From setting the standard for delivery and ease of transaction in ecommerce to pioneering cashierless stores and embracing cloud computing, Amazon is a consistent and persistent disruptor in the retail sector.

The rise of the Seattle giant has left investors wanting to know, how is the rest of retail industry going to respond?

John Strain, the former CIO, and Chief Digital and Technology Officer, of US homewares retailer  Williams Sonoma, says Amazon is an overarching global force impacting the industry.

“When I was at Williams Sonoma I was part of investor relations team and one of the three questions you get asked first time you met with an analyst or investor was what’s your Amazon strategy?”

John Strain

“They’re competing in new and different ways that are very much transformative for the industry. And it makes people nervous, right? And for good reason, they’re very good at what they do.”

Strain, who has been watching Amazon since its early days, is a retail executive who joined Salesforce in January this year as Senior Vice President of Retail and Consumer Goods.

Speaking with Which-50 between sessions at the company’s Connections conference in Chicago yesterday, he noted that Amazon has the opportunity to play by a different set of rules.

“They’re a wonderful retailer from an execution standpoint. They are easy, they’re fast. They’re cheap. [But] they have a different model and they have different profitability requirements than most retailers.”

In order to differentiate, Strain argued retailers need to be passionate about the category they play in and how those products fit into customers’ lives.

“Amazon can’t afford to love a category. They love products, they love individual products. That’s awesome at some level, but there’s another level for which that becomes a bit of a challenge, which is how to differentiate?”

Strain says retailers need to go back to what they are great at and work out how to hey tell that story. For example at Williams Sonoma decorating is hard. – focus on stores, well informed associates and curated selection of products.

Specifically, Strain highlighted four things retailers should focus on when asked about their Amazon strategy: the ability to deliver an omnichannel experience and the role of the store,  digital marketing optimisation from traditional to digital channels and becoming a great digital storyteller.

“These are four the ways that we see you can compete with Amazon in a way that is really value add and builds the connection with the customer,” he said.

Becoming a digital storyteller relies on relevance, being able to figure out where they are in their journeys and marry that up to be able to share those insights for the entire channel back to the store for store enablement with store associates.

For example, at Williams Sonoma moving house was a key opportunity for the brand in the customer lifecycle to talk about how to decorate for small spaces or things to take with you things to leave behind.

“It was a moment where we could have a good content exchange that was relevant because we knew you were in that moment in that journey.”

“If you get the moment right then it gives you an opportunity to really be able to add value and build that customer relationship,” Strain said.

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