Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and Kohl's (NYSE:KSS) already work together. The brick-and-mortar chain accepts and processes returns for the online retailer in 10 of its stores in the Los Angeles and Chicago area.
Those locations also have a store-within-a-store concept selling Amazon's smart-home and branded electronic products. Call it a tentative first step for two companies that might be able to benefit each other, but are also competitors.
Now, Kohl's has something Amazon may want, and Amazon has something Kohl's may need. The physical retailer has created separate store space in 300 of its over-1,000 locations that it intends to rent out to an as-yet-unnamed grocery or convenience store partner. Amazon may be that perfect partner as the company has just launched the prototype for its checkout-free Go grocery store.
What is Kohl's looking for?
The company has two goals. First, it wanted to right-size its stores both to free up space for digital fulfillment and to create an opportunity to rent out some of its unneeded square footage. That will, of course, produce some rental revenue, but that's not the core reason for the move.
Much like it's accepting Amazon returns to drive traffic into its stores, the company hopes to add grocery or convenience stores that bring more customers to its physical locations.
"It's not about Whole Foods, Aldi, or anybody else... we want a partner, ideally in food or convenience, to help drive traffic," Kohl's CEO Kevin Mansell told CNBC.
Could Amazon be that partner?
Mansell has not speculated as which company or companies Kohl's plans to work with aside from saying that it will be going after "well-capitalized companies, and preferably ones that have high traffic in grocery and convenience." Amazon actually only fits half of that, though early results at the Go test store in Seattle suggest that driving traffic won't be a problem.
And while neither Kohl's nor Amazon have released any statements about working together in this fashion, Scott Mushkin, Michael Otway, and Paul Kearney of Wolfe Research believe the two companies might be a good fit. They shared their opinion in an email to subscribers before the market opened on Jan. 28.
"It would seem that the most logical partner for this effort would be Amazon, utilizing its Whole Foods division and its recently out-of-beta testing Go Technology," they wrote. "Indeed, Amazon, in our opinion, purchased Whole Foods to help gain credibility in food, and fresh food in particular, and partnering with Kohl's would enable the company to gain mind/market share with a more moderate income demographic."
Logic does not make it true
Amazon would be a logical partner for Kohl's and the physical retailer has attractive space. Expanding their partnership seems like it makes sense, but it's important to note that Amazon kept its plans for its Go technology very close to the vest.
If the online leader wants quick expansion, Kohl's can offer that with real estate that in most cases enhances the chain's reach instead of competing with its Whole Foods brand. The brick-and-mortar chain can also offer shipping capacity, warehouse space, and demographic info on its customers.
That might make this deal appealing to Amazon if the online retailer wants to own a chain of small grocery stores. This is a logical deal that would likely benefit both companies. There are clear synergies between the two chains and Amazon Prime members would likely be curious to at least check out the Go store. In addition, the two retailers could increase their existing partnership and, perhaps, add in-store displays of Amazon's private-label clothing brands as well.
This deal makes a lot of sense, but at this point, it's just speculation. Still, these companies do have a working history that could make it easier to at least try working together in this expanded fashion.