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Critics of big tech companies like Google and Amazon are increasingly focused on the supposed evils of “self-preferencing.” This refers to when digital platforms like Amazon Marketplace or Google Search, which connect competing services with potential customers or users, also offer (and sometimes prioritize) their own in-house products and services. 

The objection, raised by several members and witnesses during a Feb. 25 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, is that it is unfair to third parties that use those sites to allow the site’s owner special competitive advantages. Is it fair, for example, for Amazon to use the data it gathers from its service to design new products if third-party merchants can’t access the same data? This seemingly intuitive complaint was the basis for the European Commission’s landmark case against Google

But we cannot assume that something is bad for competition just because it is bad for certain competitors. A lot of unambiguously procompetitive behavior, like cutting prices, also tends to make life difficult for competitors. The same is true when a digital platform provides a service that is better than alternatives provided by the site’s third-party sellers. 

It’s probably true that Amazon’s access to customer search and purchase data can help it spot products it can undercut with its own versions, driving down prices. But that’s not unusual; most retailers do this, many to a much greater extent than Amazon. For example, you can buy AmazonBasics batteries for less than half the price of branded alternatives, and they’re pretty good.

There’s no doubt this is unpleasant for merchants that have to compete with these offerings. But it is also no different from having to compete with more efficient rivals who have lower costs or better insight into consumer demand. Copying products and seeking ways to offer them with better features or at a lower price, which critics of self-preferencing highlight as a particular concern, has always been a fundamental part of market competition—indeed, it is the primary way competition occurs in most markets. 

Store-branded versions of iPhone cables and Nespresso pods are certainly inconvenient for those companies, but they offer consumers cheaper alternatives. Where such copying may be problematic (say, by deterring investments in product innovations), the law awards and enforces patents and copyrights to reward novel discoveries and creative works, and trademarks to protect brand identity. But in the absence of those cases where a company has intellectual property, this is simply how competition works. 

The fundamental question is “what benefits consumers?” Services like Yelp object that they cannot compete with Google when Google embeds its Google Maps box in Google Search results, while Yelp cannot do the same. But for users, the Maps box adds valuable information to the results page, making it easier to get what they want. Google is not making Yelp worse by making its own product better. Should it have to refrain from offering services that benefit its users because doing so might make competing products comparatively less attractive?

Self-preferencing also enables platforms to promote their offerings in other markets, which is often how large tech companies compete with each other. Amazon has a photo-hosting app that competes with Google Photos and Apple’s iCloud. It recently emailed its customers to promote it. That is undoubtedly self-preferencing, since other services cannot market themselves to Amazon’s customers like this, but if it makes customers aware of an alternative they might not have otherwise considered, that is good for competition. 

This kind of behavior also allows companies to invest in offering services inexpensively, or for free, that they intend to monetize by preferencing their other, more profitable products. For example, Google invests in Android’s operating system and gives much of it away for free precisely because it can encourage Android customers to use the profitable Google Search service. Despite claims to the contrary, it is difficult to see this sort of cross-subsidy as harmful to consumers.

Self-preferencing can even be good for competing services, including third-party merchants. In many cases, it expands the size of their potential customer base. For example, blockbuster video games released by Sony and Microsoft increase demand for games by other publishers because they increase the total number of people who buy Playstations and Xboxes. This effect is clear on Amazon’s Marketplace, which has grown enormously for third-party merchants even as Amazon has increased the number of its own store-brand products on the site. By making the Amazon Marketplace more attractive, third-party sellers also benefit.

All platforms are open or closed to varying degrees. Retail “platforms,” for example, exist on a spectrum on which Craigslist is more open and neutral than eBay, which is more so than Amazon, which is itself relatively more so than, say, Walmart.com. Each position on this spectrum offers its own benefits and trade-offs for consumers. Indeed, some customers’ biggest complaint against Amazon is that it is too open, filled with third parties who leave fake reviews, offer counterfeit products, or have shoddy returns policies. Part of the role of the site is to try to correct those problems by making better rules, excluding certain sellers, or just by offering similar options directly. 

Regulators and legislators often act as if the more open and neutral, the better, but customers have repeatedly shown that they often prefer less open, less neutral options. And critics of self-preferencing frequently find themselves arguing against behavior that improves consumer outcomes, because it hurts competitors. But that is the nature of competition: what’s good for consumers is frequently bad for competitors. If we have to choose, it’s consumers who should always come first.

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Dirk Auer, (Senior Fellow of Law & Economics, ICLE); Eric Fruits (Chief Economist, ICLE; Adjunct Professor of Economics, Portland State University); and Kristian Stout (Associate Director, ICLE

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way consumers shop and the way businesses sell. These shifts in behavior, designed to “flatten the curve” of infection through social distancing, are happening across many (if not all) markets. But in many cases, it’s impossible to know now whether these new habits are actually achieving the desired effect. 

Take a seemingly silly example from Oregon. The state is one of only two in the U.S. that prohibits self-serve gas. In response to COVID-19, the state fire marshall announced it would temporarily suspend its enforcement of the prohibition. Public opinion fell into two broad groups. Those who want the option to pump their own gas argue that self-serve reduces the interaction between station attendants and consumers, thereby potentially reducing the spread of coronavirus. On the other hand, those who support the prohibition on self-serve have blasted the fire marshall’s announcement, arguing that all those dirty fingers pressing keypads and all those grubby hands on fuel pumps will likely increase the spread of the virus. 

Both groups may be right, but no one yet knows the net effect. We can only speculate. This picture becomes even more complex when considering other, alternative policies. For instance, would it be more effective for the state of Oregon to curtail gas station visits by forcing the closure of stations? Probably not. Would it be more effective to reduce visits through some form of rationing? Maybe. Maybe not. 

Policymakers will certainly struggle to efficiently decide how firms and consumers should minimize the spread of COVID-19. That struggle is an extension of Hayek’s knowledge problem: policymakers don’t have adequate knowledge of alternatives, preferences, and the associated risks. 

A Hayekian approach — relying on bottom-up rather than top-down solutions to the problem — may be the most appropriate solution. Allowing firms to experiment and iteratively find solutions that work for their consumers and employees (potentially adjusting prices and wages in the process) may be the best that policymakers can do.

The case of online retail platforms

One area where these complex tradeoffs are particularly acute is that of online retail. In response to the pandemic, many firms have significantly boosted their online retail capacity. 

These initiatives have been met with a mix of enthusiasm and disapproval. On the one hand online retail enables consumers to purchase “essential” goods with a significantly reduced risk of COVID-19 contamination. It also allows “non-essential” goods to be sold, despite the closure of their brick and mortar stores. At first blush, this seems like a win-win situation for both consumers and retailers of all sizes, with large retailers ramping up their online operations and independent retailers switching to online platforms such as Amazon.

But there is a potential downside. Even contactless deliveries do present some danger, notably for warehouse workers who run the risk of being infected and subsequently passing the virus on to others. This risk is amplified by the fact that many major retailers, including Walmart, Kroger, CVS, and Albertsons, are hiring more warehouse and delivery workers to meet an increase in online orders. 

This has led some to question whether sales of “non-essential” goods (though the term is almost impossible to define) should be halted. The reasoning is that continuing to supply such goods needlessly puts lives at risk and reduces overall efforts to slow the virus.

Once again, these are incredibly complex questions. It is hard to gauge the overall risk of infection that is produced by the online retail industry’s warehousing and distribution infrastructure. In particular, it is not clear how effective social distancing policies, widely imposed within these workplaces, will be at achieving distancing and, in turn, reducing infections. 

More fundamentally, whatever this risk turns out to be, it is almost impossible to weigh it against an appropriate counterfactual. 

Online retail is not the only area where this complex tradeoff arises. An analogous reasoning could, for instance, also be applied to food delivery platforms. Ordering a meal on UberEats does carry some risk, but so does repeated trips to the grocery store. And there are legitimate concerns about the safety of food handlers working in close proximity to each other.  These considerations make it hard for policymakers to strike the appropriate balance. 

The good news: at least some COVID-related risks are being internalized

But there is also some good news. Firms, consumers and employees all have some incentive to mitigate these risks. 

Consumers want to purchase goods without getting contaminated; employees want to work in safe environments; and firms need to attract both consumers and employees, while minimizing potential liability. These (partially) aligned incentives will almost certainly cause these economic agents to take at least some steps that mitigate the spread of COVID-19. This might notably explain why many firms imposed social distancing measures well before governments started to take notice (here, here, and here). 

For example, one first-order effect of COVID-19 is that it has become more expensive for firms to hire warehouse workers. Not only have firms moved up along the supply curve (by hiring more workers), but the curve itself has likely shifted upwards reflecting the increased opportunity cost of warehouse work. Predictably, this has resulted in higher wages for workers. For example, Amazon and Walmart recently increased the wages they were paying warehouse workers, as have brick and mortar retailers, such as Kroger, who have implemented similar policies.

Along similar lines, firms and employees will predictably bargain — through various channels — over the appropriate level of protection for those workers who must continue to work in-person.

For example, some companies have found ways to reduce risk while continuing operations:

  • CNBC reports Tyson Foods is using walk-through infrared body temperature scanners to check employees’ temperatures as they enter three of the company’s meat processing plants. Other companies planning to use scanners include Goldman Sachs, UPS, Ford, and Carnival Cruise Lines.
  • Kroger’s Fred Meyer chain of supermarkets is limiting the number of customers in each of its stores to half the occupancy allowed under international building codes. Kroger will use infrared sensors and predictive analytics to monitor the new capacity limits. The company already uses the technology to estimate how many checkout lanes are needed at any given time.
  • Trader Joe’s limits occupancy in its store. Customers waiting to enter are asked to stand six feet apart using marked off Trader Joe’s logos on the sidewalk. Shopping carts are separated into groups of “sanitized” and “to be cleaned.” Each cart is thoroughly sprayed with disinfectant and wiped down with a clean cloth.

In other cases, bargaining over the right level of risk-mitigation has been pursued through more coercive channels, such as litigation and lobbying:

  • A recently filed lawsuit alleges that managers at an Illinois Walmart store failed to alert workers after several employees began showing symptoms of COVID-19. The suit claims Walmart “had a duty to exercise reasonable care in keeping the store in a safe and healthy environment and, in particular, to protect employees, customers and other individuals within the store from contracting COVID-19 when it knew or should have known that individuals at the store were at a very high risk of infection and exposure.” 
  • According to CNBC, a group of legislators, unions and Amazon employees in New York wrote a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos calling on him to enact greater protections for warehouse employees who continue to work during the coronavirus outbreak. The Financial Times reports worker protests at Amazon warehouse in the US, France, and Italy. Worker protests have been reported at a Barnes & Noble warehouse. Several McDonald’s locations have been hit with strikes.
  • In many cases, worker concerns about health and safety have been conflated with long-simmering issues of unionization, minimum wage, flexible scheduling, and paid time-off. For example, several McDonald’s strikes were reported to have been organized by “Fight for $15.”

Sometimes, there is simply no mutually-advantageous solution. And businesses are thus left with no other option than temporarily suspending their activities: 

  • For instance, McDonalds and Burger King have spontaneously closed their restaurants — including drive-thru and deliveries — in many European countries (here and here).
  • In Portland, Oregon, ChefStable a restaurant group behind some of the city’s best-known restaurants, closed all 20 of its bars and restaurants for at least four weeks. In what he called a “crisis of conscience,” owner Kurt Huffman concluded it would be impossible to maintain safe social distancing for customers and staff.

This is certainly not to say that all is perfect. Employers, employees and consumers may have very strong disagreements about what constitutes the appropriate level of risk mitigation.

Moreover, the questions of balancing worker health and safety with that of consumers become all the more complex when we recognize that consumers and businesses are operating in a dynamic environment, making sometimes fundamental changes to reduce risk at many levels of the supply chain.

Likewise, not all businesses will be able to implement measures that mitigate the risk of COVID-19. For instance, “Big Business” might be in a better position to reduce risks to its workforce than smaller businesses. 

Larger firms tend to have the resources and economies of scale to make capital investments in temperature scanners or sensors. They have larger workforces where employees can, say, shift from stocking shelves to sanitizing shopping carts. Several large employers, including Amazon, Kroger, and CVS have offered higher wages to employees who are more likely to be exposed to the coronavirus. Smaller firms are less likely to have the resources to offer such wage premiums.

For example, Amazon recently announced that it would implement mandatory temperature checks, that it would provide employees with protective equipment, and that it would increase the frequency and intensity of cleaning for all its sites. And, as already mentioned above, Tyson Foods announced that they would install temperature scanners at a number of sites. It is not clear whether smaller businesses are in a position to implement similar measures. 

That’s not to say that small businesses can’t adjust. It’s just more difficult. For example, a small paint-your-own ceramics shop, Mimosa Studios, had to stop offering painting parties because of government mandated social distancing. One way it’s mitigating the loss of business is with a paint-at-home package. Customers place an order online, and the studio delivers the ceramic piece, paints, and loaner brushes. When the customer is finished painting, Mimosa picks up the piece, fires it, and delivers the finished product. The approach doesn’t solve the problem, but it helps mitigate the losses.

Conclusion

In all likelihood, we can’t actually avoid all bad outcomes. There is, of course, some risk associated with even well-resourced large businesses continuing to operate, even though some of them play a crucial role in coronavirus-related lockdowns. 

Currently, market actors are working within the broad outlines of lockdowns deemed necessary by policymakers. Given the intensely complicated risk calculation necessary to determine if any given individual truly needs an “essential” (or even a “nonessential”) good or service, the best thing that lawmakers can do for now is let properly motivated private actors continue to seek optimal outcomes together within the imposed constraints. 

So far, most individuals and the firms serving them are at least partially internalizing Covid-related risks. The right approach for lawmakers would be to watch this process and determine where it breaks down. Measures targeted to fix those breaches will almost inevitably outperform interventionist planning to determine exactly what is essential, what is nonessential, and who should be allowed to serve consumers in their time of need.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin recently claimed that Amazon has “destroyed the retail industry across the United States” and should be investigated for antitrust violations. The claim doesn’t pass the laugh test. What’s more, the allegation might more rightly be levelled at Mnuchin himself. 

Mnuchin. Is. Wrong.

First, while Amazon’s share of online retail in the U.S. is around 38 percent, that still only represents around 4 percent of total retail sales. It is unclear how Mnuchin imagines a company with a market share of 4 percent can have “destroyed” its competitors.

Second, nearly 60 percent of Amazon’s sales come from third party vendors — i.e. other retailers — many of whom would not exist but for Amazon’s platform. So, far from destroying U.S. retail, Amazon arguably has enabled U.S. online retail to thrive.

Third, even many of the brick-and-mortar retailers allegedly destroyed by Amazon have likely actually benefited from its innovative, cost-cutting approaches, which have reduced the cost of inputs. For example, in its Business Prime Program, Amazon offers discounts on a large array of goods, as well as incentives for bulk purchases, and flexible financing offers. Along with those direct savings, it also allows small businesses to use its analytics capabilities to track and manage the supply chain inputs they purchase through Amazon.

It’s no doubt true that many retailers are unhappy about the price-cutting and retail price visibility that Amazon (and many other online retailers) offer to consumers. But, fortunately, online competition is a fact that will not go away even if Amazon does. Meanwhile, investigating Amazon for antitrust violations — presumably with the objective of imposing some structural remedy? — would harm a truly great American innovator. And to what end? To protect inefficient, overpriced retailers? 

Indeed, the better response, for retailers, is not to gripe about Amazon but to invest in better ways to serve consumers in order more effectively to compete. And that’s what many retailers are doing: Walmart, Target and Kroger are investing billions to improve both their brick-and-mortar retail businesses and their online businesses. As a result, each of them still sell more, individually, than Amazon

In fact, Walmart has about 23% of grocery retail sales. By Mnuchin’s logic, Walmart must be destroying the grocery industry too. 

The real destroyer of retail

It is ironic that Steve Mnuchin should claim that Amazon has “destroyed” U.S. retail, given his support for the administration’s tariff policy, which is actually severely harming U.S. retailers. In the apparel industry, “[b]usinesses have barely been able to survive the 10 percent tariff. [The administration’s proposed] 25 percent is not survivable.” Low-margin retailers like Dollar Tree suffered punishing hits to stock value in the wake of the tariff announcements. And small producers and retailers would face, at best, dramatic income losses and, at worst, the need to fold up in the face of the current proposals. 

So, if Mr Mnuchin is actually concerned about the state of U.S. retail, perhaps he should try to persuade his boss to stop with the tariff war instead of attacking a great American retailer.