The Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon employees have been using data from individual sellers to identify products to compete with with its own ‘private label’ (or own-brand) products, such as AmazonBasics, Presto!, and Pinzon.
It’s implausible that this is an antitrust problem, as some have suggested. It’s extremely common for retailers to sell their own private label products and use data on how other products in their stores have sold to help development and marketing. They account for about 14–17% of overall US retail sales, and for an estimated 19% of Walmart’s and Kroger’s sales and 29% of Costco’s sales of consumer packaged goods.
And Amazon accounts for 39% of US e-commerce spending, and about 6% of all US retail spending. Any antitrust-based argument against Amazon doing this should also apply to Walmart, Kroger and Costco as well. In other words, the case against Amazon proves too much. Alec Stapp has a good discussion of these and related facts here.
However, it is interesting to think about the underlying incentives facing Amazon here, and in particular why Amazon’s company policy is not to use individual seller data to develop products (rogue employees violating this policy, notwithstanding). One possibility is that it is a way for Amazon to balance its competition with some third parties with protections for others that it sees as valuable to its platform overall.
Amazon does use aggregated seller data to develop and market its products. If two or more merchants are selling a product, Amazon’s employees can see how popular it is. This might seem like a trivial distinction, but it might exist for good reason. It could be because sellers of unique products actually do have the bargaining power to demand that Amazon does not use their data to compete with them, or for public relations reasons, although it’s not clear how successful that has been.
But another possibility is that it may be a self-imposed restraint. Amazon sells its own private label products partially because doing so is profitable (even when undercutting rivals), partially to fill holes in product lines (like clothing, where 11% of listings were Amazon private label as of November 2018), and partially because it increases users’ likelihood to use Amazon if they expect to find a reliable product from a brand they trust. According to the Journal, they account for less than 1% of Amazon’s product sales, in contrast to the 19% of revenues ($54 billion) Amazon makes from third party seller services, which includes Marketplace commissions. Any analysis that ignores that Amazon has to balance those sources of revenue, and so has to tread carefully, is deficient.
With “commodity” products (like, say, batteries and USB cables), where multiple sellers are offering very similar or identical versions of the same thing, private label competition works well for both Amazon and consumers. By Amazon’s own rules it can enter this market using aggregated data, but this doesn’t give it a significant advantage, since that data is easily obtainable from multiple sources, including Amazon itself, which makes detailed aggregated sales data freely available to third-party retailers.
But to the extent that Amazon competes against innovative third-party sellers (typically manufacturers doing direct sales, as opposed to pure retailers simply re-selling others’ products), there is a possibility that the prospect of having to compete with Amazon may diminish their incentive to develop new products and sell them on Amazon’s platform.
This is the strongest argument that is made against private label offerings in general. When they involve some level of copying an innovative product, where the innovator has been collecting above-normal profits and those profits are what spur the innovation in the first place, a private label product that comes along and copies the product effectively free rides on the innovation and captures some of its return. That may get us less innovation than society—or a platform trying to host as many innovative products as possible—would like.
While the Journal conflates these two kinds of products, Amazon’s own policies may be tailored specifically to take account of the distinction, and maximise the total value of its marketplace to consumers.
This is nominally the focus of the Journal story: a car trunk organiser company with an (apparently) innovative product says that Amazon moving in to compete with its own AmazonBasics version competed away many of its sales. In this sort of situation, the free-rider problem described above might apply where future innovation is discouraged. Why bother to invent things like this if you’re just going to have your invention ripped off?
Of course, many such innovations are protected by patents. But there may be valuable innovations that are not, and even patented innovations are not perfectly protected given the costs of enforcement. But a platform like Amazon can adopt rules that fine-tune the protections offered by the legal system in an effort to increase the value of the platform for both innovators and consumers alike.
And that may be why Amazon has its rule against using individual seller data to compete: to allow creators of new products to collect more rents from their inventions, with a promise that, unless and until their product is commodified by other means (as indicated by the product being available from multiple other sellers), Amazon won’t compete against such sellers using any special insights it might have from that seller using Amazon’s Marketplace.
This doesn’t mean Amazon refuses to compete (or refuses to allow others to compete); it has other rules that sometimes determine that boundary, as when it enters into agreements with certain brands to permit sales of the brand on the platform only by sellers authorized by the brand owner. Rather, this rule is a more limited—but perhaps no less important—one that should entice innovators to use Amazon’s platform to sell their products without concern that doing so will create a special risk that Amazon can compete away their returns using information uniquely available to it. In effect, it’s a promise that innovators won’t lose more by choosing to sell on Amazon rather than through other retail channels..
Like other platforms, to maximise its profits Amazon needs to strike a balance between being an attractive place for third party merchants to sell their goods, and being attractive to consumers by offering as many inexpensive, innovative, and reliable products as possible. Striking that balance is challenging, but a rule that restrains the platform from using its unique position to expropriate value from innovative sellers helps to protect the income of genuinely innovative third parties, and induces them to sell products consumers want on Amazon, while still allowing Amazon (and third-party sellers) to compete with commodity products.
The fact that Amazon has strong competition online and offline certainly acts as an important constraint here, too: if Amazon behaved too badly, third parties might not sell on it at all, and Amazon would have none of the seller data that is allegedly so valuable to it.
But even in a world where Amazon had a huge, sticky customer base that meant it was not an option to sell elsewhere—which the Journal article somewhat improbably implies—Amazon would still need third parties to innovate and sell things on its platform.
What the Journal story really seems to demonstrate is the sort of genuine principal-agent problem that all large businesses face: the company as a whole needs to restrain its private label section in various respects but its agents in the private label section want to break those rules to maximise their personal performance (in this case, by launching a successful new AmazonBasics product). It’s like a rogue trader at a bank who breaks the rules to make herself look good by, she hopes, getting good results.This is just one of many rules that a platform like Amazon has to preserve the value of its platform. It’s probably not the most important one. But understanding why it exists may help us to understand why simple stories of platform predation don’t add up, and help to demonstrate the mechanisms that companies like Amazon use to maximise the total value of their platform, not just one part of it.