Amazon has begun offering a discounted monthly Prime subscription for low income households. Specifically, it will offer those who receive food stamps a $5.99 per month option, compared to the standard $10.99 per month or $99 per year options. In a survey I did just over a year ago, it was very clear that lower income households were far less able to benefit from the subscription explosion and services like Prime than their wealthier counterparts – the chart linked here gives the summary of penetration of Prime by income, and the article here explains the rest of the detail, though it’s behind the Techpinions paywall. The reality is that it’s tough for households with low or unpredictable incomes to commit to annual subscriptions and even monthly subscriptions, so lowering the cost of the monthly option will make it more palatable while giving customers the flexibility to start and stop their subscriptions on a monthly basis. The WSJ article here focuses on Walmart as the target here, and that’s obviously a reasonable angle given Walmart’s success with lower-income shoppers, but this is really about expanding the addressable market for Prime, regardless of who’s currently capturing those customers. The Prime “flywheel” continues to be Amazon’s strongest competitive weapon, and bringing more households and the people who live in them into the base of Prime subscribers will continue to benefit Amazon enormously.
Though the original headline on this piece focuses on the e-commerce aspect, the actual content of the article makes clear that Google has every intention of serving up ads too. Google launched Shopping on Home a while back, so hearing that Google intends to monetize through e-commerce isn’t a huge surprise, but it’s interesting to hear confirmation from Google that this is its main focus, because though this is obviously a strength and a motivator for Amazon in this space, it clearly isn’t Google’s main focus. However, as I said, advertising is clearly a big part of that picture too, and it sounds like ads will mostly be served up as they are in other Google search products: alongside organic results when people are looking for something specific. The big question, then, is how that’s done – the first screen of classic Google search results has now been taken over by ads, something that only takes a scroll to get past, but that same experience on a voice device that majors on providing a single answer won’t fly. Linear interfaces like voice assistants can’t take up users’ time with ads before they get to the organic results. So despite these comments, there’s still lots we don’t know about how Google is going to make additional money from Home. And then there’s the point I made previously about the fact that charging real money for a device like this breaks the usual implied contract of free services coming with ads – users won’t have the same expectation of an ad-supported business model on a device like Home that they do with a free online service.
Amazon Debating Entry to Online Prescriptions Market (May 16, 2017)
Amazon today announced its earnings for Q1 2017. Revenues grew strongly, but as with Q4 the rate of growth was slower than it had been for most of last year. Operating margins also continue to fall, driven by a slight dip in AWS margins in the last couple of quarters and continued big losses in the International business. The feeling I have is that e-commerce growth is just a little slower than Amazon anticipated – several metrics it normally keeps within very narrow bands have crept out in the past couple of quarters. I take that as a sign that retailers like Walmart are fighting back more effectively, sacrificing margins in pursuit of higher growth, and that this is affecting Amazon’s growth rate (though it still remains far higher than any other retailer’s organic growth, online or otherwise). Following some additional disclosure in its 10-K last quarter, Amazon has now shaken up its reporting segments for the non-AWS business and provides a little more visibility into its subscription and fulfillment businesses. The subscription business – mostly Prime but also other smaller businesses like Audible – generated 5% of revenue. Fulfillment and related businesses generated 18% of revenues, and the growth of that third-party seller business on Amazon, which now accounts for 50% of units sold, continues to be an important driver of higher gross margins along with AWS. From the 10-K, I estimated that Amazon had roughly 70 million Prime subscribers at the end of last year, and though the quarterly numbers are a little harder to pass it looks like it may have seen decent growth this past quarter too. Prime continues to be one of Amazon’s greatest strengths as a driver of stickiness and revenue growth.
Alibaba is launching a program to help US businesses sell to Chinese consumers through its website. It’ll hold a conference in June at which it will offer training on all the ins and outs of doing business both through Alibaba specifically and in China generally, and all this is by way of fulfilling a promise CEO Jack Ma made to Donald Trump back in January. The US currently has a massive trade imbalance with China – exports from the US in 2015 were $161.6 billion, while imports were $497.8 billion – so rectifying that balance is a key priority for the US administration. But much of the current export volume to China is in categories that would be a poor fit for a platform like Alibaba – soybeans come top, both consumer and commercial vehicles are also major contributors, and much of the rest is made up by other commercial and industrial products. The US sells very few small consumer goods of the kind well suited to a platform like Alibaba, so any contribution made by Alibaba to reducing the trade deficit is going to be far more symbolic than material. In addition, the complexity of selling into China, where foreign-owned businesses are severely limited, will make it a fairly unappealing proposition for most US-based businesses relative to selling into the massive market on their own doorstep. I suspect this will be just another example of a Chinese tech company struggling to bring its model to the US (just as almost all US tech companies struggle going the other way).
via USA Today
Amazon Isn’t the Only Reason US Retail is Suffering (Apr 18, 2017)
Google Turns Image Search into an E-Commerce Funnel (Apr 13, 2017)
Google’s search advertising business is increasingly under threat from other sites pre-empting Google searches with their own search functions in specific areas, among them Amazon in e-commerce and Pinterest in fashion and other categories. As such, Google recently beefed up its image search function to serve up related results from its Shopping feature, and now also shows related images which show fashion products in use alongside other clothing or accessories. All of this is algorithmically generated without human curation, and leans on Google’s AI and machine learning technology. Google is going to have to get better and better at serving up results in these various categories if it’s to fend off the threat from the specialists, but if starting elsewhere has already become a habit for some users, they’ll never even see these Google advances.
Amazon’s Third-Party Sellers Hit By Hackers – WSJ (Apr 10, 2017)
The bigger you get in almost any technology business, the more hackers will try to find ways to infiltrate that business and skim off some of the money. That now appears to be happening at substantial scale with Amazon’s third party sellers, many of which are likely relatively unsophisticated from a computer security perspective. The hackers are engaging in at least two separate behaviors, in some cases merely redirecting sellers’ proceeds into different bank accounts, and in others taking over dormant seller accounts and posting fraudulent products. Though it sounds like Amazon is making both buyers and sellers whole, it could be doing more to prevent the issues from occurring in the first, place, not least by requiring two-factor authentication for seller accounts. Though there’s often reluctance to force 2FA on users in the consumer space, these aren’t consumers, and the amounts of money involved make that an entirely sensible precaution. Given how much of Amazon’s total sales goes through third party sellers at this point, this could become a massive issue if it doesn’t do more to lock things down.
Flipkart raises $1.4Bn from Tencent, eBay & Microsoft at $11.6Bn valuation, acquires eBay India – Economic Times (Apr 10, 2017)
There were recent rumors that Japan’s SoftBank might want to combine its investment in Snapdeal with an acquisition of Flipkart, but this funding news suggests that’s going to come later if it comes at all. The trio of companies investing here is intriguing. Tencent is perhaps the least surprising, as a company that invests heavily overseas including the US in minority stakes. eBay is apparently using this investment as a vehicle to buy into a bigger e-commerce business in India, as it’s transferring its own Indian operations to Flipkart as part of the process. Microsoft is the most interesting of all – though Flipkart recently switched to Azure for cloud services, Microsoft has no significant direct stake in an e-commerce anywhere else, so this is something of a departure for them, though of course major competitor Amazon already combines cloud and retail. Flipkart had in the past seemed to be the leader in the Indian e-commerce market, but has fallen from that role in the last couple of years as two overseas companies – Amazon and Alibaba – have made inroads there. This is a down round over the company’s previous valuation, but it and its new investors will be hoping the infusion of cash helps it get back into contention.
via Economic Times
In some ways, it’s very easy to predict what Amazon will do next in its e-commerce business, by simply identifying the biggest barriers to its continued growth. Which categories is it under-represented in? Clothing and groceries, and so you get private label clothing lines and various takes on combining online and other technologies with brick and mortar pickup. In the case of this item, we’re answering the question: what are the biggest remaining barriers to people buying stuff from Amazon online, to which at least part of the answer is that lots of people (around 7% of households in 2015) don’t have bank accounts or credit cards. Several times that number also regularly use check cashing, payday loan, and other related services, which expands the addressable market for something like Amazon Cash, which is intended to allow people to put money into an Amazon account by paying cash at a retailer. This is a logical next step in enabling more people to buy things from Amazon.com, and I expect we’ll see more efforts at this kind of thing going forward.
Amazon and Walmart are in an all-out price war that is terrifying America’s biggest brands – Recode (Mar 30, 2017)
This is a fascinating article that looks at the competitive dynamics between two of the most powerful companies in retail: Amazon and Walmart. Walmart is legendary for the pressure it puts on its suppliers to conform to price expectations, but it appears that it’s going even further in demanding that those suppliers get their costs and prices down so as to allow it to compete with Amazon more effectively. Meanwhile, Amazon is pricing in a way that’s not necessarily rational or consistent with generating profits, which means that the competition between the two, while great for customers in the short term, is likely unsustainable for both the retailers and their suppliers, and something will eventually have to give. No surprise, then, that some of the CPG companies are starting to look to alternative channels, though realistically no big brand can afford to be off either of these companies shelves – in warehouses or stores – for long. This is likely to get a lot uglier before it gets any better. Meanwhile, that means that we may see more slowing of growth at Amazon along the lines for what we saw a little of in Q4 last year, while Walmart and its ilk will continue to pursue stronger growth at lower margins.
To be honest, I’m surprised we haven’t seen more cynical takes on the idea that Amazon would shut down a business for not being profitable enough, given how razor-thin Amazon’s own margins on its core e-commerce business have been for years. It’s also surprising that Amazon hasn’t been able to do to this Quidsi business what it’s done for its own business and for other acquisitions like Zappos over the last few years. Diapers.com feels like very much the same core value proposition as some of Amazon’s other properties – great selection, good curation and other features, and so on – and yet it hasn’t been successful despite having Amazon’s backing and presumably access to its logistics and other operations. It sounds like the team will be wrapped into Amazon’s other operations at this point and of course Amazon already sells all the same items through its own site, so there’s probably no big net loss here for Amazon, because much of the business will just be redirected there. But it’s an unusual failure for Amazon in the e-commerce space.