Facebook has Sprawling, Unfocused Plans for Marketplace (Aug 18, 2017)
A company that owns technology for producing ready to eat meals that don’t require refrigeration says it’s been talking to Amazon about it, and that Amazon is looking into providing the food as part of its groceries offering. Because the food produced using the technology can stay on an unrefrigerated shelf for up to a year, it’d be a great fit for the more standard UPS-based delivery Amazon uses for non perishable items and wouldn’t require the much greater density of delivery infrastructure Amazon’s fresh grocery service does, and could therefore be offered much more widely. It’s a bit surprising to hear an Amazon partner (or potential partner) talk this openly about its relationship given Amazon’s general secrecy, which may yet scupper the deal. And the technology is still awaiting FDA approval, so there’s nothing imminent anyway. But it’s yet another sign that Amazon is really serious about making a bigger push in groceries, and that that push isn’t going to be restricted to just the Whole Foods footprint it’s in the process of acquiring.
NDTV’s Manish Singh has an interview with the head of consumer electronics sales for Amazon in India which provides several interesting insights on trends around smartphone sales there. It seems Amazon’s sales of smartphones in India have risen dramatically in India over the past year, up 100% overall but up by far higher percentages in the smaller cities around the country. Perhaps more importantly, Amazon is finding that a smartphone is often the first purchase a customer makes through the site, but in many cases turns the customer into an Amazon convert, with many other purchases following that first positive experience. In a sense, this is the equivalent of Facebook or Google pursuing strategies to expand internet access: the efforts are designed to create new potential customers who are more likely to be loyal to Amazon, though this would be even more effective if Amazon launched its own devices, something NDTV has previously reported it was working on. The piece here also talks about Amazon’s strategy of offering the broadest possible range of devices and brands while also securing the odd exclusive including phones from OnePlus and a particular model of the iPhone. That’s an interesting strategy in a market where a majority of smartphone sales are still made in offline retail, but online is an increasingly important channel. Overall, some good insights into both Amazon’s India strategy and the Indian smartphone market. Also worth noting: this separate story from NDTV on the new Nokia 6 (from HMD Global) hitting 1 million “registrations” (effectively a soft pre-order) on Amazon’s website in India, which is running some special promotions and bundles around the phone.
Amazon Has Over a Dozen Unmarked Private Label Brands (Aug 7, 2017)
Amazon Forces Refund Changes on Angry Sellers (Aug 2, 2017)
★ Amazon Reports Strong Growth, Much Smaller Margins in Q2 (Jul 27, 2017)
Amazon’s Meal Prep Service Has Already Quietly Launched (Jul 18, 2017)
It turns out that the Amazon meal prep service suggested by a recently filed trademark application has already launched quietly in some areas, including Seattle. Just as I suggested in my piece yesterday, it seems the service is being offered as a feature of the Amazon Fresh grocery shopping service, and is dubbed Amazon Meal Kits. Just as Amazon’s recently launched clothing box service Prime Wardrobe ditches the subscription element common with competing services, so the Meal Kits are one-off purchases rather than a subscription, which lowers the barriers to trying it out. The product is a box of ingredients with instructions on how to prepare a meal, and GeekWire managed to find a customer who’d used the service and enjoyed it. With the fairly low profile MealKits have for now, it’s not likely to have an immediate impact on competitors like BlueApron, but as it ramps up and starts to be promoted more heavily, it will start to gain significant share in this market where it’s available.
The EU has three open antitrust cases against Google, and has just announced its final decision in one of those cases, which concerns Google Shopping. Very briefly, EU law doesn’t punish dominance in a market per se, but does place limits on certain behavior by dominant companies, specifically those which give their other products and services an unfair advantage. The EU has concluded firstly that Google search is dominant in the EU, and secondly that Google abused that dominance by favoring its Google Shopping feature over other “comparison shopping services”. It has therefore set a €2.4 billion ($2.7bn) fine based on revenue from Google Shopping in 13 countries where it’s available since as long ago as 2008, with a threat to levy an additional 5% of Alphabet’s total revenue going forward if Google doesn’t comply with its directives within 90 days. Other than the fine, the directive says Google has to stop favoring Google Shopping over other comparison shopping services, presumably either by eliminating the Shopping box that appears at the top and merely allowing Google Shopping results to appear with the other blue links below, or by featuring every available comparison shopping service in that box at the top and letting users choose. Predictably, Google has said it feels the decision is wrong and may appeal.
On, then, to what this all means. Firstly, this is just the first in three separate cases, and I’ve previously written in depth about the one that concerns Android here and here. In its decision, the EU explicitly says that this case sets a precedent, which certainly suggests it’s likely to find and act similarly in the other two cases. Secondly, the fine is substantial, but ultimately not the biggest punishment for Google here. Rather, the most significant outcome is restrictions on promoting other Google services in search, which applies for today onto to Shopping but by implication would also affect other linked products that get prominent promotion in search results, whether Maps, News, or potentially other categories too. Put that together with the precedent point, and we’re very likely to see similar restrictions on bundling and promoting other services in Android and possibly other areas too. Thirdly, the decision is notable for a very European approach to defining markets, which I mentioned in one of those earlier pieces on Android: the EU tends to define markets in ways normal people probably wouldn’t, because that allows it to make findings that otherwise couldn’t be made. In this case, it’s defining Google Shopping as a comparison shopping service rather than just a more useful way to present shopping-related search results and/or ads, which is how Google sees them. Once you define Google Shopping in that way, then of course Google is unfairly promoting Google Shopping over other comparison shopping services – can you even name any others? Google’s own algorithm, which benefits only from being as good as possible, rarely ranks any others above the fourth page of organic search results, suggesting their limited relevance. But as long as the EU is determined to take that approach, I see very little Google can do to fight against this decision, because it’s based on a market definition the EU gets to decide on, and which Google is essentially powerless to change. Overall, this feels like something of a watershed moment in Google’s relationship with the EU – I think any appeal is very unlikely to succeed, and at most will push back the implementation of the decision and the forced unbending of Shopping from search. But there’s lots more to come here, and Google is going to end up operating very differently in the EU from the rest of the world as a result. See a recent case in Russia for a small sense of some of the possible implications of the Android case.
One quick note: I’ve used the term “EU” throughout for simplicity’s sake, but it’s worth noting that technically it’s a specific part of the EU organization, the European Commission, which is taking this action.
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.