My experience with Amazon Shopper Panel

I wrote about Amazon Shopper Panel before. The program is on an invite-only basis. Essentially, participants upload 10 non-Amazon receipts (Whole Foods transactions aren’t counted either) every month to earn $10 in Amazon balance and have an opportunity to earn more by completing surveys. In my post, I wrote about the immense applications that can come from this initiative. This time, I want to update you with more details on the program. I myself received an invitation back in February 2021. If you are selected, you will receive an email like this

Amazon Shopper Panel Invitation
Figure 1 – Amazon Shopper Panel Invitation

The app is fairly simple. The first tab gives the user an overview of how much in rewards he or she has earned so far every month. The second tab is where receipts can be uploaded while the third tab houses all the surveys that Amazon wants you to complete. There are other routine sections such as FAQ, Contact Us, Legal Information and Sign Out that are tucked in a window that will open once you touch the three-dot symbol.

How Amazon Shopper Panel App Looks
Figure 2 – How Amazon Shopper Panel App Looks

Receipts can be uploaded via a phone camera. Based on my experience so far, the app is fairly receptive towards even wrinkled receipts and those that have small tears. Email receipts are qualified, as long as they are sent to receipts@panel.amazon.com from the same email that a participant uses to register an account. I got a car wash voucher from a dealership a while back and used it at a random fuel station in Omaha. The receipt from the car wash was still accepted, much to my surprise, because it didn’t have any card information. Since February 2021, I completed two surveys and received 25 cents for each. The surveys featured only one question each time and it was pretty basic such as, I paraphrase here, “where did you get information for your online purchases?”.

 Email receipts are accepted
Figure 3 – Email receipts are accepted
Even a car wash receipt without payment is accepted
Figure 4 – Even a car wash receipt without payment is accepted

Since starting to use the app, I have paid attention to how receipts differ from one another in terms of structure and layout. The computational process used to digest these receipt images will have to be pretty sophisticated to handle the intricacies and variety in how receipts are printed and captured. If Amazon can gain this ability to read images, it can be applied to other parts of their retail business.

Even if receipts are input by humans, the intelligence that Amazon may gain from this initiative will open up a lot of opportunities:

  • Design new private label products
  • Court other retail partners with unprecedented and reliable data
  • Support their ads business
  • Upsell current customers by understanding them better

My expectation is that Amazon will select enough folks from different backgrounds to join this effort. The participants have to be representative of consumers in America in terms of age, race, income and gender. Plus, the pool has to be big enough and the time period should be long enough so that the data can be statistically significant. As a result, at $10/participant/month, this initiative can reach 6 figures pretty fast. If the time and resources dedicated to the analysis task are factored, the expense will rise even higher. To other smaller retailers, the technical and financial barriers are not easy to overcome. To other retail giants like Walmart, I am surprised not to see a similar effort from them. This is the type of initiative where if your rival gains the first mover advantage, it will be a tall order to claw it back.

In life, there are skillsets which are very difficult to gain, but once mastered, can offer long-term leverage in various aspects of our life. Think: sales, writing, coding, human languages, cooking, fitness. In my opinion, this initiative belongs to the same category. If it proves to be successful, Amazon Shopper Panel can arm Amazon with intelligence and capabilities that are going to lift the company to even greater heights.

Disclosure: I have a position on Amazon and Walmart in my personal portfolio.

Weekly reading – 27th March 2021

What I wrote last week

Great reminders for clustered and busy minds

Business

Amazon Keeps Getting Sued for Paying Drivers Less Than Minimum Wage. It baffles me to see that minimum wages can be such a polarizing issue or that it doesn’t garner more public support. In my mind, the US retail market is too big for any company like Amazon to abandon. Hence, if all the states and the federal government enacted a minimum wage law, what would Amazon do? Leaving the US retail market? Moving their operations to California or Mexico while paying import taxes and incurring more transportation expenses?

An interesting read on the e-signature market. All the companies that sell software to companies should really beware Microsoft. If Microsoft decides to invest in its own e-signature product and embed it for free in Microsoft 365, it will be a huge threat to the likes of Docusign.

Case study: How Akamai weathered a surge in capacity growth

How Nike is using DTC and data to expand its empire. For a legendary brand that has always been technologically competent like Nike, the pandemic is perhaps a blessing in disguise as it spurred consumers towards shopping online and exploring what the company has to offer.

Even God Couldn’t Beat Dollar-Cost Averaging. An interesting look at Dollar Cost Averaging vs Buy The Dips.

What I found interesting

Google and the Age of Privacy Theater. It seems that the new privacy approach that Google announced a short while ago may just be for show and won’t improve user privacy much.

Facebook’s ‘Red Team X’ Hunts Bugs Beyond the Social Network’s Walls

Hospitals Hide Pricing Data From Search Results. I really really hope that the Biden administration will look into this issue and impose a hefty fine on hospitals that actually did this.

A Brief History of Semiconductors: How The US Cut Costs and Lost the Leading Edge

Perseverance and redemption can be a wonderful combination, you know? Pierre Gasly is a young French F1 driver. Admittedly, I wasn’t a fan of his, but he grew on me. He got promoted to a top team in his 2nd or 3rd season in F1, only to get demoted half way to the season to an inferior team. He was brutally criticized and doubted in the media. And his best friend died in a tragic incident shortly before his demotion news. Yet, Pierre persevered and has shone brightly after his demotion. He had his maiden F1 win last year in Italy. Sweet sweet redemption. Here is what he wrote on the Players’ Tribune.

Stats that you may find interesting

42% of surveyed Americans reported an average weight gain of almost 30 lbs, according to the American Psychological Association

45% Bridge Millennials would switch grocers for access to contactless in-store payment

DOE aims to cut solar costs to 2 cents per kWh

Renewable energy met 97% of Scotland’s demand in 2020

Book Review: Working Backwards: Insights, Stories and Secrets From Inside Amazon

I always cherish a read that reports honestly on the culture of a company, pulling the curtain and providing details on what works, what processes the company used to forge the culture or the “tribe” that they have. Working Backwards is such a book. It was written by two insider Amazon veterans who lived the experience. From a small startup in Seattle that sold books online in the 1990s, Amazon has grown over time to become a household name in the world, a brand trusted by many and a competitor feared by rivals. It’s marching nicely towards generating $400+ billion in annual sales and currently employing over 1 million people. When a company consists of a small team of folks, management and the instillation of culture are straightforward. However, it’s another issue to manage more than 1 million people and still maintain the culture. How did Amazon do so?

“Our culture is four things: customer obsession instead of competitor obsession; willingness to think long term, with a longer investment horizon than most of our peers; eagerness to invent, which of course goes hand in hand with failure; and then, finally, taking professional pride in operational excellence.”

Excerpt From: Colin Bryar. “Working Backwards.”

When it comes to culture and corporate values, you may feel that a lot of companies just put together a list of sensible and sound-good sentences. That’s true. What makes one company different from another is how much the day-to-day operation is guided by its culture and how much the leaders exemplify it. From the very beginning, Jeff Bezos already showed the importance of customer obsession, setting the tone for the #1 value at Amazon for years to come. When employees see the CEO walk the walk, instead of just talking the talk, they believe in what he or she says and follows accordingly.

“From the tone of customer emails to the condition of the books and their packaging, Jeff had one simple rule: “It has to be perfect.” He’d remind his team that one bad customer experience would undo the goodwill of hundreds of perfect ones. When a coffee-table book arrived from the distributor with a scratch across the dust jacket, Jeff had customer service write to the customer to apologize and explain that, since coffee-table books are meant for display, a replacement copy was already on order, but shipment would be delayed—unless time was of the essence and they preferred the scratched copy right away. The customer loved the response, and decided to wait for the perfect copy while expressing their delight at receiving this surprise consideration.”

“Another of Jeff’s frequent exhortations to his small staff was that Amazon should always underpromise and overdeliver, to ensure that customer expectations were exceeded. One example of this principle was that the website clearly described standard shipping as U.S. Postal Service First-Class Mail. In actuality, all these shipments were sent by Priority Mail—a far more expensive option that guaranteed delivery within two to three business days anywhere in the United States. This was called out as a complimentary upgrade in the shipment-confirmation email. Thank-you emails for the upgrade included one that read, “You guys R going to make a billion dollars.” When Jeff saw it he roared with laughter, then printed a copy to take back to his office.”

Excerpt From: Colin Bryar. “Working Backwards.”

One of Amazon’s core values is Hire and Develop The Best. In the very beginning, staff was handpicked by Jeff Bezos, who has a notoriously high standard. As the hiring need grew substantially, Jeff couldn’t get involved in every hire any more. At one point, they ” had new people hiring new people hiring new people.” It became much more challenging to ensure the quality of every hire. Hence, The Bar Raiser program was created. The program’s purpose is to create a formal, scalable and repeatable process that can help with hiring the right people. Essentially, in addition to the normal practices such as having detailed Job Descriptions, phone screening and multi-team interviews, Amazon trains a team of interviewers whose goal is to identify in every new hire something that he or she can do better than a member of the existing team. The Bar Raiser cannot be the hiring manager or recruiter, but has the veto power to ultimately reject an applicant; though such a power is reportedly rarely exercised. It’s similar to having a new set of eyes that can review your work, whether it’s an essay or a code, and help remove the gut feelings out of the process as much as possible.

As Amazon’s business became increasingly multi-faceted and complex, how did the firm organize teams internally to be nimble, effective and innovative? The answers are: single-threaded leadership and two-pizza teams. The concept of single-threaded leadership is fairly simple: appoint someone to own a major initiative and remove all other responsibilities. Unburdened by other responsibilities, these single threaded leaders can devote all the time and energy to make their initiatives work and grow. More importantly, when a company wants to come up with new ideas, there is no way to gauge the results of the ideas without bringing them to real life and there is no point of doing so when there is nobody focused completely on that task alone. Andy Sassy, who will become the next CEO of Amazon in Q3 2021, used to be Jeff Bezos’ shadow and the single threaded leader for AWS. Other major successes at Amazon such as Prime, Kindle and Amazon Digital all resulted from having dedicated teams and leaders build them up from the ground.

“Amazon’s SVP of Devices, Dave Limp, summed up nicely what might happen next: “The best way to fail at inventing something is by making it somebody’s part-time job.”

And there is the two-pizza team. It’s normal in a working environment to depend on somebody else for your job. However, if there are too many dependencies, they will slow down the innovation process and reduce the efficiency of the whole company. To address that issue, Amazon came up with the two-pizza team concept. The idea is to have a small enough team that they can be fed with two pizzas. Each team is tasked with removing its dependencies and building out infrastructure and innovating. The sooner a team becomes unshackled by dependency on others, the sooner it can dedicate its resources to actual work and innovation. Each team functions like a small startup or a self-sustaining API that can work together if necessary, but doesn’t rely on others to be effective.

The next element of the Amazon Magic is my favorite: the importance of writing. At Amazon, Power Point is replaced by 6-page memos. The point is that writing a memo helps crystalize and sharpen ideas, as well as removes the limitations of a Power Point. Of course, Amazon still delivers presentations to partners, but internally, they rely on memos to ensure that the presenters think through the ideas/problems and don’t waste anybody’s time with half-baked thoughts. Another practice is to write a PR/FAQ for every new product/service idea. The idea is to envision the end result or customer experience that could come from a new idea, put it down to a one-page press release and work backwards to the details in an FAQ section.

I cannot tell you how many times I came up with an idea and after putting it to words on this blog, I realized how little I thought about it. Every time I write about something on this blog, it still may not be accurate, but the end product is much better than my original thought. At work, I also see it first hand. People have a lot of ideas in their head and shoot out ideas to everyone else. I am pretty confident that they didn’t take the time to work through the nuts and bolts, the logic, the challenges and ramifications of their ideas.

“The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than “writing” a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related. Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas”

“Pressed against this functional ceiling, yet needing to convey the depth and breadth of their team’s underlying work, a presenter—having spent considerable time pruning away content until it fits the PP format—fills it back in, verbally. As a result, the public speaking skills of the presenter, and the graphics arts expertise behind their slide deck, have an undue—and highly variable—effect on how well their ideas are understood. No matter how much work a team invests in developing a proposal or business analysis, its ultimate success can therefore hinge upon factors irrelevant to the issue at hand.

We’ve all seen presenters interrupted and questioned mid-presentation, then struggle to regain their balance by saying things like, “We’ll address that in a few slides.” The flow becomes turbulent, the audience frustrated, the presenter flustered. We all want to deep dive on important points but have to wait through the whole presentation before being satisfied that our questions won’t be answered somewhere later on. In virtually every PP presentation, we have to take handwritten notes throughout in order to record the verbal give-and-take that actually supplies the bulk of the information we need.

“Pressed against this functional ceiling, yet needing to convey the depth and breadth of their team’s underlying work, a presenter—having spent considerable time pruning away content until it fits the PP format—fills it back in, verbally. As a result, the public speaking skills of the presenter, and the graphics arts expertise behind their slide deck, have an undue—and highly variable—effect on how well their ideas are understood. No matter how much work a team invests in developing a proposal or business analysis, its ultimate success can therefore hinge upon factors irrelevant to the issue at hand.

We’ve all seen presenters interrupted and questioned mid-presentation, then struggle to regain their balance by saying things like, “We’ll address that in a few slides.” The flow becomes turbulent, the audience frustrated, the presenter flustered. We all want to deep dive on important points but have to wait through the whole presentation before being satisfied that our questions won’t be answered somewhere later on. In virtually every PP presentation, we have to take handwritten notes throughout in order to record the verbal give-and-take that actually supplies the bulk of the information we need. “The slide deck alone is usually insufficient to convey or serve as a record of the complete argument at hand.”

There are more great points, examples and details about Amazon’s culture from the book, apart from some of my favorite above. The book also touches on the value of thinking long term, being patient, removing defections at every level or controlling the input variables. With what I think are sensible decisions and policies, there is little wonder why Amazon is a success that it is today. In my opinion, there is no greater competitive advantage than having a robust culture that can foster a company’s mission and vision. You can replicate parts of operations or strategy, but it’s much harder to replicate a culture. Amazon managed to put together a strong culture, evidenced by their financial success and brand name, and it’s something that rivals will find highly challenging, if not impossible, to mirror.

This is a great read for business students or any curious mind that wants to know more about one of the greatest companies on Earth. If you are looking for such a read, I highly recommend it.

Disclosure: I own a position on Amazon.

Weekly reading – 13th February 2021

What I wrote last week

I reviewed Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved To Do Is Healthy And Rewarding, a book that talks about how important exercise is from a Human Evolution and Anthropology perspective

The importance of owning a relationship with your customers

I talked about Uber as a business and its acquisition of Drizly

Business

An interesting piece on the CEO of Adobe and his relationship with fellow CEOs

An interview with the richest man in Japan

A very interesting piece on the threat that Canva and Fima pose to Adobe

An interesting post on the culture of writing memos at Amazon

Bloomberg has a piece on how Tim Cook built his own version of Apple. Tim Cook’s version isn’t bad at all as the company is now worth $2.3 trillion

How Facebook is doubling down on Marketplace

What I found interesting

A story on Yuta Watanabe, a Japanese basketball player who is having a season in the NBA

According to a new study, Apple Watch can help identify Covid-19 symptoms

Interesting stats

Contactless payments are expected to grow by 6-8% after Covid

40% of consumers in the US that used a “Buy Now, Pay Later” service missed at least one payment

The App Store saw more than $10 billion in consumer spending in 2020

Apple Watch is reportedly worn on 100 million wrists

Weekly reading – 6th February 2021

What I wrote last week

My summary of Microsoft’s latest earnings, a giant with growth momentum

My estimate on Azure revenue

Bezos is stepping down (not really a shock), but Amazon is in a great shape

Business

I don’t always agree with all Ben’s takes, but his presentation here is pretty well-done

The NYTimes looked at the current infrastructure for electric vehicles which are becoming a force in the near future

It seems that Amazon’s struggles with its Game Studio come from the top

Apple in 2020: The Six Colors report card

A profile on Kaishou

The Facebook Oversight Board’s First Decisions: Ambitious, and Perhaps Impractical. A pretty good writeup on the first 5 decisions by the FOB. I think it’s great that the FOB came out swinging to prove at least up to now it’s not for show and it’s for business. It’s also great that it doesn’t put too much weight on the operationability of its decisions. That way, the decisions seem more dialogic and as a guide instead of being contaminated by expenses and profits.

Forbes’ writeup on Chegg, a subscription company that lets you solve your homework with the help of an army of experts from India. Every business needs to make money. That I can understand. But if somebody comes out and says that it encourages cheating, they also have a point.

A story on the implosion of Ample Hills, which was once Brooklyn’s hottest ice cream brand

The latest investment letter from RGA

What I found interesting

A professional photographer took incredible photos of the glaciers in Alaska, using iPhone 12 Pro Max

Have a look at an interesting mushroom farm in Vietnam

The ridiculous lack of understanding on Section 320 from lawmakers doesn’t seem limited to Republicans because Democrats have it too

An interesting piece on Arthur Hayes, the founder of BitMEX

Interesting stats

Another horrifying story about the US healthcare. I can’t believe what I read. A new parent had to deal with their newly born child being sick and the insurance company relied on red tape and the flaws of the system to exploit their customers. Imagine the horror of receiving a $270,000 bill.

US Distilleries made $31 billion in revenue in 2020, due to Covid-19. Premium liquor rose in popularity among consumers

In 2020, nearly 1 million Gen-Zers opened a trading account at Apex Clearing, most likely through a broker, with the average age of 19.

App downloads in January 2021 from Bank of America

Someone compiled data on customers for Fintech firms

Zelle processed more than $300 billion in 2020

Bezos is stepping down and Amazon is in a great shape

Arguably few have made headlines this week more than Jeff Bezos, the founder and current CEO of Amazon. The company announced yesterday that Bezos was stepping down in Q3 this year and is going to be replaced by Andy Jassy, the boss of AWS. While it is surprising, I hardly find the news shocking. Bezos hasn’t been on the company’s earnings calls for years. He appeared in front of Congress last year, showing that he didn’t know in details the company that he founded and is still running. To be clear, I don’t blame him. If he doesn’t spend much time in the office yet rather spends it on other projects that interest him and the company still does exceptionally well, why not? In his letter to the whole company, Bezos said:

I’m excited to announce that this Q3 I’ll transition to Executive Chair of the Amazon Board and Andy Jassy will become CEO. In the Exec Chair role, I intend to focus my energies and attention on new products and early initiatives.

As much as I still tap dance into the office, I’m excited about this transition. Millions of customers depend on us for our services, and more than a million employees depend on us for their livelihoods. Being the CEO of Amazon is a deep responsibility, and it’s consuming. When you have a responsibility like that, it’s hard to put attention on anything else. As Exec Chair I will stay engaged in important Amazon initiatives but also have the time and energy I need to focus on the Day 1 Fund, the Bezos Earth Fund, Blue Origin, The Washington Post, and my other passions. I’ve never had more energy, and this isn’t about retiring. I’m super passionate about the impact I think these organizations can have.

Source: Amazon

If you’re more interested in the strategic direction of the company and side projects, why not giving opportunity to someone else who is hungry for the top job and to manage the day-to-day operation. Plus, I don’t imagine he enjoyed being called to testify in front of Congress, especially when the regulatory scrutiny on big tech companies has intensified. And I think Amazon is in a great shape to continue to grow with the new CEO. Here is why:

Amazon recorded $125 billion in sales in Q4 FY2020, making its four-quarter rolling average revenue now almost $100 billion. For Q1 FY2021, Amazon’s guidance is to generate between $100 and $106 billion in revenue. More impressively, the quarterly revenue grew at least 37% YoY each. In terms of major business segments, North America is still the biggest piece of the pie, yet it still outgrows International and AWS. The latter is now a $45 billion run-rate business. Looking deeper at the business lines, Online Stores, 3rd Party Marketplace and AWS are still the three biggest, but the fastest growing is Advertising, which stands at the run rate of $21 billion. In terms profitability, Amazon used to run in the red with International. Not any more. International has been profitable for the last 3 consecutive quarters, making all three major business segments of Amazon profitable.

Furthermore, Amazon in Q4 FY2020 posted $31 billion free cash flow TTM, which is only slightly less than 50% of their operating cash flow TTM. It implies a heavy CAPEX back into the business. Also, Amazon, on average, spends about $15 billion a quarter on shipping costs, which constitutes around 23% of the combined sales of its Online Stores and 3rd Party Marketplace. While it’s a lot of money, if it helps Amazon achieve great services and customer satisfaction in multiple markets, it will be a tough challenge for anyone who wants to compete with them.

In my view, the results that Amazon boasted are nothing, but highly impressive. The company has a stellar reputation with consumers and owns the relationship. That’s why it can sell advertising, subscriptions, its own goods and goods of other parties. There are still a lot of room to grow. Not only can it still gain market share in the retail market in the US, but it can also expand internationally into more countries and continue its current profitability overseas. AWS can still grow, especially when Covid-109 has spurred companies to become digital. The brand, the scale and the infrastructure that Amazon put in place are gigantic advantages that aren’t easy for challengers to overcome. The culture that Bezos has instilled in the last 27 years is still there and even though he is passing the CEO torch, he is still around to take actions, if necessary.

Amazon's revenue and YoY growth
Figure 1 – Amazon’s 4-quarter rolling average in Revenue and quarter YoY Growth
Amazon Business Segments' Revenue
Figure 2 – Amazon’s Business Segments’ Revenue
Amazon's business segments' revenue
Figure 3 – Segment Revenue
Amazon's Operating Margin
Figure 4 – Amazon’s Operating Margin
Figure 5 - Amazon's Free Cash Flow TTM
Figure 5 – Amazon’s Free Cash Flow TTM
Amazon's Shipping Costs
Figure 6 – Amazon’s Shipping Costs

Weekly reading – 30th January 2021

What I wrote last week

What I like about Apple Fitness+

Business

An excellent write-up on the state of news outlets or local journalism in America. It’s astounding that half of the local news outlets are now owned by private equity, hedge funds or other investment firms

SoftBank’s plan to sell Arm to NVIDIA is hitting antitrust wall around the world

Brexit has major implications. Whether the net benefits are positive or not remains to be seen, but this new development doesn’t seem to benefit consumers: Mastercard is hiking fees

AirBnb conducted a new survey that said: One in five want their destination to be within driving distance of home. Not a very good sign for airlines

N26 got 7 million customers

Apple published a document that outlines its imminent privacy policies

Some notable data from a letter from YouTube CEO

Over the last three years, we’ve paid more than $30 billion to creators, artists, and media companies.

YouTube Gaming had 100 billion hours of content in 2020

Our Music and Premium Subscriptions have been growing quickly, reaching more than 30 million paid Members in the third quarter of last year.

Source: YouTube

Technology

A glimpse into JPMorgan Chase’s $12 billion annual tech budget. There are quite some interesting features that the interviewee shared

CB Insights has a write-up on 40 companies that are working on autonomous vehicles

A long but great list of big ideas from ARK

What I found interesting

How homogeneous is Japan

What does the night sky look like on Mars?

A French-Vietnamese woman is fighting for justice for victims of war crimes. It’s crazy that US and Korean veterans received compensations from chemical companies because their products which were used in the Vietnam War had life-altering effects. Yet, Vietnamese victims have not received any.

What I find is that it is often these kinds of multiple small mispriced insights that overtime compound to form a business which is very defensible and very difficult to replicate. The discovery of those multiple small insights really requires a bottom-up organic idiosyncratic investment process.

Source: Interview with Mark Walker from Tollymore Investment Partners

Weekly reading – 26th December 2020

Last episode of 2020

What I wrote last week

Amazon’s bullying tactics and my thoughts on some antitrust issues

My review of Wonder Woman 1984 and why I like it

Business

Streaming Is Stalling: Can Music Keep Up in the Attention Economy?

The economics of the human hair trade

The global boom in neobanks – digital banks

Reuters reported that Apple Car might be coming soon in a few years. Much as I want to see that happen, I still remain pretty doubtful

Substack has more than 250,000 paid subscribers and the top 10 publishers earn more than $10 million/year

The death of department stores

Telegram is approaching 500 million active users and selling ads

Technology

YouTube’s recommendations try to give you toxic content, alleged an engineer who used to work on their algorithm

A few folks rendered a million webpages to find out what made websites load slowly

What I found interesting

A 9000-year-old Stonehenge-like structure was found under a lake in Michigan

Early humans may have slept through devastating winters

An insider story on why Vietnamese people in South Korea sent their infants back to the homeland on repatriation flights

Some amazing photos of Phan Thiet, Vietnam some decades ago

Life of an Iranian woman in Iran during Covid and amidst crushing sanctions from the US. Every time I read these stories, I am thankful for the life I currently have in the US. Is it perfect? No. But I’d be a damn fool not to appreciate it.

What’s the danger with Vietnam’s motorcycle helmets?

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

Weekly reading – 19th December 2020

What I wrote last week

Adobe’s impressive performance and Disney’s true unveiling of Disney+

My thought on Apple vs Facebook and some data on iOS14 adoption

Business

Reviews of Apple Fitness+

Amazon is planning to offer a telehealth service to companies

A very interesting interview with the founder and CEO of Shopify on how to manage time.

A great letter from Brian Chesky on Ron Conway and his impact on AirBnb

Technology

This founder dodged a huge bullet after unintentionally racking up a Google Cloud Platform bill worth more than $70k+. Something to watch out for.

An interesting post that compares the new and old versions of Apple Map in Canada

What I found interesting

A new species of whales was discovered in Mexico. I kinda had mixed feelings after reading this. On one hand, I was glad we made this discovery. On the other, there may be some ignorant and greedy people trying to hunt them down for food or just an ego booster.

Reuters ran a piece on how the Coronavirus has evolved

A piece of good news. The Amazon seems to grow back

An inside story on how Pfizer achieved a miraculous feat in the race to produce a Covid-19 vaccine.