Perhaps no other company in history has sold so many different products (354 million) while competing against so many other companies (hundreds). In the past, that power hasn’t lasted. Amazon is betting it will be different.
Amazon today is a retailer, a logistics network, a book publisher, a movie studio, a fashion designer, a hardware maker, a cloud services provider, and far, far more. The private equity firm Pitchbook estimatesthe company Jeff Bezos founded in 1994 competes head-to-head with at least 129 major corporations just in major markets. That number grows higher as it adds new business units such as fashion, food, and analytics.
The company so far has escaped serious antitrust scrutiny by US regulators in part because it can point to so many commercial adversaries with a piece of the market. Even in its primary business—e-commerce—Amazon only took in 23% of the $395 billion Americans spent online last year, and far less when that spending is broken down into individual markets. The one exception is books, where it controls about 65% of the e-book market.
But Amazon’s unprecedented logistics and delivery infrastructure, paired with access to personal data about Americans’ purchasing habits, means it is unique in the history of global commerce. No company has ever wielded this combination of consumer insight and infrastructure, say historians and legal analysts, which means the company grows stronger and less assailable with every purchase.
The seed of Bezos’s vision of a store that could sell everything was planted long ago. Bezos told shareholders (pdf) in 1998 that Amazon “may make decisions and weigh tradeoff differently than some companies…At this stage, we choose to prioritize growth because we believe that scale is central to achieving the potential of our business model.” Not much has changed. This year’s $13.7 billion Whole Foods acquisition, and Bezos’s purchase of The Washington Post in 2016, are merely stepping stone in Bezos’ globe-spanning ambitions.
Regulators are starting to size up whether Amazon is on the verge of becoming a monopoly. Amazon may find it doesn’t like the answer.
Everyone is a competitor
In industry after industry, Bezos is playing a ruthless game. The Amazon CEO charges into unsuspecting markets, slashes prices and waits for others to adjust or perish. The retail industry is a case in point. Out of 350 global retailers surveyed by JDA Software and PwC this year, only 10% say they have figured out how to make money off orders that involve both the web and their physical stores, thanks to high labor and logistical costs.
The Bezos adapt-or-die strategy is stressing out his fellow executives. In this year’s second quarter, 10% of all earnings calls in the US mentioned Amazon, including McDonald’s, Johnson & Johnson, and 3M, reportsReuters. The German drugmaker Bayer, which saw its profits fall 17% in the third quarter of 2017 as pharmacies closed, even has a name for it: “the Amazon Effect.”
Those mentions are largely from fear, says Rob Siegel, a lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. He interviews dozens of global business leaders in industries from finance to packaged goods. “I often ask them what are you most worried about,” he says. “I hear Amazon more than any other company, by a long shot.” That panic was on public display the day Amazon announced it had acquired the Whole Foods supermarket chain. Within two hours, the market value of industry incumbents had plunged by almost $12 billion
Amazon’s strategy drives down prices by leveraging a direct relationship between customers and its massive e-commerce and logistics operations. This “flywheel” attracts even more loyal customers who return for the convenience and low prices. Amazon’s scale means it can cross-subsidize huge losses from different ventures, plowing profits back into businesses that work. The aim is not to make money on any particular service; Amazon likely lost $7.2 billion on shipping last year and is selling hardware supporting its virtual assistant Alexa at or below cost. It’s adding to the value of the system itself. Entire industries are loss leaders for Amazon. For companies hat must make money on what they sell, it’s terrifying prospect.
Amazon, unlike its Silicon Valley counterparts, does not prioritize a technology platform that churns out profits while third party developers take on the risk of building applications to sell to customers. Instead, it enters brutally competitive, low-margin businesses, such as fashion and groceries, and pumps money into growing them despite losses. “I really don’t the know the logic of why they would keep moving into these areas,” says Michael Cusumano, a professor of management at MIT. “From a profitability point of view, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
But zoom out and Amazon’s real platform comes into view: the e-commerce marketplace itself. Today’s profit margins matter little because no single industry is crucial to Amazon’s ambitions and Amazon is playing a decade-long game. To map them, Pitchbook surveyed the competitive landscape in the top sectors where Amazon operates. The scope is audacious. The top three are charted below.
Amazon the conglomerate
For business historians, Amazon is starting to look like the sprawling conglomerates of the past century. History has some bad news, says MIT’s Cusumano. “Eventually, Bezos is going to be, if he’s not already, a sample of the US or world economy,” he says. When that happens, Amazon’s equity growth rate will mirror that of the broader economy itself. Since the company went public in 1997, the S&P 500 has grown by a respectable 197%. Amazon stock has risen 700-fold over the same period. A drastic slowdown would dash Amazon’s promise.