Is Amazon's New Gift Program The New Reality?

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When Amazon on Wednesday (Dec. 12) rolled out its Friends & Family Gifting program, what was most striking about the program is how virtually nothing was striking about the program. After all, this is Amazon.com, the master e-tailer who has brought us such hits as guessing religion based on giftwrap choices, how to exchange gifts in a truly new way and not charging until the gift is fully accepted.

This new program is bizarrely ordinary, offering functionality that Amazon—and almost all of its rivals—have offered for years. Could this reflect Amazon's adapting to a new environment, where many of its longtime competitive advantages—such as sales-tax-free sales—are going away? Even its move into same-day delivery is not a differentiator anymore, with Walmart, Google, eBay and Macy's toying with the same program.

To be fair, Amazon still has its three core advantages: massive product diversity, a very fast and efficient site, and one of retail's best customer-service operations. What Amazon has also historically had was the determination to re-imagine how retailing should be. No reason to do things 5 or 8 percent different than the way it's been done for 50 years. Just rethink the process entirely.

With that in mind, let's look at Wednesday's program. The program is being touted as one "that allows customers to easily keep track of birthdays and special occasions, get shopping reminders and manage gift ideas for everyone on their list year-round." Hasn't Amazon done that—in many ways—for years? Hasn't everyone else, too?

The statement specifies that Amazon's new system will "store important dates like birthdays and anniversaries with just a few clicks and get reminders." Yeah, sort of like what Microsoft Outlook and every other calendar program does. The program also will "make it even easier to find the best gifts for kids, as Amazon Friends & Family Gifting provides gift recommendations by age and interest." Again, Amazon has done that for more than a decade.

The new program can tie into Facebook, but the tie-in seems minimal and nothing that Amazon shoppers couldn't do without this new program. Consider this claim: "Customers can also use information about their Facebook friends, such as the things their friends 'Like,' to select a gift." And they couldn't have done that before Wednesday's rollout of Friend & Family Gifting?

To be clear, any program that leverages family and friend relationships—especially one that integrates social sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, which Amazon is doing—has huge CRM potential. Those relationships open up new marketing opportunities, which is what fueled Walmart's interest in buying Social Calendar back in March.

There's always the possibility that Amazon wanted to just remind people of its long-standing capabilities so it slapped a new name on existing services and announced it in mid-December, when few would pay much attention. But with Amazon's more challenging competitive climate today, it seems foolish. If Amazon starts to dilute its reputation as a thought-leader by rolling out a bunch of "there's nothing new here" packages, it will be very good news—for everyone competing with them.