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.
Amazon has announced two grocery pickup locations that are free for Prime members – Recode (Mar 28, 2017)
These stores have been in the works for a while, and launch has felt imminent as people have spotted signs going up and other indications that they would be opening soon. So I’d take with a pinch of salt the slightly cynical take here that this announcement was a response to the negative Amazon Go story from yesterday. However, it is worth noting that these stores are opening to employees only for now, apparently with no set timeframe for public launch, though the pricing model is already clear: Prime subscribers get to use the service and these locations at no additional cost, versus the additional monthly fee Prime subscribers have to pay for Fresh delivery at the moment. As I pointed out earlier, this is a much less groundbreaking model than the Go concept, one that’s already being offered both in other markets (this piece mentions the UK) but here in the US too, with big grocery chains including my local Smith’s store. But it’s still a useful additional feature for an online-only (for now) grocery retailer to offer, and part of Amazon’s broader experimentation with physical retail.
The High-Speed Trading Behind Your Amazon Purchase – WSJ (Mar 27, 2017)
This is a fascinating article looking into some of the mechanics behind how Amazon’s third-party sellers price their products on the site. I was actually aware of quite a bit of this already because I have a neighbor who runs a business which operates as a third-party seller on Amazon, and he’s told me a little of how his company operates. This piece only has a couple of examples, but in essence these sellers hunt down product categories where there’s room for price arbitrage by undercutting the current lowest price while still maintaining a margin. Suppliers in China will make many of the products cheaply enough to allow undercutting of the current top option on the site, and so there’s this constant hunt for the next product category with an opportunity for becoming the top seller by offering a lower price. It’s obviously great for Amazon and for its customers to have sellers competing so aggressively for business, because it brings down prices and raises sales, but Christopher argues in this piece that in some cases the same computerized models sometimes lead to price increases rather than just drops. Well worth a read of the whole thing.
There’s a certain amount of schadenfreude around about this story this morning, both from tech observers and I suspect from other retailers smirking at Amazon’s apparent inability to deliver on its store of the future concept. The idea of tracking products as they’re taken off shelves, placed in baskets and then ultimately carried out of a shop has seemed enormously ambitious to me from the start, because there just seemed to be so many ways it could go wrong. And now it seems that Amazon is holding up the launch of its Amazon Go store to regular customers because the technology can’t handle more than 20 people in the store at once, people who move too quickly around the store, or products which get moved from their original locations. These all seem like obvious bugs to have been worked out early on in development, and also ones which will all get worse when you go from friendly employee testers to real-world customers, so it’s a bit baffling Amazon would have whiffed on this so badly this late in the game. I’m very curious what happens from here on: whether we see Amazon launch just a little later than planned, with the bugs fixed, whether it launches despite the bugs (and risk of under- or over-charging customers), or whether it keeps the store employee-only for quite a bit longer. The last scenario seems most likely at this point.
Amazon to acquire Souq, a Middle East clone once valued at $1B, for $650M – TechCrunch (Mar 23, 2017)
This would be one of Amazon’s biggest acquisitions to date, ranking fourth behind Zappos ($1.2 billion), Twitch ($970m), and Kiva Systems ($775m) if it goes ahead at the price reported here. And given how Amazon is competing with local competitors such as Flipkart in India and Alibaba in China, it’s interesting to see it absorbing a smaller one in a region where Amazon itself has no presence. Local infrastructure is critical to Amazon’s success elsewhere, and an acquisition like this potentially gives Amazon a huge head start in the region. I could definitely see it taking out more second-tier e-commerce players in other regions like this over the next few years as a way to accelerate its international growth.
I’m not sure if it’s admirable restraint not to mention Amazon once in this article, or if it’s denial. The retail apocalypse described here is clearly driven by growing e-commerce spending, and indeed a number of the specific companies cited are closing physical retail stores while maintaining an online presence. Amazon is of course not the only online retailer, but it’s a major force in both the growth of e-commerce in the US and in the decline of physical retail stores and demise of certain physical retail brands (Sears looks to be the next – and one of the biggest candidates for that category). Of course, though Amazon’s success is one cause, retailers’ own inability to transform their businesses to compete more effectively is another major one.
via Business Insider
Instagram has had buy buttons and other e-commerce features for a while now, but it looks like it will be adding an appointment booking feature soon too, in another attempt to allow company accounts to turn viewing of pictures into actual business. It’s been fascinating to watch how Instagram has been able to turn something as simple as a photo stream into something much more like a shop window for brands, something that was inspired at least in part by how certain merchants in emerging markets were using the platform even before Instagram added these features formally. The headline here mentions Yelp as a target, but of course many of these businesses themselves compete with Amazon and other big online retailers, and so these features also enable smaller businesses to punch somewhat above their weight in that fight.
I joked on Twitter earlier that this is basically Content ID for the physical world – Amazon is now allowing brands to register their intellectual property in physical goods, so that Amazon can more easily identify and remove from its listings any counterfeit goods. That’s important because the company has been increasingly criticized in recent months for selling knockoff items from counterfeiters without doing much about it, and in some cases those goods have even been dangerous (for example fake iPhone chargers and cables). This feels like a step in the right direction, but to draw another Google analogy, this is a bit like Google policing videos on YouTube – the raw scale here is impossible for human employees to monitor alone. In this case, Amazon needs customers and brands to flag counterfeit items, but at least this registry makes it easier to match those items to copyrighted originals and therefore to take them down more quickly.