Voice has always been a compelling way to activate certain human behaviors. It can stir women to distrust men based on voice pitch, it can soothe a crying baby, and now it’s being utilized to making shopping easier.

Well, that’s the hope.

Voice commerce is the new trend in online shopping that is piquing the interest of major players such as Google and Walmart. The two giants recently announced a one-month partnership to take on Amazon’s current dominance in the voice-shopping market.

Consumers in the US will be able to purchase any Walmart product through Google’s voice-activated assistant platform.

“For example, if you order Tide Pods or Gatorade, your Google Assistant will let you know which size and type you previously ordered from Walmart, making it easy for you to buy the right product again,” says Sridhar Ramaswamy, senior vice-president of ads & commerce at Google.

Walmart’s Head of Ecommerce Marc Lore shared that the retailer plans to expand the use of voice-activated shopping across its 4,700 stores to “create customer experiences that don’t currently exist within voice shopping anywhere else”.

To understand what currently exists and whether investing in voice-commerce makes sense, one must look to ecommerce giant Amazon and its strategy surrounding AI assistant Alexa.

Leading voice commerce, Amazon, of course

This year’s Prime Day, Amazon’s largest shopping event for its Prime members, happened on July 10 and theEcho Dotwas the best-selling product across any category globally, with customers purchasing seven times more of these devices this year than in 2016.

What are owners using Alexa to do?

Alexa Amazon Commerce

Alexa is typically being used to play music and set alarms/timers. Source: LivePerson

Amazon used Prime Day as a vehicle to increase its foothold in voice and offered premiums to influence a wave of shoppers to purchase these cylinder-shaped units. They included:

  • Voice shoppers had early access to select Prime Day deals a full two hours before the general public beginning
  • More than 100 Alexa exclusive deals were already available
  • First-time voice-shopping customers who purchased with Alexa before Prime Day received a $10 promo code
  • Amazon device owners could sign up for Prime via voice command. New members who signed up for Prime by voice got their first year of membership for $79, a $20 saving

LivePerson, a cloud-based software platform, surveyed over 500 Alexa owners in the US and discovered the following:

  • A significant majority (70.6%) of respondents have made a purchase on Amazon through an Alexa voice command at least once
Alexa Amazon Commerce

Electronics are the most popular category purchased through Alexa. Source: LivePerson

  • 45.8% of Alexa owners are repeat shoppers (meaning that, of consumers who give Alexa shopping a try once, almost two thirds turn into repeat users)
  • 70.6% of Alexa owners have an Amazon Prime account

By 2020, it’s projected that Amazon will sell 41.3 million of Echo units (each one retails for about $44.99). Having a physical presence in the household of many Americans gives Amazon a new channel of power.

Professor Scott Galloway of L2 placed an order for batteries on Alexa and discovered that the assistant would only recommend Amazon label products. Without the visual cue of product discovery, Alexa can strongly influence consumer buying decisions.

The voice trend has become so irresistible that even General Electric plans to soon sell a LED lamp with Alexa built in so consumers without an Echo can ask questions for information. Some food for thought.

THE BACKGROUND

Named after the biblical strongman Samson, travel luggage manufacturer and retailer Samsonite was founded in Denver, United States in 1910 and since been renowned for its high-quality and durable luggage.

With over 100 years of experience, the company is known for its high-quality and durable wide selections of innovative luggage. Samsonite also owns several other popular brands including American Tourister, High Sierra, and Lipault, making it the global market leader for travel luggage.

Samsonite Southeast Asia

Global market share of travel luggage in 2015. Source: Quartz

The company has changed ownership a few times, counting former Louis Vuitton’s CEO, Marcello Bottoli, as one of its past owners. In 2007, Samsonite was bought by private equity firm CVC Partners for $1.7 billion and the company raised $1.25 billion in an IPO in 2011 in Hong Kong.

But no company is without its own struggles to the top.

THE CHALLENGE

Samsonite counts Asia as its biggest market as China alone contributed to a quarterof the group’s sales ($124 million) in the first half of 2016. However, that number was 5.2% lower than the same period last year due to an economic downturn, and the shift to ecommerce.

Samsonite Southeast Asia

Samsonite sales in China are not growing as fast as it was before.

“In many of our key markets, our traditional channels of distribution have begun a painful process of adjustment to the shift in business online, and the implications for scale and type of retail estate,” said Samsonite’s Chairman, Timothy Parker.

Working with third-party platforms also proves to be tricky for the company as it attempts to protect its brand value by limiting the discount tactics used by ecommerce platforms to entice buyers to shop.

“We don’t want to grow ecommerce at the cost of our current model,” explainedSamsonite International CEO Ramesh Tainwala.

“We have to explain to the ecommerce players that they are offering enough advantages to consumers through convenience, through range shopping.”

The company is also aiming to double its luggage market share, where 50% of the volume is dominated by private label and unbranded sellers, by diversifying its portfolio and shed its stiff luggage manufacturer image.

“It’s [Samsonite] synonymous with luggage but we’re diversified into business backpacks, casual backpacks, and accessories. But we haven’t done a good job of telling that story,” said Stephanie Goldman, Senior Director of Brand Communications. Samsonite needs to find a better strategy for its marketing and distribution channels.

THE INNOVATION

“Consumers are spending, but they are spending more carefully, and looking for value. And one place that value is available is online,” said Samsonite’s Chairman, Timothy Parker.

Using China’s favorite messenger app WeChat, Samsonite utilizes social media to drive traffic to its brick-and-mortar stores and offer discount coupons to its followers. The initiative has succeeded in boosting 5% in offline sales.

Samsonite Southeast Asia

Samsonite joins a list of other global brands that utilize WeChat to attract consumers in China. Source: FashionChinaAgency

The company launched a marketing campaign with a tagline “We Carry the World” where it featured travelers using Samsonite products to show audiences its universal definition of “travel gear”.

Working with Connelly Partners, Samsonite USA also featured various influencers to advertise its business bag collection in its #WorkNotWork campaign and chose individuals with unconventional jobs like athletes, chefs, artists, and fitness gurus as brand ambassadors.

“Work nowadays can look much different from a typical 9-5, and we demonstrated the love that people actually have for their craft, and the hard work they put into it on a daily basis,” said Alyssa Toro, Chief Creative Officer of Connelly Partners.

Samsonite Southeast Asia

The ads for Samsonite’s campaign ‘We Carry The World’.

And in terms of corporate management?

“Samsonite has no head office — I am a CEO but I have no head office. I just have a room everywhere I go. Our business is not top-down. Our business in Japan is headed by Japanese and 100% of employees are Japanese. Our business in China is run by Chinese, 100% Chinese. We never move people from one country to another. So it is only myself — I am an Indian and work everywhere,” tells CEO Ramesh Tainwala to Nikkei Asia Review.

THE STRATEGY

To boost its digital retail distribution in Asia, Samsonite launched what it called a “three-pillar” strategy.

The company works with popular third-party sellers in the region such as Tmall and JD.com – these platforms now account for 60% of Samsonite’s online sales in China. In Southeast Asia, the company is selling its product in the region’s biggest marketplace Lazada. The company also selling through the digital outlets of shopping malls and department stores.

The third phase of its strategy is to further expand its own direct channels so more consumers in Asia can shop directly via the brand. As of right now, the company’s online channel only available in developed markets such as North America, European countries, Australia, and Japan. In June 2017, the company has acquired eBags, a Colorado-based online bag retailers, for $105 million to accelerate its direct-to-consumer plan.

“We are finding more and more that the online and offline shopping experience for consumers is getting blurred,” Samsonite CEO Ramesh Tainwala says. “eBags is strategically the most important acquisition for Samsonite over the past 20 years.”

Samsonite Southeast Asia

eBags platform

Through eBags, the company will expand to Europe and Asia and launch in India next year.

“At present, we have over 350 stores in India. We plan to open additional 50 stores by the end of this year. We are expecting a 12-15% growth in sales. This will be in line with our past growth trends,” said Samsonite President, Asia Pacific, Subrata Dutta.

Not only does omnichannel seem to be in Samsonite’s cards, the company has been busy acquiring other brands as acquisition seems to be the company’s favorite strategy to grow its portfolio.

Last year, Samsonite acquired luxury bag maker Tumi in its biggest deal to date for $1.8 billion following its acquisition of Hartmann in 2012.

“When we acquire a brand, it must have a very clear DNA, clear story and clear strength of its own,” said CEO Ramesh Tainwala.

THE FUTURE

The American major is expecting a 20-25% sales contribution from its ecommerce channel in the next few years as it undergoes the same business evolution that many traditional retailers have faced in the age of Amazon.

It’s also looking to emerging markets such as India and the Philippines.

“The Philippines is the No. 1 growth market for us. They all speak English, they travel abroad and their income level is increasing. Their governance has improved, and that makes people more confident to spend. That’s helping our business a lot,” said CEO Ramesh Tainwala.

The company has clearly demonstrated that it isn’t afraid to try.

Samsonite Southeast Asia

Lipault, Samsonite’s 2014 acquisition to appeal to more women.

By owning brands that speak to a variety of consumer segments such as luxury travel, everyday work bags and a line dedicated to offset its masculine brand and attract females, Lipault Paris, Samsonite is very likely to grab even more market share, especially seeing as there is no close competition in sight.

THE BACKGROUND

Derived from Danish phrase leg godt, which means “play well”, LEGO has been a fundamental companion to children and adults with its trademark interlocking bricks.

Founded in 1932, the toy company learned an important lesson of staying true to your brand the hard way.

When the company posted a loss in 1998 for the first time in its history, an internal audit found that no significant innovation had been made in the company for a decade.

It caused the company to hastily diversify its portfolio to include sectors it had no experience in.

This resulted in the company launching electronic toys, dabbling in video games, launches its own clothing lines and watches, and even building theme parks.

LEGO in Asia

Although eventually successful, LEGOland was a financial burden during its first creation and was sold to Merlin Entertainments.

Their attempts at disruption only succeeded at alienating fans and driving the privately-held company almost to the brink of bankruptcy.

With $800 million in unpaid debt in 2003, LEGO’s then CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp was convinced that the company was on a path to crash and burn.

“We’re running out of cash.. [and] likely won’t survive.”

The path to LEGO’s revival started in 2004 when Knudstorp began enforcing cost-cutting decisions and selling any LEGO’s business subsidiaries unrelated to the core product.

These actions steered the company back to its ‘brick’ business and the company began listening to the needs of its customers once again.

LEGO in Asia

Lego figure of Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, LEGO CEO who led the company out of the rut

13 years later, revenue increased five-fold and returned to profit. LEGO was named the most powerful brand in the world earlier this year and posted the highest revenue ($5.7 billion) in its 85 years history.

Now they’re looking at Asia.

THE CHALLENGE

Despite record-breaking results, the company’s sales grew only 6% this year after experiencing five years of double-digit growth. In LEGO’s biggest market, the US, sales fell flat despite a significant increase in marketing spend. The company also had to increase prices in the UK after the weakening of the pound following Brexit.

With an already high profile and static demand in mature markets where two third of its revenues come from, the company is hard-pressed to expand – enter Asia.

Although the toy company has been present in the region for the last three decades, LEGO believes that it still hasn’t unlocked Asia’s untapped potential where almost 60% of the world’s children reside.

Conquering Asia isn’t easy as the company faces several issues that are unique to this marker, namely having to price items for higher due to import duties and lack of an expansive retail footprint — causing LEGO to have to work with small distributors to reach audiences across single markets.

There is also a big difference of culture, where ‘play’ is defined differently and not considered as important for young children.

THE INNOVATION

In November 2016, the company opened its first factory in Asia (its fifth globally), located in China’s eastern Zhejiang province and an R&D hub in Singapore.

The decision to open the factory in China was motivated by the company’s 50% increase in sales from 2013 to 2015 in the country.

The 40-acre factory is expected to cut distribution costs and lower the price for customers in Asia. It’s also expected to produce 80% of the demand coming from mainly Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia.

LEGO also opened its largest retail store in Shanghai on a mainstreet outside of Disneyland, as testament of its confidence in its belief that China will be its third biggest market after the US and Germany.

LEGO in Asia

The opening of the LEGO Store in Shanghai

In terms of digital marketing, it seems the company is tailoring their efforts to target certain demographic groups.

The company is not only popular with children but also appeals to adult fans, particularly in Asia where over 80,000 of them are.

When the company launched its limited edition Architecture series – the first product line made for adults – they featured Seoul’s Sungnyemun Gate and Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel to appeal to Koreans and the Japanese.

LEGO in AsiaLEGO also granted tech-savvy Japan early access to Cuusoo, an online tool that allowed users to design their own LEGO designs in hopes of creating local buzz around its products.

In more recent news, a year-long ‘Build Amazing’ campaign was launched in April in Singapore – a highly family oriented country-state – to encourage parents to think differently about the definition of success and emphasize LEGO’s role in in children’s development.

LEGO in Asia

“The picture of success can be anything, it all depends on what that child wants to envision for their own life. This generation [of parents] are starting to think differently, as in there is an element of creativity and imagination that can help foster that, it’s not a one way route anymore,” said LEGO Senior Regional Brand Manager, Kevin Hagino.

To further its position in the market, LEGO expands its reach through online channels, by selling through e-marketplaces including the Lazada and Central.

LEGO in Asia

LEGO official store in Lazada

THE STRATEGY

Earlier this year, the widely applauded Jørgen Vig Knudstorp stepped down from CEO to head LEGO Brand Group. The division focuses on building long-term brand potential as the parent company expands overseas.

“Our long-term ambition is to provide the opportunity for millions more children around the world to benefit from LEGO play experiences, especially in emerging markets,” said Bali Padda, LEGO’s current CEO.

By building on its presence in Asia, LEGO is trying to become what it calls a “third leg on the stool” to complement its traditional markets, Europe and the US.

“What we’re trying to achieve is to have a major presence in all three regions so we can have a natural hedge on currency flows,” revealed Knudstorp.

THE FUTURE

As the toy industry is poised to grow bigger and new-gen parents in emerging markets can afford to be more open and attentive to the needs of their children, LEGO is in a good position to win the market, even in the emerging ones.

Outside of the world’s tech ecosystems, the digitization of retail hasn’t always been met with positive reviews. There is a fear of automation taking jobs away from humans, and that fear swells as brick and mortar stores go out of business. Are they warranted?

Research by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US and reporting by The New York Times show that ecommerce actually has added more retail jobs than traditional models over the last 14 years.

The large change in percentage of ecommerce related jobs in the US over 14 years. Source: The New York Times

During his meeting with the President of the United States, Alibaba founder and Executive Chairman Jack Ma shared his goal to create jobs in the US over five years to focus trade between the US and Southeast Asia.

“Alibaba will create 1 million U.S. jobs by enabling 1 million American small businesses and farmers to sell American goods to China and Asian consumers on the Alibaba platform,” the company said in a statement.

Although ambitious, it’s also quite possible for a company that had more than 10 million active sellers in 2015, and estimates its China retail marketplaces “contributed to the creation of over 15 million job opportunities.”

“Machines should only do what humans cannot,” said Jack Ma. “Only in this way can we have the opportunities to keep machines as working partners with humans, rather than as replacements.”

Not only has there been an increase in ecommerce related jobs in the last ten years, these jobs on average also come with a better pay check – roughly 30% more than traditional retail jobs as averaged by one economist (all based on US figures).

Taking into account only Alibaba stock given to in-house employees, Fortune reports each person was paid roughly $11,134 in the latest quarter, a 6% bump in bonus pay per head compared to the previous year – more than double the average American’s raise last year.

Comparison of jobs created by traditional retail models and ecommerce. Source: The New York Times

While ecommerce is growing, its labor force still represents a relatively small chunk compared to traditional stores but given how interconnected multi-channel retail has become,

How do you categorize a sales clerk that assists a shopper ordering online through an iPad?

And so, where do we stand?

Unsurprisingly, all of these conclusions have been met with skeptics but recent news reporting Amazon’s aim to hire 50,000 workers in one day is a positive sign that ecommerce will always have room for a human workforce.

To put this figure in relative terms, the US Labour Department reported that 220,000 jobs were added to the US economy in June. Amazon will fulfil a quarter of this total in a single recruitment event.

This Quartz headline puts it best,


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Google’s Brand Team for Consumer Apps has released a report on the definition of “Cool” for Generation Z in the United States. Unironically, Google has named the report “It’s Lit”.

Cool is what these Post-Millennials – teenagers aged 13-17 – are paying attention to, it’s what gets them excited and what determines which brands they choose to spend money on. This new generation has gained media attention because of their influence as truly digital natives with high degree of brand awareness. They are ultimately the next wave of shoppers.

Gen Z has the power to define which business has the capacity to do well and which will slowly fall into irrelevancy.

There are approximately 60 million Gen Z teenagers in the United States, more than 25.9% of the country’s population. Collectively, their purchasing power is at $44 billion annually and could reach $200 billion if we factor in their impact on household purchases.

As the influence of the United States can be witnessed throughout Southeast Asia from music taste and fashion trends to dining choices, businesses should be aware of what’s factored as ‘cool’ in the west because it will very likely make its way east.

Pink represents female choice. Blue represents male choice. Source: It’s Lit report.

So what do these teens find cool?

“Cool” in Google terms means to bring joy or happiness and stands out from everything else.

According to 13-17 year old boys, they find: technology, sports/outdoor activities and video games the coolest (no surprises here) and choose their activities based on friends and fads.

According to 13-17 year old girls, clothes/fashion/beauty, music and technology rank among the coolest activities because of the way it makes them feel.

Brands such as NYX is popular with younger girls as it is affordable, sold at mass stores such as Target and has a strong online presence, as they tap into the influence of bloggers and social media.

Out of the biggest brands circulating around today, Youtube was ranked as the ‘coolest’. Out of the top 10, six of them involve digestion of media i.e. Netflix, Xbox, Google, Playstation, GoPro and Chrome.

Source: It’s Lit report

The other brands on this list are consumer brands with a strong online presence. Doritos, for example, released the most viral advert during 2016’s Superbowl and Oreo has successfully reinvented its traditional ‘pantry’ brand to become “an agile, culturally prolific marketer”.

This was thanks to Oreo’s aggressive pushes online through its “Twist, Lick, Dunk” mobile app and cheek-in-tongue tweets that garnered a lot of attention among young people. The app became the the best performing branded game ever launched.

“We have a lot of mature brands and culture gives brands rebirth, it breathes life into the room,” says Dana Anderson, CMO of Mondelēz International, parent company of Oreo.

Social media use?

For Gen Z, social media is for consuming and connecting, not sharing.

The most popular social media platforms are Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook. And while this makes them potential marketing channels for brands, only Facebook has a streamline ad platform whereas Snapchat lacks the ability to accurately target certain audiences.

Source: It’s Lit report

New tools for brands range from Instagram stories to Facebook Live.

Being connected all the time means Gen Z consumers have a constant pulse on trends.

Below is a spectrum of brands ranked based on their prevalence in the minds of Gen Z out of 122 brands in total.

(Click to enlarge) Source: It’s Lit report

Tech companies with a ‘cool’ factor:

  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Samsung
  • Amazon
  • Apple
  • Snapchat

Who has lost a bit of ‘cool’ factor?

  • Line (this would be very different in Asia, where 69% of its 1 billion active users reside)
  • Zara
  • Uniqlo
  • Lululemon
  • Supreme

What can businesses learn from this?

Gen Z never knew the world without the internet. Teenagers around the world today value stimulation, instant gratification and information and this in turn, changes the way brands need to position themselves.

Gen Z consumers are familiar with finding information and tech products, which means that brands need to appeal to this new wave of consumers by attaching a strong message to its product instead of trying to promote a meaningless item.

There are good ways to do this – see Nike – and terrible ways to achieve this – think Pepsi’s PR disaster with Kendall Jenner.

Among the top 10 brands that Gen Z strongly identify with, all have been documented to make efforts to appeal to digitally dependent consumers through apps, viral ad campaigns and a strong social media voice.

Nike has released a stream of buzzy marketing collateral such as its “Pro-hijab campaign” and using high profile Asian celebrities to promote products (Kiss My Airs). Consulting firm Accenture found that more Americans are streaming shows through Playstation Vue and Netflix, making cable TV almost obsolete.

Southeast Asia’s young population is young, over 70% are under 40 years of age and experiencing a surge in spending power – set to contribute 34% to consumption growth by 2030, compared with the global figure of 25%.

A maturing consumer demographic, combined with flexibility to spend means that Southeast Asia’s Gen Z are ones brands have the opportunity to target early, especially knowing the trends overseas.

Google “It’s Lit’ report can be found here.

Macy’s plans to close 100 of its 675 department stores following a drop in its profitability. It will use some of those resources to double down on its digital operations and on its best-performing stores reports CMS Wire.

Macy’s estimates the annual sales volume it would lose from these 100 stores combined is roughly $1 billion after factoring the revenue it expects to retain due to nearby stores and the web.

During the fiscal second quarter, Macy’s comparable sales fell 2%, aided by the closing of 41 underperforming stores. Retail Metrics had been forecasting a 4.4% decline in comparable sales.

“Whenever there’s been a setback in our company, we’ve been first in the industry to take a very aggressive stance at moving us forward,” CEO Terry Lundgren told CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “That’s just part of it. By closing 100 stores… we’re getting out in front of this.”

Nearly all the stores are cash-flow positive, but “their volume and profitability in most cases have been declining steadily in recent years,” said Macy’s President Jeff Gennette, who will assume the CEO role from Lundgren in 2017.

This follows Walmart’s announcement to close 269 stores, with 154 in the US. Walmart is still willing to invest in 300 new stores in strategic markets — but it is determined to crack the online sales nut by investing $3.3 billion to acquire Jet.com.

Read “The Impending Death of Traditional Retailers”

A version of this article appeared in CMS Wire and CNBC on August 11. Read the full versions here and here.