[This post is the first in an ongoing symposium on “Should We Break Up Big Tech?” that will feature analysis and opinion from various perspectives.]
[This post is authored by Randal C. Picker, James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law at The University of Chicago Law School]
The European Commission just announced that it is investigating Amazon. The Commission’s concern is that Amazon is simultaneously acting as a ref and player: Amazon sells goods directly as a first party but also operates a platform on which it hosts goods sold by third parties (resellers) and those goods sometimes compete. And, next step, Amazon is said to choose which markets to enter as a private-label seller at least in part by utilizing information it gleans from the third-party sales it hosts.
Assuming there is a problem …
Were Amazon’s activities thought to be a problem, the natural remedies, whether through antitrust or more direct sector, industry-specific regulation, might be to bar Amazon from both being a direct seller and a platform. India has already passed a statute that effectuates some of those results, though it seems targeted at non-domestic companies.
A broad regulation that barred Amazon from being simultaneously a seller of first-party inventory and of third-party inventory presumably would lead to a dissolution of the company into separate companies in each of those businesses. A different remedy—a classic that goes back at least as far in the United States as the 1887 Commerce Act—would be to impose some sort of nondiscrimination obligation on Amazon and perhaps to couple that with some sort of business-line restriction—a quarantine—that would bar Amazon from entering markets though private labels.
But is there a problem?
Private labels have been around a long time and large retailers have faced buy-vs.-build decisions along the way. Large, sophisticated retailers like A&P in a different era and Walmart and Costco today, just to choose two examples, are constantly rebalancing their inventory between that which they buy from third parties and that which they produce for themselves. As I discuss below, being a platform matters for the buy-vs.-build decision, but it is far from clear that being both a store and a platform simultaneously matters importantly for how we should look at these issues.
Of course, when Amazon opened for business in July 1995 it didn’t quite face these issues immediately. Amazon sold books—it billed itself as “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore”—but there is no private label possibility for books, no effort to substitute into just selling say “The Wit and Wisdom of Jeff Bezos.” You could of course build an ebooks platform—call that a Kindle—but that would be a decade or so down the road. But as Amazon expanded into more pedestrian goods, it would, like other retailers, naturally make decisions about which inventory to source internally and which to buy from third parties.
In September 1999, Amazon opened up what was being described as an online mall. Amazon called it zShops and the idea was clear: many customers came to Amazon to buy things that Amazon wasn’t offering and Amazon would bring that audience and a variety of transaction services to third parties. Third parties would in turn pay Amazon a monthly fee and a variety of transaction fees. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos noted (as reported in The Wall Street Journal) that those prices had been set in a way to make Amazon generally “neutral” in choosing whether to enter a market through first-party inventory or through third-party inventory.
Note that a traditional retailer and the original Amazon faced a natural question which was which goods to carry in inventory? When Amazon opened its platform, Amazon changed powerfully the question of which goods to stock. Even a Walmart Supercenter has limited physical shelf space and has to take something off of the shelves to stock a new product. By becoming a platform, Amazon largely outsourced the product selection and shelf space allocation question to third parties. The new Amazon resellers would get access to Amazon’s substantial customer base—its audience—and to a variety of transactional services that Amazon would provide them.
An online retailer has some real informational advantages over physical stores, as the online retailer sees every product that customers search for. It is much harder, though not impossible, for a physical store to capture that information. But as Amazon became a platform it would no longer just observe search queries for goods but it would see actual sales by the resellers. And a physical store isn’t a platform in the way that Amazon is as the physical store is constrained by limited shelf space. But the real target here is the marginal information Amazon gets from third-party sales relative to what it would see from product searches at Amazon, its own first-party sales and from clicks on the growing amount of advertising it sells on its website.
All of that might matter for running product and inventory experiments and the corresponding pace of learning what goods customers want at what price. A physical store has to remove some item from its shelves to experiment with a new item and has to buy the item to stock it, though how much of a risk it is taking there will depend on whether the retailer can return unsold goods to the inventory supplier. A platform retailer like Amazon doesn’t have to make those tradeoffs and an online mall could offer almost an infinite inventory of items. A store or product ready for every possible search.
A possible strategy
All of this suggests a possible business strategy for a platform: let third parties run inventory experiments where the platform gets to see the results. Products that don’t sell are failed experiments and the platform doesn’t enter those markets. But when a third-party sells a product in real numbers, start selling that product as first-party inventory. Amazon then would face buy vs. build on that and that should make clear that the private brands question is distinct from the question of whether Amazon can leverage third-party reseller information to their detriment. It can certainly do just that by buying competing goods from a wholesaler and stocking that item as first-party Amazon inventory.
If Amazon is playing this strategy, it seems to be playing it slowly and poorly. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos includes a letter each year to open Amazon’s annual report to shareholders. In the 2018 letter, Bezos opened by noting that “[s]omething strange and remarkable has happened over the last 20 years.” What was that? In 1999, the relevant number was 3%; five years later, in 2004, it was 25%, then 31% in 2009, 49% in 2014 and 58% in 2018. These were the percentage of physical gross merchandise sales by third-party sellers through Amazon. In 1993, 97% of Amazon’s sales were of its own first-party inventory but the percentage of third-party sales had steadily risen over 20 years and over the last four years of that period, third-party inventory sales exceeded Amazon’s own internal sales. As Bezos noted, Amazon’s first-party sales had grown dramatically—a 25% annual compound growth rate over that period—but in 2018, total third-party sales revenues were $160 billion while Amazon’s own first-party sales were at $117 billion. Bezos had a perspective on all of that—“Third-party sellers are kicking our first party butt. Badly.”—but if you believed the original vision behind creating the Amazon platform, Amazon should be indifferent between first-party sales and third-party sales, as long as all of that happens at Amazon.
This isn’t new
Given all of that, it isn’t crystal clear to me why Amazon gets as much attention as it does. The heart of this dynamic isn’t new. Sears started its catalogue business in 1888 and then started using the Craftsman and Kenmore brands as in-house brands in 1927. Sears was acquiring inventory from third parties and obviously knew exactly which ones were selling well and presumably made decisions about which markets to enter and which to stay out of based on that information. Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, has a number of well-known private brands and firms negotiating with Walmart know full well that Walmart can enter their markets, subject of course to otherwise applicable restraints on entry such as intellectual property laws.
As suggested above, I think that is possible to tease out advantages that a platform has regarding inventory experimentation. It can outsource some of those costs to third parties, though sophisticated third parties should understand where they can and cannot have a sustainable advantage given Amazon’s ability to move to build-or-bought first-party inventory. We have entire bodies of law— copyright, patent, trademark and more—that limit the ability of competitors to appropriate works, inventions and symbols. Those legal systems draw very carefully considered lines regarding permitted and forbidden uses. And antitrust law generally favors entry into markets and doesn’t look to create barriers that block firms, large or small, from entering new markets.
There is a great deal more to say about a company as complex as Amazon, but two thoughts in closing. One story here is that Amazon has built a superior business model in combining first-party and third-party inventory sales and that is exactly the kind of business model innovation that we should applaud. Amazon has enjoyed remarkable growth but Walmart is still vastly larger than Amazon (ballpark numbers for 2018 are roughly $510 billion in net sales for Walmart vs. roughly $233 billion for Amazon – including all 3rd party sales, as well as Amazon Web Services). The second story is the remarkable growth of sales by resellers at Amazon.
If Amazon is creating private-label goods based on information it sees on its platform, nothing suggests that it is doing that particularly rapidly. And even if it is entering those markets, it still might do that were we to break up Amazon and separate the platform piece of Amazon (call it Amazon Platform) from the original first-party version of Amazon (say Amazon Classic) as traditional retailers have for a very, very long time been making buy-vs.-build decisions on their first-party inventory and using their internal information to make those decisions.