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Peter: Welcome to Unpacking the Digital Shelf where we explore brand manufacturing in the digital age. Peter Crosby from the digital shelf institute. I’m gonna lay it out here, whenever I want to know what’s going on in ecommerce and how brand manufacturers are and should be responding, I call Russ Dieringer. He’s executive director of the ecommerce council at Cleveland Research. Not only is he one of the smartest people in this industry, he’s one of the nicest. This time the call was about the onslaught of retailers standing up new ad platforms where you can spend your money, with Amazon leading the way. Should you invest? Well, yes. But how? With whom? With trade dollars or media spend? Both? What the heck is going on out there? My emergency call to Russ resulted in this podcast. Take a listen. Hey Russ, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. Cleveland research just as some of the best research in the business and, and we recently were, were lucky enough to see some, some research that you've done recently on sort of the explosion of ad platforms with retailers and really being led by Amazon, their ad revenue is on pace to reach over $14 billion in sales this year, which is amazing and it's really starting to upend not only trade spend on retailers, but how brands are thinking about the mix of, of trade and, and, and branded media and budgets and organizations like it's really become this kind of explosive point in, in the marketplace.
Peter: And so we wanted to go to the expert and bring you on board to, to talk about this phenomenon and what's happening across, across all of retail as, as others turn their eye towards Amazon's revenue numbers for that and start going, wait a minute, we could get some of that pie. Want to help our listeners understand how they should be thinking about that this year.
Rob: Yeah. So this, this report is very rich. I mean, you cover how the trade spend is shifting from marketing to trade and from search to the retail commerce marketing budget. You cover organizational structures to best deliver on the potential value of the new ad streams for the commerce marketing. Amazon, Walmart, Home Depot. You cover the historical tensions within the companies that, that are going to be challenged. I mean, there's a lot that's rich in here. And I wanted to start though first at a high level industry perspective, the Amazon $14 billion dollar number–huge number. So Walmart and Target and Home Depot and Costco and nearly everybody else has, all of the large ones are all investing in their own media strategies. My first question to you is, is Amazon in a unique spot in the market where this strategy may work for them and may not work or at least may not work in the same way for the other retailers? What, what do you, what are you seeing there so far?
Russ: Well, I think you know, I think everyone's going to at least give it a shot just to start with. And so, you know, you think about Amazon's business, you guys said, you know, mentioned $14 billion in an advertising business and you think about their operating profit in North America. So this number of $5.4 billion last year, that excludes their cloud business. So this is just purely retail and advertising, $5.4 billion, probably almost all of that was driven by their advertising business. So that's accounting for a huge chunk of their operating profit. And so the other retailers, they, they recognize this. So you know, probably many of your listeners have seen these articles about Walmart, for example, losing $1 billion a year in their eCommerce business, frankly, it’s probably more than that. And unfortunately for Walmart and these others sort of what I'll call traditional retailers, the capital markets don't have the patience with them like they do for Amazon to lose money.
Russ: And so they have to find a way to offset what is a difficult economic proposition with, with eCommerce I was at a digital conference in, in November. And a representative from Peapod was there giving a talk and she essentially showed a slide where it said they essentially have to monetize the data and their site real estate in order to make e-commerce a viable thing. So they all have to do it because they have these growing eCommerce businesses. But there's no real path to profitability. I don't think everyone is going to be successful. You know, you think about smaller or mid-sized chains, I think they're going to have a more difficult time. But I certainly think the prospects for Walmart, Target, Kroger, Home Depot, Wayfair, eBay, et cetera, you know, a lot of those big retailers, I certainly think they have enough traffic and enough customers to where they could put together a viable search and media operation.
Rob: The interesting part though, you've got a, I'm going to have a direct quote from your from your paper on this point. You say commerce marketing brands must first ask themselves two questions. One, what does my customer use each retailer for? And two does that retailer have the right ad units for me to connect with those shoppers? And I think there's something interesting about Amazon here where I, you also have a bunch of stats about the way that a lot of companies think about Amazon is and the way they pay for Amazon advertising is out of their marketing budgets and not simply out of their trade budgets. Because there's a lot of evidence that advertising on Amazon supports sales across your channels. People use Amazon for product research, for product validation to read the reviews. So whether or not they're actually ending up transacting on Amazon or transacting in store, there's still, they're still going to Amazon and the other retailer outlets don't really, at least at this point, have as much of a claim to that type of behavior. So I just wonder, I mean you're, you're making a couple of points there. One is that they, they're feeling compelled to and they have to and they, some of them might have the traffic to, but the other part is that their, their advertising is, is structurally a little different. It feels to me, am I reading that right?
Russ: I think you're absolutely correct. And I think over the last, you know, call it four to five years or so, there's been a ton of research done by us and others to really understand what is Amazon's role on the path to purchase. And historically the platform was sort of seen as this sales channel and that was it. I think over time and through, you know, a range of different consumer studies, it came to be accepted that consumers are going to Amazon to find new products, to learn more research products, et cetera, in addition to ultimately purchasing. And when you have that full sort of funnel, to use the term funnel, I know not everyone uses that term, but I think it communicates, when you span across that funnel, you therefore open yourself up to having a range of different advertising units. So, you know, close to the point of purchase, you could have a robust search, a business and then more upper funnel awareness building things.
Russ: That's where the media side comes into it and that's where Amazon is really focusing more of its effort. So what does that mean for the other retailers? Well, frankly I think a lot more research has to be done to understand what is Walmart's role on the path to purchase. You know, we've done some studies on this topic and for the most part, whether it's Walmart or Target or even Home Depot for example, a lot of their role on the path to purchase is very close to the point when the shopper wants to buy. So maybe they start looking around at different sites to compare final prices and ultimately are going to pull the trigger when, when they find the best price. Well, if that's the case, then the type of advertising business that those retailers should create should primarily be around helping convert at that sort of, that moment when they're ready to purchase I.E: search.
Russ: And so maybe the media opportunity, the brand building opportunity on a Walmart or a Target isn't as big as it is for Amazon. We're not necessarily, I don't feel confident saying that that's the absolute conclusion, but I think at least right now, the early research on this topic suggests, look, Amazon supports the shopper across the path to purchase. That lends support to having more of a, a media type offering and that's what's getting branded manufacturers excited about it. I think the other retailers, it's less clear how they fit into the full path to purchase. And so if you're a brand and manufacturer what you need to figure out, because all these products are unique, the categories are unique on the path, you have to figure out, okay, let's understand our consumer. How are they going to use Kroger differently than Walmart? Differently than Target, differently from Amazon. And then that's going to help you make certain allocation decisions when you need to figure out, Hey, this next dollar spend, where are we going to, where are we going to put the dollar
Rob: To under, to underscore what you're saying, there's a, there's a chart in your research report that titled shifting funds into Amazon advertising. 45% of Amazon advertising funds come from traditional media, like television, 39% come from previously search budgets, which is terrifying Google and 35% are coming from trade. So if you're Walmart or Target or Kroger, I gotta imagine that the first and foremost what you've got to be concerned about is defending that trade budget because you're reliant on that trade budget for overall corporate margin. So it may be, and Russ let me know if this is right or wrong. It may be that if all they do is effectively defend the trade budget so that may be their brands are spending less than endcaps, but you know, just as much online. That's actually a reasonable defense for the, for the traditional retailers against this money going to Amazon.
Russ: Absolutely. And I think, you know, beyond just supporting a, a margin challenged e-commerce business, which is where we started, the second reason why these retailers were compelled to develop these advertising platforms was from a defensive perspective to maintain support amongst their brand and manufacturers that were increasingly going over to Amazon and saying, look at all these great productive advertising tools, look at the growth potential on Amazon. It starting to become a more and more compelling account. And so if you're an executive at, you know, Target, Walmart, Kroger or Home Depot, etc. You're trying to say, well, if we really want to be top of mind with these manufacturers, we're going to need to come up with compelling offerings and it has to move beyond sort of a blank check and co-op. And who knows where that money goes. We need to create really compelling media and search offerings in order to stave off losing more support from the manufacturer community.
Russ: And so I think that manufacturers over the last couple of years, you know, on the margin, you know, where they have been able to shift some from funds from, from trade accounts that may be slower growing accounts. I mean there's limits to that, right? Like they're trying to be fair and equitable to all the accounts, but there are some opportunities to shift fund. I think a lot of that money was going over to Amazon and in the absence of a compelling alternative at these other sites, like that made a lot of sense now that or as they develop these alternatives, I think we're going to see some of that slow down and that you're right to say, you know, maybe instead of spending a, you know, $50,000 on an endcap program or something, maybe you spend $50,000 on WMG and if you're Walmart, you know, that's a pretty good trade off cause you probably would have lost those funds if you, if you didn't offer that digital offer.
Rob: Got it. And, and so
Peter: Does that create tensions within the teams at Walmart? Like are they, you know, are they on prem shopper marketing people going to war against the e-commerce people because they're trying to hold onto what they're getting in store or, or just sort of Walmart's corporate view work that, Hey I don't, I, I'm getting this money cause it could probably would have gone away anyway.
Russ: Yeah. You know, I think within a Walmart team to stick with that example, we don't necessarily hear a ton of tension. I think typically what's going on is that you got the account team working on it, they work in concert with the shopper marketing team and in the past you know let's say a theoretical world that you know was, was 100% focused on shopper marketing inside of stores. Or maybe you used other digital platforms. I think what's happening now is that the account team and a shopper marketing team are really taking a hard look and saying okay, let's look at what WMG offers. Maybe there are some compelling digital alternatives and let's spend some of that money that we were going to do on an in store program. Let's spend it digitally and Walmart for its part I think at the highest level is okay with that.
Russ: I think they recognize that. I think where you can start to get into, you know, some issues is where the in store buyer is separate from the.com buyer and then who's getting credit for that spend. And I think that's still playing out. I think Walmart doesn't, you know, necessarily not to just pick on Walmart, but I don't think they necessarily have a real clear strategy on how that's going to be allocated internally. But you know, eventually they'll, they'll work that out in the near term. I think there'll be some, you know, brain damage between those teams. I think, you know, Walmart or target, they're going to go to the brand and manufacturers and say, well look, you, you got to support, you know, this overall business, including in store and digital. And as a result, we want you to spend, you know, $5 million or $10 million or whatever the amount is on these different activations.
Russ: Most of which in the past would have been in store. Now some of that's going to be digitally. So, yes, there's like some tension I think inside of the retailers, depending on how their buyers are set up. But I think that's manageable. I think that's going to shake out a little bit over time. I mean, you even see this playing out on Amazon to a degree as they start to separate their advertising organization from their retail organization more so this year than what they've done in the past. But inside of the brand and manufacturers, I don't think there's as much tension. I think they're just trying to figure out, okay, within this account, how do we best allocate this? And I think they're sort of indifferent, whether it's digital or in store, they're just trying to get the most bang for their buck, so to speak.
Rob: Yeah, the tension I remember in within the frame manufacturers, and this is going back about five years, was when the Amazon teams were really seeing the growth on Amazon. And then Amazon was first investing in sponsored products and a couple of those other capabilities that were new at the time that in order to funnel additional money into those programs and still be fair and equitable given sort of the relative low gross volume of Amazon compared to a traditional retailers five years ago for, for most of these guys that they were paying for the Amazon advertising using agencies. So it would look at agency spend. So they're basically hiding the ad spend from the, from the bottom line P and L by having it look like spend. And
Peter: There, there were those types of games that were going on four or five years ago. You see a lot less of that these days. Now people are a little more above board. But it does seem though like there is a bigger game going on at brand manufacturers, which is now that, that these channels are start starting to be thought of as also a, you know, a branded play. The Telmate. Tell us a little bit about how the trade and media spend people, organizations and processes need to start sort of working together to know where should we put these dollars, who's paying for what and when? Ha, when do we know that a platform has earned that kind of investment with a return? What are you seeing there? Us?
Russ: Well it's been very interesting on Amazon to see just over the course of a few years, you know how this has evolved, you know, in our research about 60% of companies are funny. Amazon advertising out of what they would call their marketing budget and the balance would be funny in and out of trade. And there's companies that you know, fund funded out of both as well. But that 60 40 split has really evolved over time. I mean if we were to go back to just 2016 it probably would have been 90 10 the other way, you know, 90% funding it out of trade. And I think it brings us back to what we were talking about earlier where over that time, manufacturers have grown to appreciate just how impactful Amazon can be across that path to purchase. And as that has happened, Amazon has been able to make a more convincing case that, Hey, even if we're talking search ad units this is still impactful for your business beyond just the Amazon account.
Russ: So sure, maybe the Amazon account is 5% of your total business, but it's influencing because of its importance on the path to purchase. It's influencing 70% of your sales or 80% or 50% or whatever. It's, it's, it's out punching its weight and in terms of influence and as that understanding has grown, the budgets have grown mainly because of the support from the COO and the broader marketing organization. So that's what's occurred on Amazon. I think the potential exists for the other accounts to travel a similar path, but I think that they have a long road to go to show that they too are influential to the degree that Amazon is. They certainly don't have the sheer traffic that that Amazon has. And it's also just less clear how impactful they are to consumers. And therefore, what does that mean? Maybe trade spend is all they're going to get because they can't convince the COO or these organizations that they're more important than just the final point.
Russ: You know, when a consumer goes to do price comparison. So I think a lot of work is still to come on that. But you see that the retailers really, that is their push. You know, you look at WMG for example, they have a, they've hired a big sales force. They're going out to the brand and manufacturer community. They're pitching to the COO. They're saying, look, you know, we have a great pool of information to target consumers. And Oh, by the way, unlike Amazon, we can tie this stuff to in store. And that's going to be a big angle that they take to try to differentiate themselves from Amazon, is that they can tie the, these investments to the impact to the in store a business. And that should theoretically say, Hey, if you spend a dollar, it resulted in $2 online and that resulted in $4 inside the store.
Russ: So that's six to one. Amazon can't necessarily tell you that is at least theoretically the argument that the brick and mortar retailers have to make, but I think we'd be sort of over our skis if we were to say, Oh yeah, they've definitely, not just Walmart, but any of the big MCL retailers, you know, we would be, I think more ambitious than anything. If we were to say, Oh, it's closed loop reporting, we can definitely show the impact in store. I think there's still more work to be done. The reporting isn't quite there yet, so if Walmart and target and Kroger and Depot, et cetera can really show, wow, this is the impact online and this is the impact to our in store sales, that's going to be the angle they take and that could potentially be very compelling. If they can't do that, then I think they're going to struggle to really take a major leap forward like Amazon was able to do in growing that business. To $14 billion.
Rob: Yeah. I think, I think you put your finger on a potential major mental shift in how the retailers deal with advertising and the way that they sell it to their brand manufacturers which is the precision of return on advertising spend that you can get online is so much greater than traditional trade spend. So the, I I had breakfast with a GM of a multibillion dollar beverage company recently and he was saying, yeah, in order to get an end cap we would just throw in a little extra money for the circulars. Who cares if they work or don't work and it just, and sort of like the precision that they required in order to justify the trade spend investment in Russ, you said, you said a few minutes ago, it's almost like a black hole in some cases in terms of the way that they structure call out that you're just throwing money at these things that is so different from online where the co, the comps are Amazon and Google where you can get a high precision of information and how effective your ad spend was. I that's going to be interesting to see if, if the, if they get that level of precision like you're talking about and whether the ad sales teams at the retailers are effective at conveying that level of precision to the brands in order to, to get their share of spend here. Yeah. Russ, tell me a little bit, cause you know, a lot of our listeners are these executives that are trying to figure out how to build strategies this next year
Peter: Or so to be able to even deal with the explosion of these platforms and offerings from their retailers, understand them, prioritize, evaluate them, a mix the budgets in a way that makes sense and can show return. Tell me a little bit, because your report goes into, into some detail about your, your potential models, cause I don't think anyone has the answer here yet, but your potential models for how companies might think about organizing this function in a way to try and get those answers over the course of 2020. Do you want to dig into that a little bit?
Russ: Yeah. It's such a fun dimension to try to research, right? Because it is very much an emerging thing. You have all of these lines blurring between what's a retailer versus an advertiser and therefore who works on what. So it's, it's very sort of challenging to find that silver bullet answer for every manufacturer. But the way I like to try to think of it as like, what is happening today? How are manufacturers thinking about today? What are some potential models that, that they think could work over the medium term? And then taking all of that in consideration. Well, how do you get started and where do you go from here? Given that it is very much to use an Amazon term day one with many of these advertising platforms that are just now developing. So how I would think about it is right now you have companies mainly doing one of two things.
Russ: You know, if you were to take Walmart as an example, you've talked a lot about Walmart this afternoon and, and WMG and what they're doing there with, with advertising. I think right now, one of the ways that comes are approaching it as the Walmart team is really taking it on themselves and they're sort of running with it. They're funding it from within the account, they're maintaining control over it. And I think that's okay and a decent first approach, you know, in spite of other alternatives. But it's not necessarily great for the organization because you probably inside the organization have experience that could be useful in terms of how to go about developing effective search strategies on retailer sites. So if it's just the Walmart team working on it, well, are you really benefiting from your company's experience doing this on Amazon or possibly Google?
Russ: Now Amazon is going to work differently than Walmart, which works differently from Google, et cetera. However, there's, there are certain experiences in data and learnings that you can look at on those other platforms and apply to these new retailer offerings. You're not necessarily gonna get that benefit when you just have the account doing it all themselves. So that's that's one way that manufacturers are sort of approaching it right now. I think the second way that they're doing it is maybe, you know, all of those things hold in, the Walmart team's running with it, but they are open to getting what I'll call some consultated the help from the Amazon team and I think this a little bit of a better approach, right? Cause they're going to stand on the shoulders of their colleagues and benefit from some of the hard lessons that they've learned over the last couple of years.
Russ: But even with that being said, the organization as a whole is still missing out to a degree because there's limited information sharing and there's still these silos because the accounts aren't necessarily talking to each other. They don't necessarily what's being offered across the accountants. It's very difficult to truly optimize that next incremental dollar of spend. Think you cannot, you can still optimize within the account, but it's hard to take that higher level approach and say, Hey, should we put this dollar on bidding on the term toothpaste on Walmart? Or should we put it on fitting on toothpaste on Amazon or Kroger, et cetera. It's very hard to do that with either of those first two approaches. I think another approach that companies are hoping for is, Hey, let's just work with our agency partner. You know, maybe they had experience across these platforms. I think much like what happened on Amazon where you had a lot of agencies that had great experience on Google and or social, they started to say, Hey, we can do Amazon advertising for you.
Russ: The reality is because those platforms are so different, they weren't able to translate that knowledge one for one, and so that that really allowed those Amazon ad agency companies that specialized on Amazon. That's what allowed them such success because they had the data, they were 100% focused on it and they really executed and did a great job. Well, those same agencies now are going to obviously try to make the transition and help companies on these other retail platforms, but it's early. They don't necessarily know those retailers as well as what they knew Amazon and so it's going to be challenging for them. Not impossible, but, but definitely challenging and stuffing to be aware of.
Rob: There's the element on, there's the element on that agency challenge, which is that the traditional retailers still care about relationships or at least you know, the person to person element is true for them where it's not true for Amazon. That, so there, there's, there's parts of this shift that are just not, that are more than just the technology differences between retail or advertising platforms. Right. It's relationships. Right?
Russ: Absolutely. And I think that's the, like with Amazon as an example, it was different than search and social platforms to come before it because there were the whole, the whole concept of the retail fundamentals, you know, where are you in stock? What were you doing from a negotiation perspective with the vendor managers and Amazon, could you leverage this ad spend, you know, in the course of those negotiations, et cetera. So you can't necessarily divorce the advertising strategy that you have. I'm talking from tactical to strategic. You can't necessarily divorce that from the retail business. So you can't just turn this over to an agency running Amazon for you and expect that to go great. You've got this whole other dynamic happening. At the retail level and it would be sort of a missed opportunity if you didn't take what you were what you could possibly do from an ad spend and use that in your, you know, broader business relationships.
Russ: So you can't necessarily divorce those two things. And I think, you know, that's a limiting factor. Potentially depending on how you work with partners. The one other idea to share, you know, one of the more kind of interesting ideas that I've heard come up from Howard companies approaching this is this concept of an acceleration team. I think some companies would use the term center of excellence. It's more to me what I would take from it is dedicated resources towards a given topic. So if you go back a few years ago, Amazon e-commerce and just barely emerging for some of these brands and manufacturers, maybe they had someone working on a part time like like I remember five years ago a lot of the people that were running Amazon were running Costco cause they were both out in, in the Seattle area and Amazon wasn't as as big of a deal as it is now.
Russ: And then the business grew and companies said okay well let's put some real resources behind it. Let's create the center of excellence or an acceleration team around e-commerce in order to really be able to capture the growth potential. And we invested a bunch of people into it and technology, et cetera. And that worked for a lot of companies. I think that can be a good sort of medium term solution or it was a good medium term solution on eCommerce. Same concept I think holds for commerce marketing in that I could foresee big manufacturers saying okay commerce marketing is the real deal. It's here to stay. The retailers are, are completely incented to to make this work. They have to make this work. If they want a.com business, therefore we need to make this work and we want to get ahead of the curve, right? If we don't invest in these platforms, then that's going to open up the door to more nimble competitors.
Russ: And you saw this, you experienced this on Amazon already. Well, same concept can happen on Walmart or target, et cetera, where if there's advertising and you're a small company and the big incumbent brand isn't spending on advertising, well guess who's going to be at the top of the search results? So for companies that really buy into this and really say, Hey, we want to make this a core competence of our organization, let's devote dedicated resources towards it. Maybe it's just an individual, maybe it's a, it's a small team of individuals. But those, that team, it should be responsible for understanding what exists on these different accounts. Like what ad units are available. Is it all searches, some of the media, what's the mix? What are the potential partners we could work with? What technology could we deploy? Can we help the organization understand how are consumers using those different platforms?
Russ: Can we figure out where do we put that next incremental dollar of Aspen? I think it's going to be difficult to answer that question unless you devote some dedicated capacity to it. Maybe that's not the final answer five years from now, three years from now, whatever. You don't necessarily need that team because at that point it's going to be as straightforward as saying, well yeah, we know how to allocate money to an end cap. Yeah, we know how to allocate money to immediate program on target. Okay, we might get there, but I don't think you get from here to there without really dive in and devoting some real resources and companies that you know that we talk to in our research. You know, they'll term it an acceleration team or a center of excellence, but that's kind of the an interesting concept. I think that can make a lot of sense for organizations.
Peter: Yeah. One thing I like about that and you make this point in the paper, which is dedicating resources early on and moving fast on these platforms is an opportunity to get ahead of rivals. We saw that with Amazon advertising, we saw that with just Amazon launches in general. We see that with content enhancement, like optimizing content on a regular basis. Yeah. In digital winners win. And that's just going to keep happening. And if, if you, if you centralize that effort so that these platforms are going to be changing so quickly over the next couple of years. And, and I feel like if you're, if you're not keeping track of that, I'm in some sort of centralized brain, you're gonna miss out on opportunities and also miss out on, on failing fast and deciding, okay, that's not ready yet. I'm gonna, we're gonna stop doing that. I think both those things are so important.
Russ: I agree. And I think even if you don't, you know, maybe you're an organization and you can't necessarily, you know, meet the investment requests that the retailers are making of you because they're, you know, we're talking hundreds of thousand dollars and maybe you just don't have that capability. I think you still want to test and learn. You want to be doing something, you want to be on trying to understand to a certain degree, how do these platforms work? Where do we see the most competition? Where do we see the most white space? I think you, you want to at least be in the ballgame, so to speak, because as you guys have said, you know, we've learned that lesson on Amazon already. We don't need to learn it a second time. We've seen what can happen.
Peter: Yeah. I think the opportunity is enormous. It's going to happen fast and, and figuring out a way, as you said, to test and learn. That's really so much of what a brand manufacturers are doing today is figuring out, you know, what are the, what are the opportunities that we want to pursue over the next six to eight months and how are we going to take advantage of them without disrupting the rest of the revenue business that we, that we have set up. So I think this whole area of commerce marketing and where these silos and walls start to come into a combined approach across channel and across, you know, all the different digital channels as well as the omnichannel experience is just going to be an super interesting space over the next few years. Spend a lot of time talking about it. Russ, thank you so much for joining us and walking us through your research and, and and what's happening out there on the frontiers of, of retailer advertising markets. We really appreciate it.
Russ: Oh, Peter, Rob, I had a blast doing it. Thank you so much for inviting me on, and this is one of my favorite topics to talk about. And so I'm really excited to see how 2026 out. We probably come back a year from now and a lot will have changed, but probably a lot. It'll be the same. And so thank you so much for having me.
Peter: It's a day we'll talk to you in 2021 if not before. Thanks so much for us. Appreciate it.