Only Amazon knows the holiday-shopping records it says it’s breaking

Where is that record?
Where is that record?
Image: REUTERS/Ralph D. Freso
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‘Tis the season for Amazon to trumpet another record on its path to global e-commerce domination. ‘Tis also the season for Amazon to not quite disclose the sales records it is allegedly shattering.

On Dec. 26, the $700 billion tech giant announced another record-breaking 2018 holiday season, during which “more items [were] ordered worldwide than ever before,” though it didn’t disclose how many items that was. The company also said “tens of millions” of people started Prime free trials, though it has never disclosed the number of Prime subscribers it actually has, only that it’s more than 100 million.

Amazon disclosed a number of other incredibly specific holiday figures, including that Prime customers shipped more than a billion items for free—”more than a billion” appears unchanged from 2017—and that people “used Alexa to listen to hundreds of millions more hours of music,” “asked Alexa to turn on their holiday lights tens of millions of times,” and solicited Alexa’s help in mixing “hundreds of thousands of cocktails.”

Comparing the latest pronouncements to previous holiday seasons is mostly a game of swapping years. In 2017, Amazon said it “celebrated its biggest holiday season with customers all around the world shopping at record levels.” The 2016 holiday season, of course, was its “best-ever season.” In 2015, Amazon celebrated yet another “record-setting holiday.” In 2014? You guessed it. “Amazon Prime Experiences Another Record-Breaking Holiday Season.”

In the realm of hard numbers, US retailers did see the strongest sales growth in six years this holiday season (paywall). Between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24, online and offline retail sales hit $850 billion, up 5.1% from a year earlier, according to Mastercard. E-commerce kicked off the rally between Nov. 21 and Nov. 29 (Black Friday), during which online sales surged 26.4% (paywall) compared with a year earlier, according to Adobe Analytics.

While Amazon’s explosive growth is hard to deny, the company does make it difficult to quantify. Many of its press releases and earnings reports are filled with questionable metrics, from the number of packages shipped to how many reminders Alexa doled out. The standard financial information Amazon does disclose sheds little light on the complexity of its operations.

The US Securities and Exchange Commission has noticed, and is pressing Amazon to disclose more about how much it earns from services like 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 company was less than thrilled, responding that such a breakdown would not be “meaningful or useful information.”