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.

Weekly reading – 28th November 2020

What I wrote last week

I wrote about why I think Apple Card would be a significant credit card as Apple Pay grows more popular

I wrote about Target, Salesforce’s acquisition talk with Slack and Uber vs Lyft

I reviewed President Barack Obama’s new memoir “A Promised Land

Business

The difference in the business model between Booking.com and Expedia

NYTimes and The Washington Post expanded their subscriber base substantially in the last two years

Black Friday’s online shopping exceeded $5 billion

Amazon is strengthening its advantages with delivery capabilities that can rival UBS’

TikTok used its biggest stars in its legal fight against the US government

Research shows that unique visitors to Microsoft Teams far outnumbered those to Slack in October 2020

Technology

There are 123 Fintech startups in Vietnam in 2020. Most of them operate in the Payments area

Users of the new Macs with M1 referred to the hardware as having “alien technology”, “wicked” or “sockery”

What I found interesting

Hanoi and Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City is the second busiest domestic flight route in the world

This piece tells a story about how Utah uses collaboration and human touch to create policies that help foster the state’s equality and economy. Two quotes stand out to me

Utahns seem strongly committed to charitable works, by gov­ernment, alongside government or outside government. What­ever tools used are infused with an ethic of self-reliance that helps prevent dependency . . . when there’s a conflict between that ethic and mercy, Utah institutions err on the side of mercy

Betty Tingey, after seeing the news coverage about the Utah Compact, wrote to the Deseret News, “I don’t know much about politics except the sick feeling I get inside when there is constant arguing. . . . I don’t know how to settle debates, but I know a peaceful heart when I have one. I felt it when I read the Utah Compact.”

Source: American Affairs Journal

This clip about an 86-year-old baking master in Greece gave me mixed feelings. On one hand, I admire his work ethics, but on the other, it can be a condemnation of a system that forces old people to work this late in their life

Weekly readings – 21st November 2020

What I wrote last week

AirBnb S-1

Raving reviews on Apple’s new chip M1

Business

Digital ad spending is estimated to exceed traditional ad spending in the US this year

Amazon is about to make serious noise in the pharmaceutical industry

Intel and AMD have to talk about gigahertz and power because they are component providers and can only charge more by offering higher specifications. “We are a product company, and we built a beautiful product that has the tight integration of software and silicon,” Srouji boasted. “It’s not about the gigahertz and megahertz, but about what the customers are getting out of it.” 

Source: Why M1 matters to Apple

Technology

The Verge’s review of Apple Macbook Pro with M1 chip

What I found interesting

Republicans tend to sound the honk on the federal deficit when it’s convenient for them. Here is how BBC debunks the deficit myth

Why Obama fears for our democracy

It’s pretty heart-breaking to see what has been happening in Central Vietnam for the last few months. A Western reporter at Saigoneer courageously went there, took photos and wrote about it beautifully.

Weekly readings – 31st October 2020

What I wrote last week

Though AWS slowed, Amazon didn’t

My thoughts on Apple after their latest quarter and the last fiscal year

Business

Take-away lessons during the first 6 months of a Shopify employee. I find the read helpful, particularly the importance of understanding decision-makers’ attitude

From McDonald’s to Google: How Kelsey Hightower became one of the most respected people in cloud computing

Expensify CEO emailed his 10 million customers and asked them to vote for Biden. Though there are some who disagreed with him, they appreciated the openness. This is an example of how it should be done

Technology

Google announced Google One, a bundle that includes a VPN service, 2T of storage on Google Gmail & Drive and other benefits. Currently only available to Android devices in the US

Waymo made an unprecedented move to detail their behind-the-scene work on autonomous vehicles, including crashes and near-misses

What I found interesting

A story of a Uighur at a Chinese concentration camp

A study conducted by a Swedish university concluded that the Republican party has moved towards autocracies for the last 20 years

Brazil’s plan to exploit Amazon responsibly is in danger

A very eloquent, balanced and well-written endorsement for Joe Biden from The Economist

Just a hard breaking story from a Covid survivor in Texas

Though AWS slowed in growth, Amazon didn’t

Amazon continues to amaze me with another blow-out quarter in Q3 FY2020. Their total net sales increased by 37% compared to the same period a year ago, reaching $96 billion, while Operating Income increased by 96% from $3.2 billion in Q3 FY2019 to $6.2 billion this quarter. It’s an extraordinary growth for a company that generated more than $1 billion a day in net sales this quarter. Their gross margin in general didn’t change much from a year ago, but their operating margin increased by almost 200 basis points from 4.5% in Q3 2019 to 6.4% in Q3 FY2020. While the high level margin doesn’t look impressive, the devils are in the details if we look closer at their segments.

If we look at Norther America, International and AWS, all three were profitable this quarter with International, traditionally a money loser, being in the black for the second quarter in a row. AWS continues to be responsible for most of Amazon’s operating income as it carries a sweet 30% operating margin, compared to a meagre low single-digit from the other segments. Interestingly, AWS’s growth was the slowest among the three segments, recorded at 29%, compared to 39% of North America and 37% of International.

Source: Amazon

If we look at the results at a deeper level, specifically at the breakdowns into Online Stores, Physical Stores, AWS, 3rd party marketplace, Advertising and Subscriptions, the only area with negative growth in revenue is Physical Stores. 3rd party marketplace, Advertising and Online Stores notched the biggest growth, in that order, followed by Subscriptions and AWS. Regarding Subscriptions, Amazon reported that Prime now has 150 million subscribers with the service coming to its 20th country in Turkey.

Internationally, the number of Prime members who stream Prime Video grew by more than 80% year-over-year in the third quarter, and international customers more than doubled the hours of content they watched on Prime Video compared to last year.

Source: Amazon Q3 FY 2020

Even though Amazon is the master of operating at scale, innovating and squeezing efficiency from every step, I do think the expansion of Prime internationally helps with the increased performance of the International segment which has been profitable in two consecutive quarters. Of course, the decision makers at Amazon have data to see which markets can be improved by launching a high-margin subscription that makes customers stick around longer and shop more. So I wouldn’t surprised if Prime played a role in bolstering the profitability of Amazon’s International segment. So far, there are only 20 countries where Amazon Prime is available. When that number gets bigger, I predict that Amazon will be even bigger and more profitable than it already is; which is both admirable and scary.

When it comes to Amazon, advertising is unlikely the top 3 or 5 services that come to mind. Nonetheless, the segment brought in almost $5.4 billion this quarter, at the growth rate of a whopping 51%. To put that in consideration, neither Pinterest, Twitter nor Snapchat recorded even $1 billion in revenue in the most recent quarter (all of these companies reported results this month). Even Microsoft’s search advertising revenue this quarter was at only $1.8 billion, down from about $2 billion from the year before. As Amazon has an excellent relationship with customers (in general) and customers, when searching, already have intention to buy, this advertising business will not stop here. In fact, I do think it will continue to grow nicely in the future. A short while ago, I wrote about Amazon Shopper Panel, a new initiative by Amazon. The service will compensate shoppers if they send the company 10 eligible non-Amazon at-store receipts every month. This initiative, if done well, will empower Amazon with an unparalleled understanding of consumers, down to even the line items of a receipt. This understanding will bolster their advertising machine even more.

Source: Amazon

Amazon admitted that 2020 has been a big year for capital investments. The company aims to grow its fulfillment and logistics network by 50%, plowing around $12-13 billion in CAPEX this quarter or over $30 billion so far in 2020. That is an extraordinary amount of money allocated in growing assets. Not many companies even have that kind of numbers in revenue, let alone CAPEX. On top of that, Amazon reported that its shipping costs reached $15 billion this quarter. Fulfillment and shipping are hard as they are resource-intensive and require a mastery in operations to achieve the necessary efficiency. Any competitor that wishes to challenge Amazon needs to have a pocket deep enough to absorb these expenses; which constitutes a competitive advantage for the biggest e-Commerce player in the US. In the end, how many companies in the world could claim they generated $55 billion in trailing 12-month (TTM) Operating Cash Flow or $29 billion in trailing 12-month free cash flow?

In short, the business looks to be in a fantastic shape with amazing growth at a massive scale. Plus, there is plenty of room to grow for Amazon in the future with International expansion, Prime in more markets and advertising. Jeff Bezos is now a $200 billion man. I won’t be surprised if he reaches $300 billion in net worth in the future.

Amazon Shopper Panel – Amazon’s latest big bold move

Yesterday, Amazon announced a new initiative called Amazon Shopper Panel, which I think can have major ramifications for the company moving forward. Amazon Shopper Panel (ASP) is an opt-in and invite-only program in which participants can earn rewards by sending at least 10 eligible receipts a month to Amazon. To be eligible, receipts have to come from non-Amazon purchases, excluding even transactions at Whole Foods, Amazon Books or Amazon Go. There is no language on the minimum value that a receipt has to reach to be eligible. If a participant successfully sends 10 receipts to Amazon in a month, he or she can earn $10 in Amazon Balance or as a donation to a charity organization of their choosing. ASP’s participants can opt out at any time and delete previously posted receipts. In addition, participants can earn more rewards by completing surveys. There are few disclosures on what the surveys will be about and how much responders will earn for each survey. But my guess is that they will be aiding Amazon to complete a shopper’s profile with demographic information.

In my opinion, this is a consequential move for Amazon for the following reasons

Build an unmatched shopper database

As a retailer, one of the biggest challenges is to understand who your customers are and what they do outside of what transpires between you and them. If you are a Target shopper holding a Target-branded credit card, all they know about you is what takes place on Target’s website and between Target’s store walls. With some effort, Target may work with their credit card issuer to understand a bit about your spending behavior on your credit card. Unfortunately for Target, they have no idea on other parts of your consumer life and what you do. And you can bet that they want to know!

By compiling and analyzing receipts on a regular basis, Amazon can build a powerful and formidable database. Receipts carry a lot of information. Not only do they tell where you shop, when, how much you pay, how you pay and the frequency, but receipts also reveal what you buy down to an item level. Essentially, Amazon can theoretically know what vegetables, fruits or milk you buy every week. Normally, retailers can at best gather data down to a merchant level such as Walmart or Target. However, I don’t know of any retailer in the US that can basically gather intelligence down to that level of details.

Enable more sale on Amazon.com and Amazon’s private labels

The first application would obviously be to increase sale on Amazon.com, specifically the sale of Amazon’s higher-margin private labels. The intelligence Amazon gathers from ASP can help them decide which products can be produced as private labels, which can be marketed to whom and at what time. Information is worth as much, if not more, than money. Amazon operates at a scale that even a good idea or a degree of increased efficiency can mean millions of dollars.

Their Amazon Basics brand now has 3,000 SKUs.

Improve their ads business

Though small as a component of Amazon’s revenue, advertising is now a business with $20+ billion annual run rate and the latest YoY growth of 41% (as of Q2 FY2020). Advertisers like ads on Amazon because Amazon shoppers already have intention to buy, something that is lacking on Facebook and Google. When you search for something on Google or scroll down your Facebook Newsfeed, the intention to buy isn’t always there. However, if you go to Amazon, it’s likely that you will end up with an order and that’s what advertisers want. Though impressions are great, advertisers prefer much more hard cash coming from new purchases.

ASP gives the strongest and most reliable signal as to what shoppers are willing to pay for down to the item level, how much and when. Sophisticated and powerful as Facebook and Google are, they don’t have a system in place to know what shoppers buy in store. On the other hand, Amazon would be in a unique position to help advertisers place an ads to the right audience with the right message and at the right time. And to charge a little premium on that service as well. An expansion in advertising means an expansion for both revenue and gross margin for Amazon as this segment is surely more profitable than their online store.

Closing

The understanding of consumer behavior in physical stores carries a lot of value and offers potentially great applications. I am confident that somewhere some smart heads at Amazon already came up with more use cases than what I laid out above. Moreover, this kind of capability is pretty hard to emulate. To gain the intelligence that Amazon hopes to achieve, a company needs to have financial and technical resources that Amazon possesses. Having photos of receipts is one thing. Parsing out information and turning that into actionable intelligence is a completely different matter. while this move may raise red flags for privacy concerns, it’s a shrewd business move. In my opinion, there’s no better way to create a moat in retail than building up a deep understanding of consumers and leveraging your size, technical and financial advantages. I, for one, look forward to what this move will bring about.

Disclosure: I own Amazon stocks in my portfolio.

Weekly readings – 4th September 2020

What I wrote

I detailed my thoughts on the common criticisms of the App Store

I found a new business content website called InPractise and it is great!

My thoughts on Walmart’s new membership program called Walmart Plus

Business

Analyzing the Bentley Systems IPO Prospectus

A breakdown on Palantir’s S-1

Vietnam recorded 30 million daily online transactions in April 2020

Apple looks to expand its advertising business. I am not sure I am a fan of this move.

CB Insights deep dive into Stripe

Source: Credit Suisse
Image
Source: 2020 Debit Issuer Report

Technology

A developer’s account of trying to set up App Clip for his app

MongoDB History

Inside Amazon’s New Fresh Grocery Banner

Stuff I found interesting

Larry Ellison, one of the world’s richest people, asks for a second chance at charity

The Hustle’s piece on designers who help restaurants improve sales through menus

Electric bike owners progressively use cars less, finds study

Social media preferences in Vietnam. Source: Decision Labs

My thoughts on Walmart Plus

On Tuesday, Walmart unveiled its a long anticipated membership program called Walmart+. For $99/year, members can have unlimited free qualified deliveries from stores, fuel discounts at Walmart & Murphy stations as well as shopping tools such as scan & go to avoid long lines. To qualify for free shipping, deliveries must be $35 or more. Walmart said that there were more than 160,000 items available for this program, ranging from groceries, toys, household essentials to technology. Additionally, members can get 5 cents per gallon off at Walmart and Murphy gas stations. The company said that customers would be able to subscribe for this program starting 15th September 2020 with a 15-day trial.

How competitive is it?

Compared to Amazon Prime, Walmart Plus is years behind. First of all, at $119 a year, Amazon Prime includes many more additional benefits such as exclusive discounts, unlimited deliveries of qualified items without minimum purchase requirement, media & entertainment perks, just to name a few. Among the biggest benefits that Prime offers is the ability to get unlimited two-day delivery for low value items. I can’t count how many times I order stuff less than $15 individually. Second, Amazon carries a lot more items for Amazon Prime than Walmart. Third, when it comes to online shopping, it is a much more established name than its Arkansas-based rival. Shoppers trust Amazon and that’s a true competitive advantage.

What works for Walmart Plus in comparison to Amazon Prime, I believe, is that it offers less expensive groceries. My experience with shopping groceries on Prime is frustrating. I was confused about groceries on Amazon itself and then Whole Foods. Plus, they are not as cheap as groceries sold by Walmart. Hence, if customers are geared more towards grocery shopping, I think Walmart Plus can make a play there.

Other grocers or retailers follow almost the same playbook. Deliveries have to meet a certain threshold to be free and if retailers don’t handle delivery themselves, they’ll partner with Instacart. In that case, customers either pay a small fee for each delivery or enroll in a membership with Instacart (in either case, you are expected to tip drivers). Each retailer will appeal to shoppers in a different way. Take Aldi for example. Its unique selling point is inexpensive fresh groceries. Look for cheap grapes and great Greek yogurt? Head to Aldi. The downside is that Aldi carries few SKUs and less flexibility for shoppers. Target offers much more flexibility and choice as it carries more items, but its groceries are significantly more expensive than those at Aldi or Walmart, in my experience. Costco seems to match Walmart on the grocery front. A Costco member (at least $60/year) can have free grocery delivery for orders of $35+. Groceries at Costco are competitive in prices, compared to those sold at Walmart. Other items can have free delivery too, and with no minimum order requirement, but it will take at least two days.

Figure 1 – Delivery options at Costco. Source: Costco

There are other important players in this space such as Instacart and Shipt. Instacart Express or Ship membership is almost identical to Walmart Plus. Both cap membership fees at $99/year and a qualified basket has to be $35 or more. Unlike Walmart, Instacart is more focused, almost exclusively, on grocery delivery. Shipt is similar to Instacart and owned by Target, but also delivers for other brands as well. An advantage that Shipt or Instacart has is their network of partners. Walmart Plus works only for items sold by Walmart. With Shipt or Instacart; however, shoppers can order from different stores that sell different private brands. It offers shoppers more choices and flexibility. This is the list of retailers partnering with Instacart at where I live. I am sure in bigger cities, the list will be much longer

Figure 2 – Retailers that partner with Instacart in Omaha. Source: Instacart

It’s worth pointing out that even though you can order from multiple stores within Instacart, each store has its own check-out and minimum purchase requirement. The value for customers here is that they won’t have to create an account or download multiple apps on their phone. Within Instacart, they can place orders from different apps. What works for Walmart against the likes of Instacart is that Walmart offers non-grocery items for deliveries as well. Walmart Plus also offers fuel discounts, something that isn’t possible with Instacart.

This is how I think about the positioning of a few retailers who either have their own delivery programs such as Walmart or Amazon, or have their delivery powered by Instacart/Shipt

Figure 3 – 2×2 positioning metric

Among the ones I picked to analyze, Costco is the most similar to Walmart in terms of positioning. Their assortments and offering of inexpensive groceries are pretty similar. While Costco membership, the lowest level at $60/year, is cheaper than Walmart Plus, the fuel discounts and in-store shopping tools from Walmart make the comparison interesting. As far as I am concerned, Murphy and Costco stations are pretty similar in gas prices. Throwing in another 5 cent discount can be attractive to shoppers who drive a lot. Plus, in-store shopping perks like Scan & Go and pay with Walmart Pay can offer extra flexibility. Sometimes, we just need one or two quick items that wouldn’t qualify for a free shipping and we don’t mind stopping at a store for a few minutes. These shopping perks can make life a little bit easier for shoppers to get in and out of a store quickly.

What’s next?

It’s both interesting and challenging to look at this space as there are so many ways to slice and dice. For instance, Walmart Plus enables Walmart to keep their faithful customers from joining the likes of Instacart. If somebody tends to shop more at Walmart for groceries, they now have more reasons to stick to the brand. If some people usually shop at Costco, both Costco and Walmart have its appeal and the decision will rest with each shopper. For those who like to shop non-grocery items a lot and prefer the convenience, I don’t think Walmart Plus stands a chance against Prime yet. If some shoppers prefer the flexibility of ordering from multiple stores within one app, Instacart is the way to go.

Walmart Plus has tailwinds behind it. First, various stores across the country will power their delivery and be a huge competitive advantage. Few retailers can rival Walmart in this sense. Second, the ongoing pandemic and the explosion of grocery eCommerce are significant positive trends for Walmart. Moving forward, Walmart will likely continue to add more benefits to its membership program. The most obvious play is to expand the selection, pushing Walmart’s position in Figure 3 to the right. The more items are available for delivery, the more attractive Walmart Plus will be. Another idea is to mirror what Amazon did with Prime by throwing in other perks such as books, music, movies, etc…I suspect Walmart won’t increase Walmart Plus membership fees in the next two years at least. It took Amazon almost ten years to increase Prime’s fees from $79 to $99/year and another four years to $119.

The future isn’t without challenges for Walmart Plus. There is really subscription fatigue among consumers. How many consumers are willing to spend money on entertainment subscriptions (Netflix, Spotify, Disney Plus…), Amazon Prime or Instacart or Costco membership and then Walmart Plus. The economic uncertainty may be a factor as well. Folks may try to tighten their budget more and not have enough disposable income for another subscription. Plus, as Walmart moves to make its membership program more attractive, others don’t stand still. Instacart will continuously expand its partnership network. Amazon will definitely work to move more into grocery delivery.