Combatting Amazon Combatting Amazon

How eCommerce stores can use email marketing to beat Amazon this holiday season (2020 update)

If Amazon is the 800-pound gorilla in the eCommerce world during the year, it becomes the 8,000-pound gorilla during the holiday season.

A study found that this year, 53 percent of people in the US, plan to do all or most of their online gift buying on Amazon—that’s up from 47 percent last year. (PDF) And more than one-third will use Amazon in lieu of a search engine as they hunt for holiday gifts. 

Those numbers are staggering, but not surprising. Amazon has established itself as the top online shopping destination with an exhaustive selection of products, generally at the lowest possible prices—and that’s before their endless barrage of holiday deals. They offer reliable, ultra-fast shipping that’s often free. They have a generous return policy, with anything purchased between November 1st and December 31st eligible for a no-questions-asked full refund through the end of January.

They’re hard to beat at this time of year. Hard… but not impossible.

After all, the same study that found 53 percent of people in the U.S. will get most or all of their gifts from Amazon also found 41 percent will do little or no online gift buying there. Online spending for the 2020 holiday season is projected to be a record breaking $189 billion in the U.S. this year; Amazon is forecasting $112 to $121 billion in sales. That leaves right around $70 to $80 billion out there in the U.S. alone for every eCommerce business not named Amazon. Yes, Amazon will take a giant piece of the pie—but there’s still more than enough to go around to everyone else.

To compete with Amazon, you need to make your customers and potential customers aware of what you do that’s different from—and better than—Amazon. And the most reliable way to reach your customers with that message is email marketing.

Email marketing is a crucial marketing channel all year long, but becomes even more valuable during the highly-competitive holiday season. Two-thirds of people say they pay more attention to brands’ emails during the holidays—so take advantage of that extra attention by differentiating yourself from Amazon (and all of the rest of your competition as well).

One note before we dive in: For tips on helping your email marketing stand out during this competitive time, check out our previous blog posts on standing out on Black Friday/Cyber Monday and throughout the holiday season.

Here are five strategies for using your email marketing to compete with Amazon this holiday season.

1. Offer what they can’t

Amazon can do a lot of things. So many, in fact, that it’s pretty much impossible to even keep track of them. (Did you know Prime members can read a bunch of magazines for free? Or that Amazon just launched a pharmacy that delivers? Or that they’ll send someone to your house to clean your gutters?) But when it comes to eCommerce, everyone knows where they excel: selection, price, delivery, and returns.

However, there are still some very important things that smaller, more specialized retailers can do better than Amazon. And these are the things you can promote in your emails to make sure your customers know why they should shop from you, not Amazon.

Deals, especially additive deals

You may or may not engage in multichannel selling and list your products on Amazon as well as your own eCommerce site. (You may also allow fulfilled-by-Amazon retailers to sell your products on Amazon.) But on your own site, you can get creative with deals and bundles that aren’t sold on Amazon. Use your email to advertise things like buy-two-get-one-free deals or a coveted free gift when a customer hits a certain pricing threshold.

Here’s an example of an additive deal from shoe retailer Eastland. Their offer is simple: Spend more, save more. These types of deals aren’t available on Amazon and help customers get better prices by spending more at the store. That’s a win-win for the brand and for its customers.

Eastland's additive holiday deals.
Via: Milled.

Products Amazon doesn’t have

If Amazon carries your products, do they carry all of your products? Or can you promote things that aren’t available on Amazon—maybe even variants like an exclusive color that aren’t on Amazon. At the very least, Amazon almost certainly isn’t selling gift cards to your store. Promote those hard, especially eGift cards for last-minute shoppers.

Focus on areas where Amazon is weak

Amazon does retail well, but doesn’t do every aspect well. Amazon isn’t particularly known for subscriptions or subscription boxes. They can be weak on apparel, both in selection and guidance on purchases. (At least for now; Amazon is making big moves to strengthen its position in that space.) While they do offer some personalized and customized products, the options are limited, and they certainly aren’t considered a go-to place for those types of products. If your business thrives in any of those areas, play it up in your emails.

Here’s an email from the Tervis that focuses on an area where Amazon is weak: customized drinkware. So while you could almost certainly get a cheaper tumbler at Amazon, and you can get some tumblers customized there as well, Tervis promotes its wider variety of products, more robust customization options, and better customization interface.

Push your loyalty program

Amazon doesn’t give out rewards to people who buy products (at least, not outside of their cash back credit cards, although those rewards aren’t quite the same as the ones you’d get from a loyalty or VIP program). The holidays are a great time to get people signed up for your loyalty program by promoting your rewards and what benefits your members can get now and in the future. If your loyalty rewards are lucrative, you can push people to spend more money with you—even if they might be able to get the same products for a little cheaper on Amazon.

Here’s an example of how Philosophy used their loyalty program last year to get customers to shop for their products at their store (as opposed to Amazon, and all the other places their products are sold). Here, they offer a strong discount (40 percent off definitely makes people take notice)—and offer bonus points toward their reward program. Now customers have two incentives to buy direct from Philosophy: the discount and the rewards. 

Philosophy pushes its rewards program.
Via: Milled.

2. Utilize automations to drive more sales

Your big holiday broadcast emails, like sales announcements, are important—absolutely. However, this is a time of year when using more targeted email marketing features like automations can pay big dividends as well.

Abandoned cart recovery emails

At a minimum, make sure your abandoned cart emails are ready to go. They don’t have to be customized to the holidays necessarily (although that’s an advanced move when it comes to updating automated emails)—but they need to exist. Roughly 70 percent of carts are abandoned; at Jilt, we find it’s possible to get between 15 and 20 percent of those back with a well-crafted recovery email series. And our users bring in an incredible average of $4.80 per cart abandonment email sent! It would be a shame to lose customers to Amazon when you could bring them back to your store instead through recovery emails.

Welcome emails

It’s also important to have a welcome email (or welcome email series) ready to go for new subscribers and customers. Jilt users see open rates of 35.3 percent on welcome emails to new subscribers and 44.9 percent on welcome emails to first-time purchasers—that means these emails get a lot of eyeballs, and present an excellent opportunity to lay out your differentiators and unique value proposition.

A next-level move is tweaking your welcome emails for the holidays. We haven’t found many examples of brands doing that, so it’s a way to stand out and push new subscribers toward your store for their holiday shopping. Here’s Old Navy’s welcome email from the holiday season in 2018 that they customized to the time of year.

Old Navy's holiday-only welcome email automation.

Post-purchase follow-ups

Another automation you may want to set up for the holiday season is the post-purchase follow-up. Post-purchase follow-ups demonstrate an extra level of personal customer service that a monolithic company simply can’t provide (plus, these emails do some selling at the same time). After the customer receives the product, you can check in, make sure everything arrived as expected, offer up customer support options, reiterate your return policy—and cross-sell related products or bestsellers from your store. Those cross-sells really work; Jilt users average $2.15 in revenue from every single post-purchase follow-up email they send.

Personalization and segmentation

You can use personalization and segmentation features in all of the above emails—as well as your sales announcements and other broadcast emails, too. By offering targeted product recommendations and cross-sells, your emails have a better chance at getting your customers to click and convert. Personalized emails generate six times higher transaction rates; segmented emails bring in 760 percent more revenue than non-segmented campaigns. They’re powerful tools at your disposal, and; this is the time to really lean on them.

Dell did something interesting with personalization in 2019: They sent personalized Black Friday deals based on customers’ history. That’s a smart strategy; rather than only promoting their traditional Black Friday deals, they’re appealing to each individual customer with a targeted deal to catch their eye and, hopefully, drive a sale.

3. Outshine their content

Episerver, which ran a major study on Amazon’s impact on eCommerce during the holiday season, found that content is one of the best areas where you can get a leg up.

“When it comes to product education, inspirational content, [and] how-to guides … they come up short.”

Episerver (PDF)

No one knows your products—and their benefits, inside and out—better than you. And your emails are a great way to get product- and holiday-related content in front of your customers.

Product guides and product content

Don’t just advertise your products during the holiday season—show off what makes your products special. Show how they fit into your customers’ lives (or their gift recipients’ lives) and fill a specific need. And how your store is the right place to buy them from because of your expertise. sent this “What to wear skiing” email on December 13th, 2018—right in the heart of the holiday shopping season. Rather than using this email to show off specific products on sale, they’re relying on their good content to educate customers and make them more likely to buy.'s product content.
Via: Milled.

Gift lists and suggestions

Everyone’s had that moment during the holiday season where they can’t figure out what gift to buy someone. You can help them out in that moment by making really good suggestions of products you sell for parents, kids, grandparents, white elephant gift exchanges, office secret Santas, and everyone in between. (Here are step-by-step instructions for setting up gift guides in WooCommerce—no additional plugins required!)

Here’s an example of a well-designed gift guide from Mr. Porter. It focuses on gifts for men in their target audience (“the man who has everything”). And it divides men into different interest categories (like “The gamer” and “The DIY-er”) with a handful of good gift ideas for each. 

Mr. Porter's gift guide for men.

Social proof

Amazon utilizes its reviews (as well as things like product sales rankings and bestsellers lists) to provide a heavy dose of social proof for the items on their site. And while you can certainly use all of those forms of social proof, it’s also beneficial to showcase other types—specifically photos and videos of your customers using your products. Those types of social proof aren’t just a good way to show other, real-life customers vouching for your products; they also help customers visualize how the products will fit into their lives.

4. Don’t let shipping make a difference

Amazon thrives on its fast shipping. (Of course, people tend to forget they’re paying $120-a-year for Prime shipping, but that’s another customer psychological issue for another day.) While you can’t match Amazon’s speed—and you’d most likely take a significant financial hit if you tried to provide free next-day air shipping—you might not have to.

With shipping and fulfillment slowdowns due to the pandemic (and, for Americans, the unfortunate changes to the U.S. Postal Service), nearly half of people say they’re going to start (or have started) their holiday shopping earlier this year than in the past. And only 15 percent will wait until December to begin their shopping. (PDF)

Which means: In the vast, vast majority of cases, people don’t need next-day shipping. They don’t need two-day shipping. They just need to be sure that their gifts will arrive in time for the holidays. Amazon’s reputation for reliable shipping gives them that peace of mind. Your challenge is to do the same.

Make your shipping deadlines clear

Your holiday emails should clearly and prominently promote your cutoff shipping dates (e.g. “Order by December 11th for standard shipping, December 19th for express shipping.”) Reiterate that early shopping is of paramount importance this year because of potential delays. And build in a little cushion, too, to make sure you don’t run into problems. 

Every customer cares about shipping deadlines—and here’s proof. Even a skateboarding company that uses graphics of a snowman with a skull for a head sent an entire email last year focusing on Christmas shipping cutoffs. Not getting presents on time is considered quite gnarly in all circles.

Skate1 gives a map to show holiday shipping deadlines.
Via: Milled.

Utilize your transactional emails

You may be afraid of sending too many emails to your customers, and that’s a reasonable instinct—except when it comes to shipping updates during the holiday season. (Or, really, during any season. At Jilt, the order receipt emails stores send maintain an average open rate of 62.2 percent, shipping notifications at 59.1 percent, and order completion emails at 59.2 percent. Customers crave those emails.)

If you notify a customer when their order has been received, their order has shipped (with tracking info and estimated delivery date), and their order has been delivered, that’s not spamming a customer—it’s reassuring a customer. 

Offer a guarantee

Things can go wrong with shipping. Weather (or bad luck) can cause delays, packages can get lost, delivery services can make mistakes. If you have a guarantee in place, you give your customers reassurances that those unlucky turn of events won’t ruin the holidays.

5. Show off your values

Customers increasingly want to support businesses that share their values; 68 percent of millennials and 52 percent of all customers say they actively consider a company’s values when they make a purchase. And beyond that, the circumstances of 2020 have led to an even greater appreciation for shopping with small businesses rather than giants; 83 percent of people now say they’d rather support a small business than a large one, even if they have to spend a little more.

Now is the time to differentiate how your small business has far better alignment with your customer’s values than Amazon—as Amazon’s reputation has taken quite a hit in the past few years. From 2014 through 2017, they ranked number one in RepTrak’s annual corporate reputation rankings… this year, they were 42nd. (PDF)

Promote who you are and what you believe in

It may seem risky to use one of your valuable holiday season marketing emails to discuss the people behind your company, your values, your mission, and your beliefs rather than to sell, sell, sell—but it could prove to be highly beneficial. If you take a moment to present your values, it could make your customers much more eager to do business with you.

There’s an impulse during the holiday season to use every email to sell, sell, sell. But you can derive quite a bit of value by taking a step back and using an email or two to highlight the people behind your company, your values, your mission, and your beliefs. Yes, this is the most commercial time of year—but it’s also a time of year when people are feel generous, spend some time reflecting, and think about what really matters in life. (For reference, see the end of basically every Christmas movie ever.) So use your email to demonstrate your alignment with your customers’ values—that’s something a big company simply can’t do with as much genuineness, sincerity, and credibility as you can.

A good example of this is outdoor retailer REI, which since 2015 has turned Black Friday into a statement of its brand values by closing all its stores. Yes, that’s right, on the biggest shopping day on the retail calendar, REI shuts down as part of a brand marketing campaign called “#OptOutside.” This year, the company is hosting a number of outdoor clean-up events instead, which reinforce one of their main brand values of environmental stewardship. While missing out on those sales and paying employees to stay home undoubtedly carries a high cost, the marketing campaign has huge value for REI, too—the inaugural campaign generated 6.7 billion media impressions.

Take advantage of Small Business Saturday

Black Friday and Cyber Monday are the shopping holidays that get the overwhelming majority of attention during the holiday season—and based on the numbers they do, that attention is justified. However, in between those days is Small Business Saturday. That could be a good occasion to send an email pulling back the curtain on your company and your values—to let your customers literally see the faces of the people behind the products they’re buying. That connection can go a long way.

Here’s an email from Los Angeles-based clothing brand Electric & Rose from last year’s Small Business Saturday that promotes the occasion—and shows off its values. This email showcases Small Business Saturday; shows the people behind the business (the couple, baby, and dog); features quotes from the founders about their business values; and promotes other local small businesses they like. Even the coupon code, MADEINLA, is a value statement.

Key takeaways

Amazon is the biggest player in the eCommerce world and is hard to beat on selection, prices, shipping, or returns. However, they don’t have a 100 percent market share—far from it. People will spend tens of billions of dollars at online stores other than Amazon during the holiday season—so it’s imperative for you to figure out how to capture your share.

Since email marketing is the most reliable marketing channel at your disposal, it’s the ideal way to showcase what makes you different from Amazon.

  • Offer what they can’t. Come up with exclusive deals or bundles, promote products that aren’t on Amazon, focus on areas where Amazon is weak like subscriptions and customization, and push your loyalty and rewards program.
  • Utilize automations. Make sure your abandoned cart recovery emails, welcome emails, and post-purchase follow-ups are ready to go to make sure you don’t miss out on any sales during the holiday season. And utilize personalization and segmentation in your emails to bring in even more revenue.
  • Outshine their content. Share product guides and product-related content, put together gift idea lists, and use social proof to promote the items in your store.
  • Don’t let shipping make a difference. It’s more or less impossible to compete with Amazon’s fast, reliable shipping. Fortunately, most people do their online holiday shopping early enough that you won’t need to. Just make sure your shipping cutoffs are clear, use transactional emails to update customers on the shipping status of their orders, and offer a guarantee to give customers peace-of-mind.
  • Show off your values. Customers increasingly want to support small businesses and buy from retailers that share their values. So use your emails to show the people behind your brand, your values and beliefs, and your mission to connect with customers on a more intimate level.