Perhaps no other company in history has sold so many different products (354 million) while competing against so many other companies (hundreds). In the past, that power hasn’t lasted. Amazon is betting it will be different.
Amazon today is a retailer, a logistics network, a book publisher, a movie studio, a fashion designer, a hardware maker, a cloud services provider, and far, far more. The private equity firm Pitchbook estimates the company Jeff Bezos founded in 1994 competes head-to-head with at least 129 major corporations just in major markets. That number grows higher as it adds new business units such as fashion, food, and analytics.
The company so far has escaped serious antitrust scrutiny by US regulators in part because it can point to so many commercial adversaries with a piece of the market. Even in its primary business—e-commerce—Amazon only took in 23% of the $395 billion Americans spent online last year, and far less when that spending is broken down into individual markets. The one exception is books, where it controls about 65% of the e-book market.
But Amazon’s unprecedented logistics and delivery infrastructure, paired with access to personal data about Americans’ purchasing habits, means it is unique in the history of global commerce. No company has ever wielded this combination of consumer insight and infrastructure, say historians and legal analysts, which means the company grows stronger and less assailable with every purchase.
The seed of Bezos’s vision of a store that could sell everything was planted long ago. Bezos told shareholders (pdf) in 1998 that Amazon “may make decisions and weigh tradeoff differently than some companies…At this stage, we choose to prioritize growth because we believe that scale is central to achieving the potential of our business model.” Not much has changed. This year’s $13.7 billion Whole Foods acquisition, and Bezos’s personal purchase of The Washington Post in 2016, are merely stepping stones in Bezos’ globe-spanning ambitions.
Regulators are starting to size up whether Amazon is on the verge of becoming a monopoly. Amazon may find it doesn’t like the answer.
In industry after industry, Bezos is playing a ruthless game. The Amazon CEO charges into unsuspecting markets, slashes prices and waits for others to adjust or perish. The retail industry is a case in point. Out of 350 global retailers surveyed by JDA Software and PwC this year, only 10% say they have figured out how to make money off orders that involve both the web and their physical stores, thanks to high labor and logistical costs.
The Bezos adapt-or-die strategy is stressing out his fellow executives. In this year’s second quarter, 10% of all earnings calls in the US mentioned Amazon, including McDonald’s, Johnson & Johnson, and 3M, reports Reuters. The German drugmaker Bayer, which saw its profits fall 17% in the third quarter of 2017 as pharmacies closed, even has a name for it: “the Amazon Effect.”
Those mentions are largely from fear, says Rob Siegel, a lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. He interviews dozens of global business leaders in industries from finance to packaged goods. “I often ask them what are you most worried about,” he says. “I hear Amazon more than any other company, by a long shot.” That panic was on public display the day Amazon announced it had acquired the Whole Foods supermarket chain. Within two hours, the market value of industry incumbents had plunged by almost $12 billion
Amazon’s strategy drives down prices by leveraging a direct relationship between customers and its massive e-commerce and logistics operations. This “flywheel” attracts even more loyal customers who return for the convenience and low prices. Amazon’s scale means it can cross-subsidize huge losses from different ventures, plowing profits back into businesses that work. The aim is not to make money on any particular service; Amazon likely lost $7.2 billion on shipping last year and is selling hardware supporting its virtual assistant Alexa around or below cost. It’s adding to the value of the system itself. Entire industries are loss leaders for Amazon. For companies that must make money on what they sell, it’s a terrifying prospect.
Amazon, unlike its Silicon Valley counterparts, does not prioritize a technology platform that churns out profits while third party developers take on the risk of building applications to sell to customers. Instead, it enters brutally competitive, low-margin businesses, such as fashion and groceries, and pumps money into growing them despite losses. “I really don’t the know the logic of why they would keep moving into these areas,” says Michael Cusumano, a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “From a profitability point of view, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
But zoom out and Amazon’s real platform comes into view: the e-commerce marketplace itself. Today’s profit margins matter little because no single industry is crucial to Amazon’s ambitions over the coming decades. To map this, Pitchbook surveyed the competitive landscape in the top sectors where Amazon operates. The scope is audacious. The top three are charted below.
For business historians, Amazon is starting to look like the sprawling conglomerates of the past century. History has some bad news, says MIT’s Cusumano. “Eventually, Bezos is going to be, if he’s not already, a sample of the US or world economy,” he says. When that happens, Amazon’s equity growth rate may mirror that of the broader economy itself. Since the company went public in 1997, the S&P 500 has grown by a respectable 197%. Amazon stock has risen 700-fold over the same period. Such a drastic slowdown would dash Amazon’s global promise.
General Electric (GE) fell into this trap after World War II. As GE brought hundreds of industries under its roof, the company’s stock began to track US booms and busts. Today, analysts compare GE’s portfolio of business from jet engines to oil-field safety valves to an actively managed mutual fund—and one that doesn’t beat the market. Since the mid-1940s, the $181 billion conglomerate has barely outperformed the S&P 500. Almost all of its standout performance came during the 20-year tenure of CEO Jack Welch in the 1980s and 1990s–a management feat that hasn’t been repeated.
Yet Amazon might be different. The conglomerate comparison misses the primary ingredient in Amazon’s success: intimate household data. Stanford’s Siegel, who was a manager at GE and Intel between 1994 and 2007, says Amazon’s unique strength (control over customer data and logistics infrastructure) means the parallels with GE may not apply. “We’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “Amazon is combining the digital and physical in a way that we’ve never seen before.”
Because Amazon controls household consumption data, competitive intelligence about sellers, as well as a vast logistics infrastructure, it has unparalleled insights into what people want, and how to deliver it most efficiently. New features like the Alexa home assistant and Amazon Key (allowing Amazon to monitor and grant access to people entering your house) will make the company virtually omniscient.
Amazon sports a sky-high valuation because investors are banking that every customer gained today will pay off handsomely in the future. Competitors such as Walmart get no such leeway. Their profits and operating margins cannot arrive decades into the future, and that’s why Amazon’s price-to-earnings ratio (203), a common indicator of future growth expectations, is more than ten times that of Walmart (20). “You want to put off profitability in certain businesses because you aggregate more data, and you can monetize it down the road,” says Siegel. “You can argue that is what Amazon is doing. The old GE had no data.”
Soon, Amazon will be able to anticipate, suggest, and deliver almost any of the physical goods people routinely buy elsewhere (clothes, stores, supermarkets, boutiques, online retailers), making it the path of least resistance for everything people purchase. That’s been the plan for years. The patent for “anticipatory package shipping,” to ship people goods before they even order them, was filed in 2012 (a feature that could save 10% to 40% on logistics costs, say researchers). Now it’s coming to fruition.
This unprecedented economic power does not make Amazon a textbook definition of a monopoly. Online spending still is just 8% of the $4.8 trillion Americans spend on retail purchases, reports the US Census Bureau. Cusumano, who wrote a book on Microsoft’s antitrust trouble in the 1990s, suspects market share will not be a lever regulators use to go after Amazon, if they do.
“The government can’t even make the claim that Amazon has a monopoly on retail, and that’s their strongest position,” he says. “All the other markets are smaller. Ultimately, you have to look at market share and whether they are abusing their position.”
But they are, argues Lina Khan in the Yale Law Journal. Anti-competitive behavior is at the core of Amazon’s growth. Kahn states that many of the practices that make Amazon the behemoth it is today would have been considered illegal a few decades ago. The nature of predatory pricing, prohibited under earlier, more expansive views of antitrust law, is changing as commerce moves online, but the effect is the same.
Modern antitrust theory, rooted in the ideas of “consumer harm” from monopolists’ high prices, misses the threat posed by Amazon, Khan argues. The structural advantages Amazon wields over competitors gives its the ability to price products below cost and restrict access to customers. Over time, Amazon’s stranglehold on the market may degrade product quality, variety, and innovation, and enable exploitive pricing after competitors are eliminated.
So far Bezos has deftly skirted antitrust laws by trumpeting Amazon’s ability to lower prices. Eventually, however, the company may reach a tipping point. Some 44% of Americans (paywall) go to Amazon first when searching for online products and more than half of all e-commerce growth in 2016 came from the online retailer. ”The more goods and services Amazon sells, the more customers it has, and the more likely it becomes that more buyers and sellers will use Amazon, especially if competitors vanish or falter,” writes Cusumano. “With weak or no competitors, Amazon is also free to raise prices.” Its Prime membership program is effectively a way to make shopping anywhere but Amazon more expensive. People are noticing.
Don’t expect Amazon to play nice once it gains true domination. Journalist Brad Stone’s chronicle of Amazon’s early years (paywall) depicts Bezos as a ruthless operator who pushes employees to the brink (posting ambulances outside of warehouses on hot days instead of installing more air conditioners) and competitors toward bankruptcy.
Consider Amazon’s approach to its first market, books. When it began negotiating to bring smaller publishers onto the online platform, Bezos named the initiative “The Gazelle Project,” according to The New York Times (paywall) to evoke “the way a cheetah would approach a sickly gazelle.” Some of the more predatory appearances of Amazon’s program were eventually dropped, but not before one publisher, Hachette, saw Amazon drop all its books amid contentious business negotiations.
When the upstart Diapers.com made inroads in home deliveries, Amazons slashed its diaper prices through a “Amazon Mom” program, absorbing millions in losses that pressured the startup to sell—which it ultimately did—to Amazon. The discounts were later rolled back leaving Amazon with a large swath of the market. This year, Amazon infuriated sellers on its platform again by making returns “automatically authorized” at their expense, unless they use Amazon’s facilities. One seller told CNBC that these policies “will totally crush small businesses that fulfill their own orders.”
Wall Street is watching warily as regulators size up whether Silicon Valley giants are old monopolists in a new disguise. Europe’s approach to Alphabet, the parent company of Google, is an early warning sign. The European Commission just slapped Google with a record $2.7 billion (€2.42 billion) fine in June for favoring its own shopping results over others. It’s the first of three investigations into the company’s business practices.
If Amazon were to face such scrutiny, its case could resemble that of Microsoft in the 1990s and IBM in the 1980s. Those firms’ stock prices languished for as long as a decade as their antitrust cases wound their way through the courts.
Not that Amazon is waiting.
The company’s lobbying budget ballooned to $11.4 million in 2016, a six-fold increase over 2011, reports the Washington Business Journal. Amazon now retains at least 77 lobbyists, two of them former heads of the Department of Justice Antitrust Division during the Obama and George W. Bush Administrations, brought on to help ensure the Whole Foods acquisition. Amazon had not responded to inquiries about its plans at press time.
Bezos has always moved his chess pieces well ahead of his competition. No doubt, the looming threat of antitrust scrutiny is already in Amazon’s game plan. As Khan notes, Bezos can sell almost anything. “It is as if Bezos charted the company’s growth by first drawing a map of antitrust laws, and then devising routes to smoothly bypass them,” she wrote. “With its missionary zeal for consumers, Amazon has marched toward monopoly by singing the tune of contemporary antitrust.”