon, but are we set up to handle higher volume and a shorter fulfillment window? Orders that come through our site have a shipping time of two weeks. I’m nervous about promising something we can’t deliver—and to a bunch of new customers, no less.”
“But that’s the beauty of Amazon,” Gideon said, his voice rising in excitement. “We have options. I know I’m telling you your job right now, but we can sell product to Amazon for it to resell, or sell the bikes ourselves and let Amazon handle the warehousing and shipping, or list them on Amazon and ship them on our own. You’re always talking about the value of running small, controlled experiments, so let’s try one and see what happens. If it doesn’t work, we’ll switch tactics and adapt as we learn.” He grinned. “Everyone in this company agrees we have a great new product. All I want is to get it to as many people as possible.”
“There are three options, yes, but they don’t give us a lot of wiggle room if things go badly. We may be able to play with the bike’s price a bit, but we can’t lower it that much or we won’t make any money—and it could make us look cheap, too. I do think a higher price point is fair for the bike we’re selling. Even luxury brands that sell on Amazon today hesitated about it for a long time, and it would be a good idea for us to think about why that is. The jury is still out on whether luxury brands benefit from being on Amazon.”
Strong Brands Can Do It Why Can’t We?
“You know who sells on Amazon? Apple. Versace. Rolex. Jimmy Choo, Mark—Jimmy Choo. And more will follow. Whichever companies don’t will be on the wrong side of retail history.”
“We aren’t Versace, Gideon. Besides, a lot of those brands sell a very small subset of their products on Amazon—and usually not their flagship ones. They save those for their own sites or stores, where they can control the buying experience. We’re trying to raise our profile as a high-end brand, right? How would we look if we were one of dozens of e-bikes in Amazon’s listings?”
“Sure, but we already have the luxury bike selling well on our site. I agree, we shouldn’t change anything there. But the new bike is for everyone. And everyone is on Amazon.”
Mark took a sip of coffee, thinking.
“Look, I get it, you have some concerns,” Gideon continued, “so let’s talk numbers. Based on what our competition is doing, I figure if we put the new bike on Amazon, we can reasonably expect to sell 10,000 units a year.”
“At what price point?”
“$899. That’s a little higher than we’ve been talking about, but it gives us some room to go lower when we need to.”
“And what are the latest numbers for luxury bike sales on our site?”
“Last year we sold 2,000 units at $4,000 apiece. Remember, the new bike won’t be only on Amazon. We’ll sell it on our site, too.”
Mark scratched his head. “What we really need is a way to quantify the risk that Amazon will enter the e-bike market. It would make this so much easier.”
“That’s the big mystery. Amazon will have all the consumer data, and we’ll have very little of it. But look at it this way—there are already a lot of e-bikes on Amazon, so they’re already watching the market. Even if they do make their own bike, that could be years away. We might as well find new customers while we can. People can’t buy our bikes if they don’t know about them.”
Mark stared at Gideon for a long moment. “Let me ask you something. How are you so sure about all this?”
Gideon laughed. “In my moments of doubt, I think of Instant Pot. It’s a quality appliance—not quite luxury, but good—that has a cult following and that made its name on Amazon. At one point, 90% of its sales were from there. Do you know how many Instant Pots were sold on Prime Day this year?”
“No, but I’m a little surprised you do.”
“I cook a lot. The number, Mark, is 300,000. In just 36 hours. I think we could be the Instant Pot of e-bikes.”
The CMO stirred his coffee. “You may be excitable, but I’ll admit it’s kind of contagious. I just can’t shake the feeling that once we open the door to Amazon, there will be no closing it.”
Gideon held up his coffee for a toast. “To opening the door—just a crack—and seeing what’s behind it.”
Searching for Answers
Back in his office at the end of the day, Mark was staring at his computer again. Tamar and Gideon seemed so sure of what to do, but the CMO was struggling to make up his mind. Both ways forward had their merits.
The screen of his laptop still showed the Amazon site, with its rows of e-bikes. Sighing, Mark opened Google and typed “What are the dangers of selling on Amazon?” into the search bar. The query returned almost 250 million results.
“Hard to tell whether there are more horror stories or more success stories,” he muttered. “Well, this bike isn’t going to sell itself. I have to decide something, one way or another.”
Question: Should PedalSpark sell the new bike on Amazon?
Tell us what you think in the comments below. If you’d like your comment to be considered for publication, please be sure to include your full name, company or university affiliation, and email address.
Amazon is a vampire and brand equity is the “blood” they need to continue domination. I would never recommend selling PedalSpark’s core products on Amazon since doing so would bring many of the unacceptable risks Tamar outlines. Selling on Amazon could hasten copycats, lower price points by tarnishing brand equity, and anger loyal customers especially those who purchased directly for higher prices. Even if through some miracle PedalSpark’s prices remain within striking distance of previous retail prices a growing number of pirates or knockoff artists are sure to steal high ground and lower prices on confusingly similar products.
While I wouldn’t sell PedalSpark’s known products on Amazon EVER selling products specifically designed for the channel presents a different opportunity. If I were PedalSpark’s CMO I’d invest in inexpensive branded products such as water bottles, t-shirts, and other non-proprietary but highly branded products to sell on Amazon. It’s important to develop “movement marketing” asking customers to join a cause bigger than themselves. PedalSpark helps save the planet, an issue sure to be of increasing importance given evolving climate science, so I would create a line of products shouting that message from the rooftops and sell them EXCLUSIVELY on Amazon.
I’d develop a second line of similar products to sell on the PedalSpark site with different designs and slogans. This way Amazon merchandise is walled off and designed to accomplish a specific task – raise awareness of PedalSpark’s movement and ostensibly ask for joiners. The Amazon line of branded merchandise is sure to help raise sales of core PedalSpark products without letting Amazon suck the brand’s equity blood into their endless need for the next victim. PedalSpark sells more electric bicycles and their profit margins, sales data, and list stays far away from the evil A.