Muss Bol.com Angst vor Amazon.de haben? Huub Vermeulen

Passend zum Beitrag „Marktplätze vs. Plattformen“ habe ich vor kurzem den CEO von Bol.com, Huub Vermeulen, im Podcast gehabt, um über die Herausforderungen und Learnings bei BOL zu sprechen. Bol.com ist aus meiner Sicht das am weitesten entwickelte Marktplatzmodell und muss sich nun die Frage stellen, wie es in ein Plattformmodell migriert werden kann, dass seine Erlöse nicht mehr primär durch das Handeln mit Ware erzielt. Bevor ich mit Huub gesprochen habe, hätte ich dem Unternehmen wenig Chancen gegenüber Amazon gegeben. Diese Einschätzung war aber komplett falsch, wie ich im Podcast lernen muss. Bol.com ist teilweise weiter als Amazon.de in Bezug auf die Services für Endkunden und hat ein viel nachhaltigeres Modell für seine Partner. Ob dieses Modell Bestand hat, wenn neue Wettbewerber nach Holland kommen ist offen, aber alleine durch die heutige Positionierung von bol.com dürfte ein Markteintritt sehr schwierig werden. Ich habe Huub auch zur K5 Konferenz von Jochen Krisch eingeladen, um die Marktplatz vs. Plattform Themen dort live zu diskutieren. Er kommt.

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National-champion marketplaces with Huub Vermeulen, CEO of Bol.com

To outsiders, e-commerce in the Netherlands poses no shortage of riddles, including this one: how can what is, by international standards, a medium-sized marketplace like Bol.com (turnover: approx. €2.5bn) not only survive, but thrive in the face of Amazon? After all, although the tech giant doesn’t have an official presence in the Netherlands, Dutch shoppers can order from Amazon.de in neighbouring Germany. What transpires in this interview is that the Bol.com proposition is so attractive, both to sellers and customers, and its service offering so advanced that the marketplace monolith probably wouldn’t be able to gain much traction in the Netherlands even if it were to open up Amazon.nl…

This episode was originally uploaded to Alex’ English-language WimLex podcast for guests and listeners from the UK, Benelux, and the Nordics. Transcriptions of interviews on Kassenzone, Alex’ German-language channel, are sponsored by loyalty-programme provider PAYBACK. Episode sponsors are online tax advisor portal Steuerberaten.de and Samsung Galaxy Note 10.

“We always were – and still are – in a hurry.”

03:15

Alex:Here we are at a Bol.com warehouse. Could you start by telling us a bit about the company?

Huub: Bol.com started as an online shop almost exactly 20 years ago and has always had a strong, almost exclusive focus on the Netherlands. We were actually established by Bertelsmann from Germany: the letters in the name B, O, L, stand for “Bertelsmann On Line”, and the original idea was to have internet presences selling books and music across Europe. Within three years, though, Bertelsmann had decided to abandon the idea: “The internet is just hype. It’ll never work…” The result was that they closed Bol in most countries; we were the exception in that we were sold – to three German shareholders, who then sold us on in 2009.

Effectively, we have been an independent Dutch company since 2002/2003, and from books, have expanded into entertainment products more generally (e.g. video games); as of 2012, our strategy has been to broaden into all non-food segments – and to become a platform.

Alex: Can you give us some stats about Bol.com as an organisation?

Huub: We have a product range of approximately 17 million items available in the Netherlands and the Flemish-speaking parts of Belgium (thus far, we are wholly Dutch-speaking). Our head offices are in Utrecht, where we have around 1800 people – and that figure will have grown to 2000 by early next year. Aside from that, there are the people working in our warehouses and call-centres, so the overall total is closer to 6000 employees.

05:30

Alex: From a German perspective, the burning question is how you were able to establish yourself as the leading marketplace? In Germany, now Austria, and increasingly Switzerland, Amazon has become dominant – despite the presence of local players (e.g. the Otto Group). I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve been asked this question…

Huub: Indeed it isn’t, and there is no one clear cause-and-effect explanation, but rather a multitude of factors at play. What I can say with certainty is that, from Day One, we were aware that there is a first-mover advantage, so we always were – and still are – in a hurry as a company. We always have to move fast and be the first one to offer things which are useful for our customers.

I should point out, however, that our strong customer focus wasn’t originally a strategic decision. At the beginning, there were 20 people at Bol.com, none of whom knew anything about retail. Our expertise was in marketing, tech, and business, so all we could do was to try things and see how customers responded. What this taught us was that, if you focus on the customer response, you move fast. It was also an issue of ambition: we wanted to build a brand.

To give you a specific example of customer focus: quite early on, we introduced invoice payments. Back around the Millennium, the only online payment method was credit card, but people in the Netherlands didn’t have credit cards – and, if they did, they didn’t dare use them on the internet. People here were (and still are) scared of doing so. We recognised that as the biggest problem and decided to start allowing them to pay after they had received the goods. It was a gamble, but it paid  off: sure, you never know when you’re going to get paid and have to figure out how to deal with fraud, but those are problems you solve with afterwards – i.e. once you’ve implemented a solution for the customer. That is what being customer-centric means.

08:15

Alex: You are moving towards being a marketplace: what is the share of products which you retail as against those which are offered by merchants on your platform?

Huub: In 2018, more than 40% of sales on the platform went through our partners. Early this year, in presentations I gave, I predicted that this share would rise to over half within two years – and that is actually happening faster.

Alex: Online retailers we talk to in Germany are also trying to transition into marketplaces – not so much out of customer-centricity, but rather out of fear of Amazon – but have difficulty implementing the strategy from a technical point of view: opening up the platform, onboarding, etc. Then there are internal commercial issues, too, because Purchasing doesn’t want competition on the products it is buying in. How do you deal with that?

Huub: When people from outside the market look at Bol.com, they often say to us: “You look a lot like Amazon. Did you copy them?” No, we didn’t. Of course we looked at what Amazon were doing; we looked at eBay, Google, and lots of companies to. The aim, though, was never to copy; if you are customer-focussed, however, you often come up with similar solutions – fast delivery, good service, and a very broad product range. We found out early on how important that last one is: in 2004, 2005, we began selling English books and had a catalogue of over one million titles; once we’d sold around 50,000 books, we decided to take a look at how many titles we were selling and found, to our surprise, that we had sold 35,000 different titles. What we learned from that was the Top Ten or Top 100 aren’t enough: you have to have everything. That has since been our goal.

In 2008, we thought: “Well, we’re very good at books. What else can we do?” With 80,000 titles in print, the Dutch market is small, and if sales dip below around 100 copies in a set period of time, printing stops. There is still demand for those books, however, and so we started to look at how we could make it work. The obvious solution was to ask our customers to sell their second-hand books to other customers through our website. It was a success: we broadened our product range and gave customers what they wanted.

Fast-forward to 2012: “books and entertainment is fine”, we thought, “but our ambition should be to provide everything.” There was no way we could have stocked the long tail by ourselves in an acceptable timeframe (we want to be first movers), so the obvious solution here was to ask other companies to help us.

(Alex points out the parallels to how Amazon’s marketplace started: offering brokerage for second-hand books. Huub stresses that the development was parallel and that Bol.com reached the same conclusions as Amazon independently instead of simply copying the model. Bol.com doesn’t, for example, compete with its sellers, explains Huub, and it is now them who are driving the growth, not proprietary sales. As such, Bol.com has now switched its marketplace strategy from asking sellers to fill gaps in its own range to filling the gaps the sellers leave.)

14:20

Alex: How does the marketplace business model work?

Huub: Of course sellers pay fees. What I can say is that we try to be, in terms of our earnings, agnostic about whether we sell the product ourselves and make a margin or as to whether we take commission from a seller’s transaction. In other words: the aim is not to care whether we sell it or a seller sells it. We care about having the right price, good delivery times, and a full catalogue.

We do what we call a ‘white spot’ analysis to figure out where the gaps in our product offering are. One way is logical dedication, e.g. we need a TV in this size with this spec in this price range.  The other way is to evaluate customer searches: if they keep looking for a product that isn’t there, we see a gap. What we do is to make a list of these white spots and upload it to the platform so that our sellers can see it: our buyers now wait for the sellers to fill the gaps.

Alex: What we often hear from within Amazon is that the retail operation and the marketplace operation are essentially two companies competing against each other…

Huub: We’ve heard that to, and we’ve always said: “We’re not going to do that, because it’s never going to work.” It’s very aggressive – very American, too, inasmuch as its driven by results and the individual. That attitude cannot, however, be combined with genuine customer-centricity. What, at first sight, looks like a good way to lower prices by setting up an internal bidding war ends up losing sight of both customers and, not unimportantly, sellers.

Alex: So your non-competition approach also means that you don’t produce your own brands. No “Bol.com” batteries like Amazon Basics…?

Huub: No, and there won’t be. We have been very clear: no white label! In some ways, of course, that’s a pity, because there is a nice margin to be had by sourcing products in China yourself and then branding them yourself. With the data we have, we know exactly what we could produce and sell ourselves, so obviously, the commercial guys in the company wanted us to do own-brand stuff. We’ve had the discussion, though, and we came to the conclusion that that would be stealing data from the platform for our own advantage. So we leave the margin for white-label to our seller partners.

(Alex asks what services Bol.com offers sellers: can they buy advertising space, for example? Huub takes Alex through the sponsored products programme – “The ads are always relevant to the customer. You won’t see cables when you’re looking for diapers!” – as well as the logistics services Bol.com. The warehouse in which the two are stood, he explains, is primarily for seller handling. As well as economies of scale, the increased conversion of around 35% from using Bol.com fulfilment makes it attractive to sellers: Bol.com has next-day delivery as standard with an order cut-off at midnight and no extra fee if the shopping basket total is €20 or higher. Orders placed by 2pm are eligible for same-day delivery to the nearest Albert Heijn supermarket store.

This takes the discussion on a brief detour to click-and-collect, of which Alex has been sceptical in recent years. Retailers are reporting increases in online buys picked up in stores, however, he concedes. Huub explains this as multi-channel retailers getting better at tracking customer journeys: “Their attribution is improving faster than their sales.”

Alex observes that same-day delivery across Holland puts Bol.com ahead of the Amazon offering in Germany, which is limited to Hamburg, Berlin, and Munich, and asks about the last-mile: does it have a proprietary network? No, replies Huub, and starts to run Alex through the various parcels couriers Bol.com uses – and about how Bol.com has used its volume to persuade them to offer new services such as evening and Sunday delivery.)

25:25

Alex: In Germany, parcels couriers like Hermes and DHL simply cannot keep up with the pace of growth in e-commerce. The result is that, although Amazon never actually wanted to build its own delivery logistics, it had to because otherwise, same-day delivery would never have happened.

Huub: We see a similar challenge. Especially on peak days, it is very difficult for delivery companies to keep up. That’s why we work with various different couriers, including a specialised provider for same-day: so that means looking at our suppliers, seeing what they are capable of, and planning our volumes ahead of time.

Alex: So where is the ceiling?

Huub: We’re not that far yet. And we have long history of not necessarily wanting to own everything. The building we’re in now is a Bol.com building, but the people here are actually employed by a logistics service provider with whom we have been working since Day One: originally, we used their facilities, but as things got bigger, we took on the investment and the engineering; they still run our warehouses, though, because by working together, we can move faster.

27:15

Alex: Your model is successful: why are you not in Germany? Or in other markets?

Huub: The reason we are so successful in the Netherlands and Flanders is because of our strong focus. We’ve had plenty of opportunity to expand – especially during the various investment rounds and sales to new investors…

Alex: How much money has been invested in Bol.com to date?

Huub: I can’t tell you that! You can probably look up what Koninklijke Ahold N.V. paid for the company in 2012; I think that’s in the public domain, but I’m not actually that sure of the figures.

(It was €350m.)

When industry specialists look at our company, they always say: “Why don’t you go outside the Dutch-speaking world?” I always reply: “If I get €100,000 of investment capital, there is so much I can do with that for our Dutch and Belgian customers – here, today, now – that will improve our proposition and our growth. I don’t want to waste that money by spreading ourselves too thin. I’d be going into huge markets which would take a lot of time with uncertain prospects when I can still do so much for and with the customers who made us big.”

One thing: we are never happy at Bol.com; we never think that what we offer is good enough. I truly believe that. We can still do a lot better.

(Alex asks for details on where Bol.com deploys its staff resources in development and operational terms, to which Huub replies that, due to DevOps, there is no real distinction between who builds new things and who maintains the existing platform; overall, there are 800-900 people in IT at Bol.com. Factoring in warehouse IT, in total, around one third of the company staff are techies.)

30:10

Alex: Looking at feature request lists this year as opposed to last: which is longer?

Huub: The lists only ever get longer and more complex! Our biggest challenge now is managing those lists, in fact. We are an agile company: we began introducing it in 2009, and back then, we had seven scrum teams; it worked well: every team had a remit (warehouse, search, catalogue etc.). Now, however, we have 90-100 teams, which makes setting priorities and making choices really complex. So we now we are looking at ways of grouping and aggregating demand for solutions and take decision-levels down to those who actually talk to customers and have ideas.

Alex: What other major challenges are you facing? If we take Amazon, they are now getting a bad press for the way they treat their staff and stand accused of killing the High Street and town centres; also, they have become so big that they are starting to have logistics problems – their quotient of non-delivered and wrongly-delivered products is increasing in line with the share of marketplace sales, as they do not own the seller supply chain. That’s a hard one to solve.

Huub: We want to facilitate more for our sellers, and the way we intend to this is by giving them access to the same tools as our retail arm has at its disposal. That will ensure a level playing-field and encourage genuine entrepreneurship on our platform: our sellers won’t just be people who deliver goods, but will be able to differentiate themselves with their range, the content they create, the prices and delivery times they offer.

Another challenge is, as mentioned earlier, last mile, and one the most important things is making sure that everything that works for our own shipments also works for our sellers’ shipments. We are focussing strongly on this – and have a lot of ideas, many of which I can’t disclose because I think they are quite unique. The aim is to make our proposition more consistent, because right now – and this is no different on Amazon – if you buy from our warehouse, the offer is better than if the seller ships. We want to allow sellers to offer the same proposition and will, of course, also be able to help them improve the quality of their logistics.

(Alex goes in to a bugbear of merchants on marketplace platforms like Amazon, eBay, real.de in Germany: increasing unfair competition from Chinese sellers. Huub’s answer to stiff competition from international platforms is to focus strongly on local sellers: he believes that a common language and a shared perception of quality will carry the day against a race-to-the-bottom approach.)

37:15

Alex: Have you ever expanded into a product category that didn’t work out?

Huub: No, but we’ve had plenty of other failures! We tried to sell mobile phone contracts, for example. That happened because we believed strongly in the long-tail approach and in nine out of ten cases its works really well; what we got wrong, though, was to think that there was a long tail in telephone contracts. When you buy a phone, sometimes it costs €100, but you only pay €20 a month, or sometimes the phone is free, but you pay €40 a month: we wanted to make the kick-back from the phone manufacturers transparent and offer customers as many options on data and minutes as possible so that they could find the sweet spot for their needs. Only our customers didn’t have a clue what we were doing. We never made it clear enough.

Alex: In terms of how you communicate your company culture and ethos to customers, however, you are quite clear – almost like Zappos used to be!

Huub: Yes, and one of the reasons we’ve been so successful is the atmosphere we had in the early days: it was informal, we had fun – and I think having fun together is great because it keeps you motivated and makes you willing to take risks. So as we were growing, we thought about ways of maintaining our cultural values. One of these, for instance, is that we help each other. Another is that we trust each other. This latter is a big issue for many companies: “Our department is great, but the guys over there in the other building don’t understand what we are doing.” As you grow, you have to invest in trust, because it’s the basis for autonomy, and if you have autonomy, you can foster entrepreneurship; and if you have entrepreneurship, you are far more dynamic and far more customer-focussed.

(Alex observes that talking about trust is easier than actually maintaining it. Huub leads by example, letting people around him take as many decisions as possible. Trust is also based on structures, he adds, explaining that scrum actually imposes quite a lot of rules by which everyone has to play. This structure has been implemented across the company, meaning that, rather than “a purchasing department” or “Marketing”, Bol.com has teams which sell electronics with somebody who does buying, somebody who does marketing, etc. This devolves capability and authority down to people responsible for selling products to people. Huub adds that this doesn’t mean that Bol.com isn’t focussed on results – quite to the contrary: sales figures, costs, and margins are key. On a three-monthly cycle, coaches evaluate teams and then agree improvements with them; but there is no top-down management in the traditional sense.)

44:00

Alex: You have strong growth: what are the limiting factors stopping you from growing even faster?

Huub: One factor: can we build – I mean: brick-and-mortar construction – logistics sites fast enough? Also, if we had more IT, we could probably grow more; then again, there is a limit to what you can invest and what you can manage. So we never suffer from a lack of ideas and I think there is still a lot of potential left in the market for us. We stay eager and are never happy with the growth and the proposition we have.

Alex: Some traditional German retailers (of whose poor efforts online I frequently make fun) are present in Dutch high streets – I’m thinking of Peek & Cloppenburg for instance. Online marketplaces like Zalando are coming for them… If you were in the management of an established brick-and-mortar chain, how would you respond?

Huub: I have a lot of respect for retailers; they’re struggling here in the Netherlands, too; I know for a fact that it is much harder to keep an in-store retail operation going than it is to make Bol.com grow. We in the Netherlands always say: Don’t do it alone. No-one has the skills, time, or expertise to do everything themselves. So my advice would be to work together – as a platform. Bigger retailers simply have to accept that more and more trade is going online and follow it there with their own presence; smaller operations will have to team up. When it comes to store, they need to think about where it adds value, where it is necessary, and focus on that; the rest needs to be available online.

One thing I always ask people is: on your phone or your PC, how often do you actually find yourself typing in “www….”? Right, not very often: you use on the same eight tabs or apps you always have open. As an online retailer, you are now opening up a website along 2.5 billion others; really, you need to be thinking about which of these eight platforms you want to join.

Alex: So it’s too late to repeat the Bol.com trick and become a platform?

Huub: I sincerely hope it isn’t and that, in the German market, there are companies who really want to gun for platform status, but retailers trying to become platforms need guts, money, and stamina; they’ve got to be tough, too – and need to be ruthless about what expanding online will do to their stores. My advice is: keep the cannibals in the family! You will be eaten, so best eat yourself.

(Huub adds that online is not ‘just another store’; the level of ambition needs to be far higher. Alex finishes by asking Huub which other businesses he finds inspiring the Netherlands – Picnic, perhaps? Huub thinks bigger: he is impressed by Uber and Airbnb as companies which don’t expand into markets, but focus on being the market instead, while also showing how to scale fast. He also respects companies like Amazon who offer what a brand must always provide to keep people coming back: 100% predictability and consistency.)

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