You can’t beat Amazon with price or efficiency. Luckily, that’s not what local e-stores are supposed to win, but they need to win a place in their customers’ hearts. That happens by focusing on two things: brand and customer experience. If they are both unmatched in their own category, the customer will be happy to click “buy” in your store.

Finland is a great example of a country that believes it is immune to the whirlwinds of the world. The financial crisis, Netflix, Lidl, or ApplePay won’t shake the stable country. And then they do anyway. This time the discussion is about Amazon.

When Amazon launches in a new country, it starts slow, but gradually rolls on with its superior machinery. In practice, it shapes consumer behavior and the structure of e-commerce everywhere it goes. This phenomenon is called the “Amazon Effect”.

You can’t beat Amazon, fight it off or protect yourself from it. What you can do is to prepare for its arrival by focusing on what you can control: your brand and your customer experience. Amazon is a sales channel. Brands are built elsewhere. Amazon is an excellent distribution and recommendation machine. The lowest price will make the sale.

The best way to ensure your spot as an e-store that your customers want to use is to build a brand, as strong as possible. A brand is not a logo nor a slogan. A brand is a part of the customer’s own identity and therefore they are ready to pay for it.

I still remember the moment when I felt the strength of a brand. It was 1983, and my friend Timo’s dad had been on a business trip to the United States and brought home a fresh issue of the Skiing magazine. We skimmed through it and saw an image of a skier that had just taken two turns and was ready to take another one, but not on skis but on a board. The guy was surfing through the powder, making the snow swirl. Embedded in the ad was a photo of a wooden snowboard with a sharp tip, primitive ties, and the text: Burton Performer. This Burton thing was the coolest we had ever seen.

After five minutes we were already in Timo’s garage with tools in our hands and after two hours we were at a sandpit nearby, testing the board we had just crafted. Because we weren’t able to buy a Burton, we made one ourselves. And at that moment began the journey of Finnish snowboarding. One of the boards I made back then is still at the Finnish Sports Museum.

Snowboarding was a new lifestyle, it was about freedom, and creativity on snow. The founder of Burton, Jake Burton Carpenter understood this and even though the company grew, its core never changed. It was Jake’s company, but also a company of all snowboarders. As soon as I could, I started to buy Burton’s boards. Eventually, I worked four years coaching the snowboarders of Burton euro team. On various occasions I also sat at the table, where we, the users, were able to comment on boards in product development and their design. Jake passed a few years ago and on the 13th of March all over the world people gathered at slopes to slide down in honor of Jake with the theme: “A day for Jake – Go have as much fun as possible”.

When I was young, I didn’t think of Burton as a brand, but as equipment and as a lifestyle, but today it represents to me the highest level determined brand building can reach. Burton’s customers are devoted to the brand and buy the equipment from brick-and-mortar stores as well as online, on Amazon, and the brand e-store. The global market share of the company is about 30%.

My Finnish favorites, stores that have managed to build a strong story and live that story with their customers, are, for example, Varusteleka and I believe that almost all their customers know exactly why they are drawn to this store and not some other. An e-store owner should always ask themselves first, what is the story I am telling my customers, that makes them come to my store.

The opposite of a brand is trying to serve customers that won’t commit to anything. In that case, all that is left is the price. And Amazon will most probably win that game. In addition to the brand, the local e-store owners have another tool to make their store a success: the customer experience. You can’t separate brand and customer experience, but when we talk about e-commerce, you can think of them as separate steps of the purchase decision journey. The brand is the reason to come to a store. Customer experience is the reason to click ”buy”.

Customer experience can be researched and optimized with data, but just like with the brand, eventually the purchase decision is a matter of feeling. To create a successful e-store, the owner must be able to experience it from the customer’s perspective. How does it feel to visit the store? Once the brand has brought a potential customer in the store, will they land in an enormous hall, where they are alone with 100 000 products, or will they be met at the door and offered assistance? And if they are offered assistance, will there be a greeting and small talk or are they attacked with sales pitches on the spot?

Selling at an online store is a delicate business, just like at a brick-and-mortar. Service is a good thing, but it is a reactive activity. The customer is still alone, even though they receive answers to their questions via a chat or a Q&A. Selling is proactive. Having listened to a customer, a skillful sales rep knows how to offer the right things even before a customer knows how to ask for them. “This might work for you?” “You might need this as well?” “It might be the most profitable combination for you to choose these.” This is the next big step in e-commerce. When the brand that a person wants in their life, and an outstanding customer experience meet, that magical, emotional click of “buy”, is rather easy in the end.

In short: Amazon plays with the basics, the price, and easiness, and it does it so well that it’s not worth your while to challenge it. Instead, Amazon is a poor environment for brand building – that needs to be done elsewhere. And here lies the opportunity for even the smallest of e-stores. The brand is the emotional element that makes people desire a product and brings them to the e-store, but the final purchase decision is formed during the visit. How the e-store can help the customer on their journey to that decision, is what will distinguish the winning stores from the masses in the future.