A subscription-based service gets you returning customers

A subscription-based service is a good way to create sales for an online outlet. As a case study, you need to look no further than Amazon itself.

Amazon has come a long way since its days of just hawking cheap books online. Of course, you can still buy books on the site, but today’s Amazon will sell you everything from diapers to laundry detergent. Increasingly, it is digging deeper into our pockets through the subscription service called Amazon Prime. Amazon Prime subscribers pay Amazon $99 a year in return for goodies like free streaming of thousands of movies and TV shows and free two-day shipping on most Amazon purchases. According to a 2013 report released by Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, there are now approximately 16 million subscribers to Amazon Prime. As I write this, the folks at Morningstar estimate, since Amazon does not release the data publicly, that membership in Amazon Prime could swell to 25 million by 2017.

If you were to carve out Amazon Prime as a stand-alone business, it would already be a billion-dollar subscription company, but that severely underestimates the value of Prime to Amazon. Like many subscription models, Amazon Prime is a Trojan horse that is expanding the list of products consumers are willing to buy from Amazon and giving the eggheads in Seattle a mountain of customer data to sift through.

“It was never about the $79,” said Vijay Ravindran, who worked on the team that launched Prime at its original price of $79 per year. “It was really about changing people’s mentality so they wouldn’t shop anywhere else.”

According to Morningstar, the average Prime member now spends $1,224 on Amazon purchases each year, compared with $505 for non-Prime customers.2 We cannot say Prime members spend that much more just because they are members, since presumably a lot of Amazon’s best customers would have been attracted to the free shipping offer. However, this data seems to suggest that once someone becomes a Prime subscriber, they become even more loyal to Amazon. Further, Morningstar figures that after factoring in costs incurred for shipping and streaming content, the average Prime member yields Amazon $78 more per year in profits than the typical customer.

Given the positive impact Prime seems to have on customers’ buying behavior, some analysts have argued that Amazon should drop the fee for subscribing to Prime in order to grow the program even faster. But that thinking misses a key element of Amazon’s strategy. When you pay $99 per year to become a member, you want to “get your money’s worth.” Suddenly you start checking Amazon’s pricing on all sorts of products, from paper towels to sneakers, with hopes of “making back” what you invested in the membership.

Given Amazon’s aggressive pricing and seemingly endless product selection, you can almost always find what you’re looking for at a price that’s lower than what you could find elsewhere. When you factor in free shipping, it becomes an easy decision to buy from Amazon. Robbie Schwietzer, vice president of Amazon Prime from 2008 to 2013, summarized: “In all my years here, I don’t remember anything that has been as successful at getting customers to shop in new product lines.”

Through Prime, Amazon is competing head-to-head with the likes of Walmart and Target. Why should you care if three heavyweights are pounding it out for market supremacy? Because as customers buy a broader and broader collection of items from Amazon, Prime is cannibalizing the business of smaller companies too.

The other day I bought a pair of New Balance running shoes from Amazon. I’ve never thought to use Amazon for buying sneakers, but since I am now a Prime member, and therefore get free shipping on shoes, I chose Amazon instead of walking down the street to my local Running Room store. The Running Room is a small company compared to Amazon, with 100 or so locations scattered around North America. Most people would not consider Amazon a direct competitor. Yet the Running Room is now losing my shoe-buying business because of a little $99-per-year Prime subscription I bought.

Amazon, having learned a lot about the subscription business through Prime, is now applying the subscription model to other areas of its business. AmazonFresh is a grocery delivery business Amazon has been experimenting with in its hometown of Seattle since 2007. Amazon Fresh didn’t start out as a subscription business; instead, it was open to anyone willing to pay the delivery fee of $8 to $10 to have milk, veggies, and meat brought to their door in a one- to three-hour delivery window.

You can see how creating a subscription-based service works – everyone starts looking to you as the go-to shop for all their needs. They pay a subscription, then keep buying for you to make the subscription worthwhile. It is a clever commerce scheme if you wish to set up an online marketplace.