June 16, 2017
By Eric Harris Bernstein, Marshall Steinbaum
This morning Amazon announced its planned purchase of Whole Foods for $13.7 billion – a 27 percent premium over its share price at the close of business Thursday. To Americans who have made Amazon America’s most reputable company three years running, this may sound like good news, but we here at the Roosevelt Institute are more than a little concerned.
Leaving aside substantial allegations of workforce mistreatment, Amazon is a company built on flawed antitrust policy. They have been permitted to grow unrestrained, using predatory practices to bully and buy competitors, and to make incursions into an ever-growing number of product and service markets, all on the basis that they lower prices for consumers. But this myopic focus on consumers – the sole lens through which contemporary antitrust regulators judge firm behavior – ignores threats to workers, small businesses, and the overall point that Amazon has acquired a degree of economic power not seen since the Gilded Age.
The merger with Whole Foods is just the latest evidence of Amazon’s pattern of unimpeded, predatory growth, from which the American people have no protection. We outline these threats, and in particular those arising from this latest purchase, in the post below. But if you are really interested in digging in, then we would like to recommend two excellent reports on Amazon’s anticompetitive practices and antitrust issues, which we lean on heavily throughout this piece. One is Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox by Lina Khan, and the other is Amazon’s Stanglehold by Olivia LaVecchia and Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self Reliance.
For those interested in something of a synopsis and application to the latest merger, here goes:
1. Amazon is a huge, sprawling company and it wants to get bigger.
Amazon captures nearly half of all online commerce and is valued at nearly $500 billion – the fourth largest market cap in the world. Amazon is fully vertically integrated, offering everything from production to distribution in a number of markets, as well as crucial infrastructure for the whole e-commerce ecosystem through its Amazon Web Services. It has more than doubled its revenue since 2012, from $61 to $136 billion, commands a fleet of commercial airplanes, and collects a percentage of sales from millions of sellers on its e-commerce platform. In 2016, more people had Amazon Prime accounts than voted for the president.
At the same time, Amazon has been famously averse to realizing profits, investing instead in a growth-through-acquisitions strategy that has led them to acquire competitors like Zappos and Diapers.com, as well as players in seemingly unrelated markets, like Audible, an audiobook platform, and Twitch, a gaming social media site. They made eight acquisitions in 2016 alone and have routinely entered new markets, such as TV production, or the direct manufacturing of products for sale on the site. It recently started a bank.
2. Amazon has used its size, wealth, data, and a number of predatory practices to get where it is. This will continue in brick-and-mortar retail.
When the online shoe retailer Zappos.com refused Amazon’s offer of purchase in 2007, Amazon acted quickly, launching a competing online shoe store with free shipping and selling at steep discounts that resulted in heavy losses for Amazon. Zappos had no choice but to match the free express shipping* in hopes of competing, but could not sustain the cost, and finally surrendered, selling in 2009. When the dust settled, Amazon had wracked up $150 million in losses but had eliminated a major competitor.
Similar strategies, applied at Whole Foods locations, could be immensely damaging to businesses up and down the supply chain, and to local communities. Amazon will likely aim to expand the reach of the Whole Foods brand by lowering prices. To do this, they will pressure suppliers to sell for less, and will take losses that grow the customer base. The side effect will be that many grocery stores currently not in direct competition with Whole Foods’ high-end offerings will go out of business, taking jobs with them.
As the new Whole Foods’ customer base grows and competitors die off, Amazon’s already-substantial power over suppliers will increase, enabling them to strangle the Whole Foods supply chain as they have many of the small businesses that sell through their online platform. This will increase the pressure on grocery competitors, and it will also force the supply chain to eat the cost of Amazon’s aggressive consumer pricing strategy. The effects will be even more severe if Amazon uses its control of e-commerce infrastructure to make life difficult for other distribution channels.
The physical retail space they have acquired will also provide Amazon a new stream of data with which to assess retail markets. They will use this data to hone price discrimination strategies already employed online, up charging customers based on their search history or willingness to pay. Given that prices aren’t displayed but instead assessed when scanned, Amazon may even try this in-store, as they may already be doing with their physical book stores.
3. Contemporary competition policy is not set up to view Amazon as a potential threat, and thus the threat is growing undeterred.
The real problem, as Khan, ILSR, Roosevelt Fellow Sabeel Rahman, and many others have pointed out, is that contemporary antitrust regulators don’t view any of this as problematic. In antitrust policy, the ‘consumer welfare’ standard stipulates that as long as a given merger or large corporation generates savings for consumers, it is not legally problematic. Given their bleed and buy strategy, this plays directly into Amazon’s hands: Amazon is happy to take losses over price cuts, and regulators are happy to view these price cuts as beneficial to consumers. When consumers are faced with fewer and fewer retails options, and when consumer gains come at the expense of workers, small businesses and a healthy economy overall, then Amazon’s impact is, in fact, much more nefarious than regulators likely assume.
Policymakers need to get serious about Amazon, and about antitrust in general, before it is too late. Blocking Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods would be a good first step. Dismantling Amazon would be even better.