Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) finished the year strong by reporting a 15% increase in sales to $29.33 billion in the fourth quarter, but the online retailer has never been about immediate results.
Instead, CEO Jeff Bezos has consistently invested in the company to build infrastructure, improve efficiency, and scale operations while finding new ways to engage customers. The current year will be no different. Amazon has a number of projects in the works that could change how customers interact with the retailer.
Making Echo more useful
As one of the first people to buy an Echo, I have been mostly delighted with the speaker/voice assistant, but more as a novelty than in any practical way. The device can deliver a weather forecast, play music on demand, and tell a joke (a bad one, but, still). What it can't do is interact particularly well with Amazon -- especially when it comes to buying stuff.
In general, Echo is a cool way to play music for a decent price ($99 for Prime members or $199 without, but including a year of the premium service), but it lacks usefulness.
Amazon has slowly been working to change that, regularly notifying Echo owners about new features, which have so far been mostly gimmicks as well (like being able to make the device repeat what you say by using the "Simon says" command). In 2015, however, that should change as the company opens up the platform to developers.
This is good news for Echo owners because the device has enormous potential to be a home control hub that could be unlocked via a flood of apps from developers.
3D printing trucks might be coming
While it's hard to know if this initiative will be ready by 2015, Amazon has filed a patent for trucks outfitted with 3D printers. This setup would allow Amazon to potentially add millions of items to its product offering without having to stock a single one.
The patent application outlines a scenario in which a customer needs to order a replacement part for a broken faucet. He or she would place the order through Amazon, which would obtain specifications from the manufacturer and print the part for delivery at the person's home, business, or a local pickup spot.
If Amazon can pull this off, it will have solved a big piece of the problem of offering same-day delivery without having to warehouse millions of rarely ordered items.
The robots will keep coming
Amazon met demand this past Cyber Monday in part due to its army of robots it first began using in 2012.The company touted its robot workforce in its fourth-quarter earnings release.
Amazon unveiled its 8th generation fulfillment center which utilizes robotics, vision systems, and almost 20 years worth of software and mechanical innovations to fulfill customer orders. During the holiday season, the fulfillment network included more than 15,000 robots in 10 fulfillment centers across the U.S.
The use of robots has already outstripped the company's initial plans, and Bezos told investors at a 2014 conference that the company would roll out "10,000 of them by the end of 2014," The Seattle Times reported.
Amazon says very little about is robot expansion plans (likely due to the inevitable questions it raises about loss of human jobs). But the success of its holiday season and the need to keep fulfillment costs in check for the long term leaves no doubt 2015 means more robots for Amazon.
Prime remains a focus
In 2014, Amazon raised the price of its Prime service for the first time, with positive results. Bezos hinted at continued investment in the company's fourth-quarter earnings release.
"Prime is a one-of-a-kind, all-you-can-eat, physical-digital hybrid -- in 2014 alone we paid billions of dollars for Prime shipping and invested $1.3 billion in Prime Instant Video. We'll continue to work hard for our Prime members," Bezos said.
In 2015, the company will add more original video content and increase the number of items that qualify for Prime's free two-day shipping offer.
"As we look to the future, obviously we will continue in how to invest faster shipping, add selection -- the physical and the digital -- will look for things members can watch, read and listen to," Amazon Prime Global Vice President Greg Greeley told The Washington Post. "Over the long term, we'll want to be able to unlock benefits across the whole ecosystem."
Prime has become a bedrock of Amazon's growth strategy, and keeping users happy will stay a priority in 2015.