The SEC wants to know how much money Amazon makes from Prime

Prime is a big mystery.
Prime is a big mystery.
Image: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer
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A lot of the gifts under Americans’ Christmas trees this year likely arrived courtesy of Amazon Prime. But when Amazon releases its fourth-quarter financial figures early next year, we still may not get much insight into how much it made from its signature Prime membership program.

Amazon has long been tight-lipped about Prime, but the company’s boast earlier this year that it had 100 million paid Prime members drew scrutiny from the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The SEC has since pressed Amazon to disclose how much revenue it earns from Prime. “In future periodic reports, please disclose the percentage of net sales attributable to sales to Prime members versus sales to non-Prime members,” SEC accounting branch chief William Thompson wrote to Amazon (pdf) in August.

The SEC’s letter hinted at a broader theme. Technology corporations, with their sprawling empires of big data, ad sales, cloud storage, consumer services, and the many other things they do, have outgrown the conventional quarterly report. Amazon discloses standard information its filings: revenue, profit, operating cash flow and income. It breaks out important revenue segments, such as Amazon Web Services and third-party seller services. Yet these numbers give us little more than a glimpse inside the money-making machine that is Amazon.

The SEC sent a similar inquiry (pdf) to Google parent Alphabet in July 2017, requesting more insight into revenue from sales of digital content such as books and movies on Google Play, and how Alphabet determined when to recognize revenue for items in its “other revenues” segment. The SEC also probed (pdf) Alphabet’s corporate governance: What responsibilities did Alphabet co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have in key Google operating decisions? Could Google CEO Sundar Pichai make certain decisions without approval from Page and Brin?

Amazon in particular excels at trumpeting largely useless information. After the Thanksgiving holiday shopping weekend, for example, Amazon issued a triumphant press release: “Cyber Monday Once Again Becomes the Single Biggest Shopping Day in the Company’s History with the Most Products Ordered Worldwide.” The capitalization helped disguise that the statement contained little actual information. Amazon didn’t actually say anything about sales or revenue, and most items ordered doesn’t necessarily translate to most customer money spent.

Prime has long been a cornerstone of Amazon’s success and a key driver of growth. The $119-a-year subscription program (formerly $99 a year) comes with free two-day shipping for all and single- and same-day in eligible markets. It also grants access to Amazon Prime video, streaming music, and many other perks. Prime members spend $1,300 a year on Amazon compared to $1,000 for non-Prime members, according to data from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. They are also intensely loyal, with renewal rates topping 90%.

In other words, there’s a clear case to be made for the importance of Prime to Amazon’s business. But replying to the SEC in August, Amazon bristled at additional disclosures. “We respectfully do not believe that net sales attributable to Prime members versus sales to non-Prime members is meaningful or useful information,” Amazon wrote, adding that the SEC’s request didn’t align with the company’s understanding of Prime as “primarily a service designed to enhance overall customer experience and convenience.”

Amazon could arguably be pushed to provide such information under an accounting rule that took effect in 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported (paywall). So far the SEC has been lenient about additional disclosures, but it has indicated it might apply closer scrutiny for upcoming end-of-year disclosures, Compliance Week reported. That’s a win for anyone interested in transparency, and a blow to big tech’s game of smoke and mirrors.