Amazon's Big Bet on Black Friday Initiatives

Last Updated Nov 22, 2010 1:02 PM EST

Not to be outdone by the ever-growing number of discount ploys and new initiatives to lure customers into the holiday shopping season, Amazon (AMZN) revealed a few tricks of its own. Between the visual search capability to shop for shoes, the launch of the Kindle Books gift program, and a free, one month trial of the Amazon Prime shipping service, the e-commerce giant is betting that its holiday balance sheet will be bursting with profits.

A prime example (pardon the pun) is the free trial of Amazon Prime. Amazon Prime is an annual membership program that gives customers free two-day shipping on millions of items for a one-time fee of $79 a year. It looks easy enough. Pick your items, load your cart and the offer is waiting for you at the checkout. Once you sign up, you won't be billed for the first 30 days.

Like other, similar offers, the charges are automatically billed in the second month. You are free to cancel the membership however, you have to actually remember to do so. Most people don't and by the time they notice the charge, they're not motivated to get a refund. That's how retailers snag revenue they wouldn't ordinarily get.

Amazon says the free trial offer is not available to all customers but doesn't make the exceptions clear. In this case, there should be few if Amazon wants to line its coffers for the coming year.

File the Kindle Books as gifts program under, "what took you so long." Back in May, I issued a rebuttal to a Huffington Post article/elegy for mid-list authors at the mercy of the evil e-book. At the time, one of the laments was that e-books couldn't be wrapped and given as gifts. However, I argued that gift cards to Amazon were available to use for Kindle book downloads â€" just like Apple's (APPL) oh-so-popular iTunes cards.

The bookseller finally put some retail weight behind its claims of a huge surge in e-book sales (1.8 e-books for every hardcover sold). And while a small debate raged over which device was actually generating the sales (Apple's iPad or Kindle) the bottom line was that the Kindle editions were selling. Now they can just sell faster.

The visual search capability is Amazon's answer to Google's (GOOG) latest fashion initiative Boutiques.com. Unfortunately, it's the weakest link in Amazon's promotional chain so far. Visual search is proving to be a trickier technology than anyone thought. Even though Google harnessed the power of Like.com's well-developed image recognition capability, Boutiques.com failed for me on several occasions.

In a similar (and equally mystifying) experiment on Amazon's women's shoe site, I selected the "lace up" shape icon to narrow my search. It yielded over 2,000 results, the first of which was neither lace-up, nor flat, but an ankle-strap pump with a zipper on the side. Cute, but not close by any stretch.

Likewise, a search for brown work boots (again with the lace-up) turned out several examples of mukluks in a spectrum of colors ranging from light cream to black. I suppose the term mukluk was meant to be an inclusive nod to the workaday footwear of Arctic aboriginals?

In any case, the function is clumsy and no better than Zappos' or Endless' (both owned by Amazon) word search for styles and colors. And those will be the sites of choice for die-hard shoe shoppers.

Fortunately, Amazon stands to stay competitive with its other special deals and promotions. Especially now, when the whole week is the new black (Friday).

Image via Amazon

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