Controversial

Amazon’s Secret Weapon – Smart Politics And Smart Business

Last week, Re/code broke the news that 15-year Amazon company vet Maria Renz will be ascending to the role of technical advisor to the CEO – known more informally inhouse as Jeff Bezos’ shadow. The role involves sitting at the right hand of “The Man” himself – going to meetings, traveling with him, serving as his sounding board and in general functioning as a full Bezos support system.

The role has been held by many high-profile players over the years, with one notable exception. It has never been held by a woman – making Renz something of a pioneer.

And the high profile promotion has certainly been a nice change of pace for some of the headlines coming out of Silicon Valley, which explains the cascade of news buzz. However, it seems at least possible that while the media is congratulating Amazon for doing the “right” thing – they are potentially forgetting to offer up another piece of praise about Amazon doing the smart thing.

High Risk, High Reward

Things often go well at Amazon for those who ascend to the approximately two-year gig as Bezos’ shadow. Andy Jassy was once a shadow – and he now heads the company’s successful AWS unit. Former shadow Amit Agarwal runs Amazon’s India business – an area of rapidly growing interest. Amazon Echo and speech recognition initiatives are also headed up a former shadow – Greg Hart. Some shadows carry on in a ninja-like capacity like Dilip Kumar, who is literally working on a secret project.

Of course, it doesn’t always work out so well.

Ian Freed was a shadow who helped lead the Fire Phone project. He has since gone on sabbatical.

Renz’s path to the shadows started early in her tenure when she served as Amazon’s marketing director in 2001 and was tasked with recommending between a line of expensive TV ads or a free shipping plan called Super Saver Shipping.

“If we decided to not spend money on ads, the company no longer needed a Director of Marketing Communications,” Renz wrote on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In blog. “I clearly recall sitting in my office wondering whether I was struggling with the recommendation because it was the wrong marketing choice, or because it had a direct impact on my career path.”

Renz ultimately decided to recommend Super Saver Shipping – which still exists at Amazon to this day.

But then again so does she, as she was rewarded for her team-oriented decision-making and promoted to run the company’s new health, beauty and grocery business. She was again promoted to vice president of shoes and jewelry in 2007 and became CEO of Amazon’s Quidsi subsidiary in 2013. Quisdi is the parent company of Diapers.com that Amazon bought in 2011; its founding CEO, who she replaced, is now gearing up for his second round in the ring with Amazon with his Jet.com startup.

Amazon has seven senior executives (apart from Bezos) in total – and only one is a woman: Worldwide Controller Shelley Reynolds.

The Smart Play In a Crowded Field

While Amazon has recieved many plaudits for advancing the cause in executive diversity – it has not been mentioned much in the early coverage how Amazon is also likely very effectively advancing the cause of Amazon.

There is an urban legend of sorts in commerce that women control 80 percent of the spend in the United States – and while no one can find the exact origin for that number (and many attempts to do so have failed) – there is a reason it has had legs for so long: it really feels true.

“Anecdotally, would it appear to just about anyone that women control more buying decisions than men? Yes,” Ira Mayer, publisher of the newsletter Marketing to Women, noted. “It would be nice to know, but I don’t know what it would tell us if we knew that actual number.”

And though the 80 percent figure remains unconfirmed – as PYMNTS’ piece on “mommerce” demonstrated a few weeks ago – there are plenty of perfectly credible stats that indicate women do the majority of the clothes, grocery and gift shopping in this country – especially when they have children. Women tend to shop online and in the real world more often, for more stuff and for a greater variety of stuff.

Given the volume of shopping women do – particularly online and on mobile – it is probably not a bad idea to have a women serving as the shadow to the CEO of a massive eCommerce firm, particularly if that woman has spent the last 15 years studying the shopping habits of Amazon’s female customers (given the parts of the company she has run).

What’s even more interesting, given the nature of the role, is the clue that her elevation implies as to what’s next for Amazon. Amazon wants to be in the grocery delivery business – and women buy groceries at three times the rate that men do. In addition – 80 percent of mothers report going to a grocery store at least three times per week; in all other demographic groups, the average number of trips to the store per week is one.

And, of course, grocery is where Maria Renz started in Amazon, after she argued for the elimination of her job. 

Amazon is not alone in wanting to tap grocery delivery – it’s facing off against a well funded and popular startup in Instacart and generally terrifying competitor Google.

And, of course, Renz’s old Quidsi pals who are “jetting” their way into Amazon’s commerce flight path.

Maria Renz has been into online grocery for a while, and she has spent most of her career learning the buying habits of the people who do most of the grocery shopping in the United States. And she just might be the secret weapon Amazon needs to crack grocery.

Or at least help Bezos anticipate what might come next.

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