Q1 2018 Update on
What Amazon Means For The Rest Of Us
We published Gorilla Mode on October 26th, 2017 and within two days, enough new information had been released to merit an update on Amazon’s activities. Tracking Amazon is an ongoing battle with relevancy.
What is useful to other businesses is how Amazon’s areas of focus shift over time, and whether they become a relevant threat or opportunity. In short, we must keep an eye on when to prepare for battle - or when to surrender.
This update focuses on:
- Amazon’s battle for talent, and how it threatens other employers
- Amazon’s battle for customer dollars, and who it’s taking from
- Amazon’s battle for data, and how the accumulated insights pose a compounding competitive threat
- Amazon’s battle for growth, which shows both where the corporation hasn’t yet conquered opportunity and also the scale at which they are attempting to do so
- Changing alliances, including an outline of the major ways in which companies can work with Amazon and the embedded threats
THE BATTLE FOR TALENT
Amazon is the second-largest U.S.-based corporate employer. As of December 31st, 2017, the company reported having 566,000 employees, excluding contractors and temporary workers, and a 66 percent increase from year-end 2016. Roughly 40,000 of those employees are based in Seattle, with the rest being distributed at 327 locations around the country. In short, Amazon is in fierce competition for talent.
The company’s talent target profile ranges from academics with deep expertise in artificial intelligence to warehouse workers pulling items from shelves alongside robots. Getting creative to meet some talent needs, the company targets niche communities like retirees that primarily live in their RVs (known as the seasonal Camperforce).
While the search for new talent may be constant, not everyone wants to work for Amazon. The company has recently had bad press around the use of technology, such as wristbands, de-valuing people with Big Brother-like monitoring and enforcing unrealistic productivity standards. And in February 2018, “head count adjustments” were announced, which included several hundred layoffs, largely of “underperformers,” at the corporate headquarters. In reaction to the news, one employee said, “People are in terrible shape… There is so much stress on campus.”
Yet, the company has over 12,500 open positions listed publicly, and announced plans late last year to open a second headquarters (“HQ2”) where future hiring may include up to 50,000 jobs. Once determined, talent competition in one of the 20 remaining potential cities will become even more aggressive.
Finally, made alongside Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase & Co., the announcement of a new healthcare company, affectionately called Berkmazon Morgan around the adventur.es office, to serve the three companies’ combined 1 million employees shows that even the biggest corporations continue to battle frustrating external forces in relation to talent costs. With their $1.6 trillion combined market cap, these companies may actually be able to do something about it - at least for their internal teams. “Hard as it might be, reducing health care’s burden on the economy while improving outcomes for employees and their families would be worth the effort,” said Bezos. There was some teasing that the new entity’s offerings may be extended to other companies in the future, but, of course, no promises were made.
THE BATTLE FOR CUSTOMERS
As has been clear from the beginning, Amazon’s singular focus remains on the customer, but the definition of customer and the ways in which Amazon fulfills their needs continues to evolve.
Over the years, the expectation among end consumers is that Amazon is getting the best possible price on their behalf. However, price doesn’t seem to be the only focus area on Amazon’s happiness checklist, and may be losing its luster in some product categories. For instance, Profitero found that Walmart.com is 1 percent less expensive than Amazon for beauty products. Amazon still expects low prices, but others are working to keep relative pace. For Amazon, the selection process is already ingrained with the customer: in a study, less than 1 percent of Prime members even considered browsing another site in the same shopping session. Said differently, almost none of Amazon’s customers care about price.
Prime continues to be the linchpin connecting Amazon’s consumer-facing offerings. The key value, free 2-day shipping, is costing the company billions. But the data yield and shopping and lifestyle integration pay more billions, equating to a likely-never-to-be-disclosed customer lifetime value that would make most other brands clinically depressed. This is why the company ships over 100 million items for free in the United States. This is why the company introduced Amazon Key. This is why the company spent roughly $4.5 billion on video content development in 2017, representing the second largest video streaming network in the world, and acquired the rights to The Lord of the Rings. This is why the company tolerated 2017 shipping costs of $21.7 billion. With an estimated membership population of over 90 million households who purchased over 5 billion items last year, Amazon Prime pays.
Beyond efforts to enter highly regulated product categories like prescription pharmaceuticals (which it has in Japan), the biggest challenge for Amazon to continue to grow its relationships with American consumers seems to be centered around offline, physical demands to deliver: namely brick-and-mortar operations and shipping. And 2018 looks to be a major investment year for both.
Amazon has been experimenting with how to use the brick-and-mortar presence provided by the network of Whole Foods locations. Along with Kohl’s, locations accept returns on items purchased on Amazon.com. In four cities, stores are now delivering groceries within two hours of ordering to people’s home as an extension of Prime Pantry. They are also experimenting with how to use physical shelf space both to test new brands and increase profitability, which has put pressure on suppliers and forced some small brands to opt out of the stores.
By contrast, the single location Amazon Go concept store is testing what tech-enabled retail could be. There are no checkout counters, and all purchases are seamlessly connected to the customer’s Amazon account. This differs from other automated retail experiments in that the computer visioning software being used does not require that each item be individually tagged with a chip or tag; items are recognized visually. For the customer, it means once they have what they need in their bag, they can just walk out. As The New York Times put it, “Without a register staring them in the face at checkout, it’s easy to overspend.”
All brick-and-mortar locations are providing Amazon with ample data on how purchase decisions differ offline, and creating more venues to expose consumers to and promote private label brands and Amazon devices like Alexa. But retail still requires the customer to make an effort, and that brings us to shipping.
Shipping has historically been one of the only areas in which Amazon relies heavily on third parties to help fulfill their direct brand promise to customers. And sometimes the third parties have failed, with the chief example being in one particularly bad holiday season in December 2013. So when Amazon started expanding its warehousing space and leasing some trucks and some planes to supplement logistics needs, it did not seem unreasonable.
Now, the company has announced “Shipping with Amazon,” which will initially launch in Los Angeles later this year. Very few details about the program are publicly available at this point, but it seems to focus on urban areas in which Amazon is likely to have a volume of customers that take advantage of novel shipping offerings like “Same-Day Delivery,” “Two-Hour Delivery,” and other near-instantaneous gratification solutions for consumers.
While having strong pricing power due to volume with the major shipping and logistics brands, the company already posts a loss on shipping packages. “For every dollar of revenue, Amazon spends nearly 23 cents getting inventory delivered to end-users.” Ahead of the holiday season last year, UPS, FedEx and USPS all raised rates to handle the new standard of package volume they now carry (as opposed to letters). Amazon’s 2015 10-K filing suggests that Shipping with Amazon may be at least a partial solution to pricing battles and performance issues: “We rely on a limited number of shipping companies to deliver inventory to us and complete orders to our customers. If we are unable to negotiate acceptable terms with these companies or they experience performance problems or other difficulties, it could negatively impact our operating results and customer experience.”
Still, the initiative is unlikely to replace the existing carriers in any meaningful way in the near term. Amazon has lease agreements with delivery couriers and on up to 40 planes. To compare scale, the United Parcel Service owns and leases more than 500 aircraft and 100,000 package cars and other vehicles, and FedEx has roughly 650 aircraft and 150,000 trucks.
However, some of the pieces are in place to make a substantive challenge to others in future years. The company has over 121 million active square feet of space in the U.S. alone (grew about 30% last year). As of early 2016, Amazon is licensed to provide ocean freight services. They are building an air cargo hub. Their ever-growing patent portfolio includes potential new fulfillment concepts like the center for unmanned aerial vehicles. And in 2017, they spent an estimated $13.2 billion on “warehouses and other logistics buildup for its operations in North America,” a five-fold increase from 2015. But the company will have to make billions upon billions of dollars in new investment to vertically integrate all distribution. That seems unlikely.
Rather, the likely scenario is that Shipping with Amazon will represent ongoing pricing pressure to its logistics partners, and fuel seasonal, niche and experimental distribution needs, especially in dense urban areas. In the end, it means that Amazon will continue to provide the most reliable way for American consumers to receive what they want in record time.
THE BATTLE FOR DATA
Related to the company’s obsession with customer satisfaction is the idea of feedback loops. Amazon’s feedback loops only seem to be getting more precise, more detailed, and more proprietary.
With aggressive holiday pricing, “tens of millions” more voice-enabled Amazon devices like Alexa have been installed in households in the last few months. While the company insists it doesn’t collect any data without the user first commanding a voice-enabled device with “Alexa…,” they are clearly collecting mountains of it. Just check out this sampling shared by the company in a 2017 holiday press release:
- Alexa helped mix tens of thousands of cocktails this holiday season with Martini and Manhattan being the most requested drinks.
- The recipe for chocolate chip cookies was the most requested recipe this holiday season.
- The most requested song from Alexa customers this holiday season was “Jingle Bells.”
- The East Coast was more in the holiday spirit this season, asking Alexa to play holiday music 2.5x as many times as the West Coast.
- Alexa customers turned on their holiday lights more than a million times via Alexa this holiday season.
- Alexa customers asked for tens of millions of jokes this holiday season.
- The most common person people called this holiday season was 'Mom' in the U.S. and Germany, and 'Dad' in the U.K.
- Music listening time on Alexa was 3x as much this holiday season compared to last holiday season.
- Customers wished Alexa a Merry Christmas, Happy holidays and Happy Hanukkah 3.5x more this year when compared to last year's holiday season.
- People asked about Santa 4x as much this holiday season compared to last holiday season.
- Customers asked Alexa for cooking related advice more than 9x as much this year compared to last holiday season.
- The most requested movies this holiday season via Alexa were Trolls and Elf.
Of course, all the voice data is just a new addition to the existing network of data sources at Amazon’s fingertips. Whole Foods and Amazon Go are adding new layers of consumer data as well. And if you want to get into how quickly Amazon can monetize data-driven experiments, an example on-site optimization effort yielded a layout combination that increased purchases by 21 percent in one week.
The HQ2 pitches provided a different type of data. Imagine if your company needed to better understand major markets around the country to help make future investment decisions in logistics, as well as to determine where to place a second headquarters? 238 detailed pitches, volunteered to you for free, certainly won’t hurt.
THE BATTLE FOR GROWTH
As in any business, the best laid plans encounter unforeseen obstacles. And trying to substantively grow a business in pace with shareholder expectations that did $177.87 billion in 2017 revenue is no small growth ambition. Amazon benefits from its scale and decentralized system, allowing them to run a multitude of growth-oriented projects concurrently. But outside continued growth in its established North American marketplaces, the next “big thing” has yet to unveil itself.
When any business is asked about growth, a fairly generic answer is to enter new markets. That is often harder than it sounds, and has proved to be so for Amazon, too. In the fourth quarter of 2017, Amazon had overseas operating losses of $919 million, and $3.1 billion for the year. Where shipping and logistical solutions are limited, such as Guam, Amazon can’t compete for obvious reasons. Guam residents can’t get free shipping with Amazon Prime, and shipments take about 12 days to reach the island. The local K-mart, by contrast, does over $100 million in annual sales (compared to an average K-mart store’s revenue of $9 million).
Even where infrastructure is relatively advanced internationally, Amazon has faced multiple external obstacles. In Mexico, people are less likely to have credit cards, making online payments more challenging. In China, Alibaba often has cheaper prices and a much bigger market share. In the European Union, a judge ruled that luxury brands can control where and how its partners sell its products, meaning that small brick-and-mortar distributors and retailers cannot turn to Amazon’s marketplace to create a larger opportunity without their permission (although Amazon has “dragged its feet on shutting them down”). In India, they face competition from Flipkart, and have introduced bike couriers to help navigate heavy traffic congestion.
There have been reports that Amazon is seeking new Brazilian warehouse space, suggesting new international focus may be placed on South America. As Reuters put it, while over half the population has reliable access to the internet, e-commerce has been slow to take off “amid concerns over security and complications with tax and logistics in the continent-sized country.” Amazon’s international battles are far from over.
Another of the company’s growth initiatives seems to center around the rarely discussed, but growing Amazon Business marketplace. Launched in 2015, the marketplace now has over 1 million business customers, and 85,000 sellers shipping everything from screws to lab equipment. In its first year, Amazon Business did over $1 billion in sales, but Amazon has been relatively mum on its individual performance since.
Now, Amazon seems to be making specific efforts to grow Amazon Business in key industries, including healthcare. The company ran a beta test with a Midwestern hospital system to test whether the 150 outpatient clinics could reliably order medical supplies from Amazon Business. Amazon has obtained approval from multiple states’ pharmaceutical boards to become a wholesale distributor, and is working to broaden their portfolio of specialized offerings to the industry.
Such endeavors represent a credible threat to any distributor or other middleman in a business-to-business industry. Even if there are regulatory hurdles and established processes, if the market is attractive enough, expect Amazon to enter.
Finally, to put Amazon’s risk tolerance for growth in the spotlight, in comparison to cash coming in, there’s a lot of cash going out. As venture capitalist Benedict Evans put it, “Amazon invests cash from profitable units into the creation of new, unprofitable units, and you have no real idea of what the distribution looks like.” But we can get a general idea of scale from the public numbers.
Overall revenues grew 30.8% in 2017, totaling $177.87 billion and representing the largest percentage increase in revenue growth in recent years. According to the income statement, Amazon spent $22.62 billion on research & development. Net cash from all operating activities was $18.434 billion. Capital expenditures on fixed assets were $11.96 billion, or just under 65 percent of free cash flow. Not included in this calculation are the major acquisition of Whole Foods, many other smaller acquisitions, and other reinvestment activities. In total, net investing cash flow was $27.8 billion. What does this mean? Every dollar generated from the company is being reinvested, and then some. How many competitors can say the same?
While obstacles continue to pop up, Bezos and his team remain the 800-pound gorilla and continue their relentless pursuit. As Bezos put it, “We all get to choose our life stories. It’s our choices that define us, not our gifts. You can only be proud of your choices. You either choose a life of “ease and comfort”, or of “service and adventure”, and when you’re 80, you’ll be more proud of the latter.” Adventure it is.
Historically, businesses and individual sellers have been able to partner with Amazon to sell their offerings as part of the following programs:
Seller Central: This is the backbone of Amazon’s third-party marketplace. As a business owner, you continue to own the inventory. You may choose to use Fulfilled by Amazon (FBA), where you send the inventory Amazon to handle fulfillment for a fee, or use Manufactured Fulfilled Network, where you handle fulfillment in-house. Service providers booking work through Amazon Services also use the Seller Central platform.
Vendor Central: This is an invitation-only program. You are likely to encounter Amazon category managers who share these invitations at industry conferences and events. Once in the program, you are usually assigned a vendor manager, and have access to some tools not available through Seller Central. The most critical differentiation is that Amazon purchases the inventory from you through purchase orders, and retains the right to market and price those items as they see fit.
Vendor Express: In this program, Amazon still purchases the inventory, but it’s more of a self-service platform. You do not necessarily have a vendor manager, and tools are more limited than what is available through Vendor Central.
The specific features of and types of access within each program continue to evolve. Every seller is responsible for the content of their product pages. Promotional tools like lightning deals and Gold Box Deals are rarely available through Seller Central, and Amazon Pantry, Subscribe & Save, and some pay-per-click advertising options are excluded. If you use FBA, your products can become Prime eligible. Seller-fulfilled Prime shipping does exist, but there are high performance bars (e.g. must ship 99% of orders the same day you receive them). With Vendor Central, you get access to better marketing options and A+ product pages, but depending on your relationship tier, access to analytics may be limited and direct customer access may be nonexistent.
Recent changes continue to bring into focus Amazon’s aim to monetize its customer relationships, while delivering on their promise to consumers, and all of this is proving to be expensive for suppliers. The company launched Amazon Exclusives to promote products that can only be found on Amazon, and participating suppliers pay 5 percent over their category referral fee to take part in addition to agreeing to an exclusivity clause. The company offers the Amazon Early Reviewer Program in which brands can gain reputation in volume of reviews (which are not guaranteed to be positive); the brand is charged $60 per participating SKU and Amazon will reach out to past customers to generate 5 reviews. Amazon also recently began approaching major brands about paying for Amazon’s Choice designations, which boosts overall product rankings and is particularly influential on Alexa where limited choices are given.
Given the scale and engagement of Amazon’s customers, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that the advertising business, organized under the Amazon Media Group umbrella into Amazon Marketing Services (display, video, custom) and Amazon Advertising Platform (self-service PPC), continues to grow. The company grew its advertising revenues 58 and 60 percent year-over-year in the third and fourth quarters of 2017 respectively. Citi analysts have forecasted the the company’s ad sales will top $10.2 billion in 2018, and reach $50.6 billion by 2028. This continued growth stems from Amazon’s “total wallet approach.” Unlike Google or Facebook, people go to Amazon to buy (a.k.a. They have intent), all their information and purchase preference history is already stored (a.k.a. Better targeting and conversion), and the company can reconcile what they search for with what they actually buy.
So, should your brand sell through the Amazon empire? Some do find a version of success in “dancing with the Devil.” The New York Times published a detailed story in December about a product and a team who each found success on Amazon: the WyzeCam and SunValley Group. WyzeCam is $30 on Prime, while the product’s competition sells for about $200. The founders, all former Amazon employees, buy the necessary hardware direct from Chinese manufacturers, created their own software and cut out any other middlemen, including traditional retailers. They obsess over brand reviews.
Sunvalley Group created brands like VAVA and TaoTronics, and reported over $300 million in revenue for 2017, with 90 percent flowing through Amazon. With a model similar to that of the WyzeCam team in multiple product categories, SunValley Group has a team of customer service agents, invests substantially in the cosmetic design of its offerings, and “spends heavily” on Amazon advertising. The representative for the company said that the company’s gross margins are under 25 percent.
The article ended with a thought-provoking quote from Scot Wingo, the executive chairman of ChannelAdvisor, an e-commerce consulting firm: “There is this erosion of what it means to be a traditional consumer product brand. In a way, Amazon is providing all this information that replaces what you’d normally get from a brand, like reputation and trust. Amazon is becoming something like the umbrella brand, the only brand that matters.”
THE GORILLA EXERCISE
Because the gorilla is constantly growing and changing, whether to battle or partner with Amazon should be an ongoing thought exercise. As a business owner or operator, whenever you read updates like this one, evaluate a series of questions about your company:
- How do Amazon’s current and planned activities expose opportunities, threats and weaknesses for my business?
- At scale, what intelligence does Amazon have that could exploit our market?
- How do we facilitate ongoing exposure to current, past and prospective customers? What technologies are we reliant upon to do so?
- In what ways are our offerings validated by third parties? Think third-party rating systems, customer reviews, etc.
- How are we maintaining and investing in customer relationships?
- In what ways can Amazon lure customers away from our company? Think about free shipping, convenience, etc.
- If “your margin is my opportunity,” how much of a threat would transparent pricing and low margins be to my current business model? Are we prepared to defend our current pricing structures? How?
- In what ways is our business model reliant on other parties (e.g. distributors, suppliers)? How may their business models be disrupted by Amazon?
- In what ways are we reinvesting in our company? How do those investments protect us against Amazon and other competition, if at all?
- If we choose to partner with Amazon, how would we do so? What program would we use? What would we expect to give up? What would we expect to gain? What would we refuse to concede?
- For those not in partnership with Amazon, if someone secured $2 million to $10 million in funding, how could they set up an Amazon-enabled business model that would threaten our business?
- What is our value proposition in a marketplace where over half of customers start a search to buy something on Amazon?
And if you choose to battle, remember: