Prime Day is a now-annual reminder of just how good Amazon is at selling things. In the beginning, it was just books; now it's true of practically anything. Last year's especially popular items included shoes, TVs, and pressure cookers. The event, Amazon's summer answer to Black Friday, reliably goes so gangbusters that other retailers are running me-too sales. It's a good time to be a bargain-hunter.

That said, Amazon seems to have an agenda deeper than simply coaxing you to buy as much as possible once a year. It wants to get even better at selling you stuff -- you individually, not the general public as a faceless mass. Your past purchases are transparent to Amazon, and they say a lot about what you're likely to buy in the future, but there's plenty of information about who you are as a person that remains opaque.

Amazon has been bringing personalization to e-commerce as long as it has existed, but now it's doubling down on that capability as it expands beyond the computer screen. (And hopefully getting better at it, instead of suggesting every toaster in the world after you've bought one of them, like you're some absurd toaster collector from a quirky Wes Anderson movie.) BuzzFeed reporter Matthew Zeitlin summed up the Prime Day tie-in:

This year, Amazon appears to be focusing prompting signups for Prime, and driving its most loyal customers even deeper into the Amazon universe, with huge deals on Amazon electronics that encourage users to stream Amazon video content and routinely buy products through Amazon. Kindles are on sale for under $50 (a $30 discount); Amazon Echoes (they buy stuff through Amazon with your speaker) are 50% off; and a Dash button (which lets you buy stuff by pressing a button in your home) is only $0.99 and Amazon throws in a $4.99 credit after you press it for the first time. A Fire tablet (the-read-e-books-and-watch-Amazon-Prime-videos device) is $29.99.

The Echo suite is particularly significant. Earlier this year, CFO Brian Olsavsky said during the April earnings call, "We're very encouraged by the customer response to the Echo products -- not only the Echo products, but the ability to use tablets now as Echo devices, since we've spread the Alexa technology to many of those devices." Discussing the company's investment strategy, he said that Amazon aims for "things that customers love, can grow to be large, will have strong financial returns, and they're durable and will last for decades."

The recently released Echo Look, which acts as an automated style assistant (apparently a lackluster one) offers a legend to Amazon's bigger master plan: It wants to be a helpful presence in every commerce-adjacent part of your life. Recode's Jason Del Rey reported on Monday, "Amazon has quietly been hiring an army of in-house gadget experts to offer free Alexa consultations as well as product installations for a fee inside customer homes," hoping to accelerate its existing "smart home" head start.

That's ambitious indeed considering the level of personalization that's available on Amazon.com makes it seems like the company is starting blind.

For example, Amazon's front page routinely shows me a section called "Inspired by your Wish List," which showcases items drawn directly from my wish list. That's effectively me doing my own personalization and then having it falsely labeled as the platform's own discovery. Sure, it likely drives sales, but it depends on me combing through listings and picking out what I want, or finding out about desirable items elsewhere. The Wirecutter is an entire business predicated on turning up jewels among junk on Amazon.

Amazon's core competencies are being cheap and convenient, with an emphasis on the latter. That works really well for selling commodity goods -- batteries, toilet paper, 55-gallon barrels of lube. The pressure is certainly on for the company to start excelling at making the right choices for its customers, instead of presenting a variety of options. Finding the right item (or answer) at the right time is crucial in a world where you're interacting with a device by voice, instead of searching on a screen.

Published on: Jul 11, 2017