Amazon’s bully tactics and my thoughts on antitrust issues

WSJ ran a piece analyzing Amazon’s tactics in defeating businesses that were first partners, but became rivals standing in the way of Amazon’s private labels. It got me to think about when behavior from big and established companies became unlawful and unacceptable and when the behavior just stemmed from the drive to be more competitive. To me, there are three different aspects to this issue: the launch of competitive products or services against smaller businesses, the price undercut and the downright bullying. Let’s look at them one by one

Big techs’ launch of services and products against smaller businesses

Critics of big techs often accuse them of antitrust behavior when the companies launch a feature similar to what other smaller businesses offer. As these big tech firms usually own the customer relationship and hence important distribution, they have a clear advantage in promoting and selling the feature than smaller competitors do with their main products. To be clear, I am NOT against giants taking advantage of the data generated from their popular platforms for several reasons:

  • If a company wants to launch something new that is a response to a market threat and can potentially benefit the end users, why should it not be allowed to?
  • Yes, platforms like Amazon or Apple have a huge advantage at their disposal: data on consumer behavior. But how is that different from getting marketing intelligence from somewhere else? The difference here is that these platforms own the data, but first they have to WORK to build these platforms and maintain them
  • Retailers have their own private labels all the time. It’s hardly a surprise that they observe brands that rent spaces on their premises and subsequently launch their own labels
  • Copying others is what almost every business does to some degree

For these reasons, I don’t think the launch of services like Apple Music itself is an antitrust behavior by Apple. Clearly, the advantages over Spotify are 1/ the app is pre-loaded and 2/ Apple owns the operating systems and customer relationship. Plus, it’s not like consumers can’t download Spotify on Apple’s devices. There is a bit more friction involved compared to the effortless experience with Apple Music, but that’s the price you have to pay for when relying on others. I wrote about Slack’s lawsuit against Microsoft before. In that piece, I argued that Microsoft, in all their Microsoft365 offerings, has at least one option that doesn’t bundle Teams. Moreover, as in the case of Apple against Spotify, companies are free to add Slack to their stack besides Office365. Surely, Slack has a lot more convincing to do as it has to persuade companies that the additional expense each month is worth the extra utility from Slack compared to Teams. Nonetheless, that’s the nature of the competition and I do think Microsoft is within its rights to bundle Teams the way it does.

In this sense, if Amazon wants to introduce a private label in a certain category, based on their data, they are within their rights. Plus, consumers have one more option at their disposal. I personally don’t see a problem with that. If I were Jeff Bezos, I would do the same and you would be hard-pressed to say you’d do it differently.

Zappos, the online shoe marketplace, and its late CEO Tony Hsieh, successfully outmaneuvered Amazon and beat them into submission in the form of an acquisition that allowed Tony and his company a degree of autonomy from the parent company. In the book “The Innovation Stack“, the founder of Square talked about the pressure from Amazon in Square’s early days. Although much smaller than the Seattle-based company, Square managed to beat Amazon with their superior products and services. Why am I mentioning these examples? They serve as a reminder that small businesses can defeat much bigger resource-rich competitors.

Predatory Pricing

From the WSJ piece:

In a June 2010 email chain that included Mr. Bezos, a senior executive laid out tactics, saying “We have already initiated a more aggressive ‘plan to win’ against diapers.com in the diaper/baby space,” a plan that included doubling Amazon’s discounts on diapers and baby wipes to 30% off, and a free Prime program for new moms.

When Amazon cut diaper prices by 30%, Quidsi executives were shocked and ran an analysis that determined Amazon was losing $7 for every box of diapers, former Quidsi board members said. Senior Quidsi executives were even more surprised when, the day of the price cuts, Jeff Blackburn, a top lieutenant to Mr. Bezos, approached a Quidsi board member saying the company should sell itself to Amazon, said a person familiar with the matter. At that point, Quidsi wasn’t for sale and had big growth plans.

Quidsi started to unravel after Amazon’s price cuts, said Leonard Lodish, a Quidsi board member at the time, missing its internal monthly projections for the first time since 2005. The company felt it had no choice but to sell itself because it couldn’t compete with what Amazon was doing and survive. Amazon bought Quidsi in 2010 for about $500 million. It shut down Diapers.com in 2017, saying it was unprofitable.

“What Amazon did was against the law. They were selling diapers for below cost,” said Mr. Lodish. “But what were we going to do? Sue Amazon for antitrust? It would take years and tens of millions of dollars and we’d be bankrupt by then.”

Source: WSJ

When it comes to predatory pricing, it’s a bit more complicated. First of all, to many consumers, a giant like Amazon bullying a smaller rival like Diapers.com looks very distasteful, but to the FTC, it may not necessarily be illegal. Here is what the FTC currently says about predatory pricing

Source: FTC

Pricing below your competitors isn’t unique. What could get Amazon into legal trouble is whether it is establishing a monopoly in, as in this case, the diapers market and harming the consumers by raising the prices after eliminating competitors. Apparently, that hasn’t been the case. Last time I checked, there are more than one diaper brand on Amazon’s website and on the market in general. Plus, pricing is just one part of the value propositions a company can offer to consumers. Most car companies in the world will have a lower price than Ferrari, but the Italian company is still one of the most luxurious brands in the world and its customers still crave for its cars every year. It’s true that in some categories, prices are the dominant feature, but it’s NOT the only reason why consumers make the purchase decision.

Furthermore, one can argue that Apple Music, because it is owned by Apple, isn’t subject to the 15%/30% commission that 3rd-party app like Spotify is. Said another way, Spotify has to raise its prices to maintain its margin and as a result, make itself less competitive than Apple Music. That may be true, but once again, because there are alternatives to Apple Music on Apple devices such as YouTube, Amazon, SoundCloud and Spotify itself and because Apple Music isn’t the cheapest of all, in the eyes of the FTC, it is not illegal.

Where it gets unacceptable

Again, from the WSJ article:

At its height about a decade ago, Pirate Trading LLC was selling more than $3.5 million a year of its Ravelli-brand camera tripods—one of its bestselling products—on Amazon, said owner Dalen Thomas.

In 2011, Amazon began launching its own versions of six of Pirate Trading’s top-selling tripods under its AmazonBasics label, he said. Mr. Thomas ordered one of the Amazon tripods and found it had the same components and shared Pirate Trading’s design. For its AmazonBasics products, Amazon used the same manufacturer that Pirate Trading had used.

Amazon priced one of its clone tripods below what Mr. Thomas paid his manufacturer to have Pirate Trading’s version made, he said. He determined it would be cheaper to buy Amazon’s versions, repackage and resell them than to buy and sell them on the terms he had been getting; he decided not to do that.

Amazon suspended Pirate Trading camera tripod models that competed with the AmazonBasics versions repeatedly, Mr. Thomas said, alleging his tripods had authenticity issues. Amazon rarely suspended the tripod models that didn’t compete with AmazonBasics versions, he said. In 2015, Amazon fully suspended all Ravelli products, he said, and his company’s tripod business is now a fraction of the size it was. Mr. Thomas said he found being a seller on Amazon too risky and has largely pivoted to real-estate investing.

Several Amazon sellers said they have received notifications from Amazon, which has been battling fraud and fake goods on its platform, that say their products are used or counterfeit. Amazon suspends their selling accounts until they can prove that the products are legitimate, which can cause big sellers to lose tens of thousands of dollars each day, they said.

To turn their accounts back on, Amazon often requests that the sellers provide details on who manufactures their product along with invoices from the manufacturer so that Amazon can verify authenticity. Several sellers told the Journal they provided those details to Amazon to get their accounts reinstated, only for Amazon to introduce its own version of their products using the same manufacturer.

Source: WSJ

This is an example of under-handed and antitrust behavior that I think should be outlawed and punished. Here, Amazon used its authority and position to extract crucial information from other sellers and in turn, took advantage of the information to launch competing products. It’s one thing for Amazon to find out where sellers source their products on their own. It’s another for Amazon to leverage its position to do so. Worse, it disrupted Pirate Trading’s business repeatedly for unclear reasons and allegedly benefited its competing private label. This type of bullying behavior should be condemned and regulated.

In that sense, I don’t think it will be right for the likes of Apple to do the following to 3rd-party apps:

  • Make it hard for them to publish updates and features
  • Prevent them from being on the App Store without just cause
  • Extract proprietary information and use it against the 3rd-party apps

In short, it’s complicated and nuanced to determine whether a behavior from an established form should be punished and outlawed or whether it’s just the nature of business. My observation is that people usually jump into accusations and judgements too quickly, as well as collapse multiple issues into one. Regulations regarding antitrust in the future need to balance between letting companies, regardless of size, compete out of merits and making sure that bullying behavior is punished accordingly. That’s no small feat. That’s hard as you can by now imagine. But our society only advances when we make difficult accomplishments, doesn’t it?

Disclaimer: I own Apple, Microsoft, Spotify and Amazon stocks in my portfolio

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