Amazon has a tendency to polarize people. On one hand, there is the ruthless, relentless, ferociously efficient company that’s building the Sears Roebuck of the 21st Century. But on the other, there is the fact that almost 20 years after it was launched, it has yet to report a meaningful profit.
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Amazon is in fact organized not just in these segments, but in dozens and dozens of separate teams, each with their own internal P&L and a high degree of autonomy. So, say, shoes in Germany, electronics in France or makeup in the USA are all different teams. Each of these businesses, incidentally, sets its own prices. Meanwhile, all of these businesses are at different stages of maturity. Some are relatively old and well established. And while these mature businesses are growing slower, they are profitable. Others are new startups building their business and losing money as they do so, like any other new business. Some are very profitable, and some sell at cost or as loss-leaders to drive traffic and loyalty to the site. Books are a good example. There’s a widespread perception that Amazon sells books at a loss, but the average sales price actually seems to be very close to physical retailers – it discounts some books, but not all, and despite all the argument in the Agency lawsuits, quite how many and how much is (deliberately) as clear as mud.
Amazon is a bundle.
The clearest expression of this is Prime, in which (amongst other things) entertainment content is included at a high fixed cost to Amazon (buying the rights) but no marginal cost beyond bandwidth, as a way to enhance the appeal of being a Prime ‘member’. Prime membership in turn draws people to switch more and more of their online and offline spending to Amazon. Trying to look at the profitability of the video alone misses the point.
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[T]he logistics and commerce infrastructure themselves are a platform for lots and lots of different Amazon businesses, and also for lots of other companies selling physical products through Amazon’s site. Third party sales of products through Amazon’s own platform are now 40% of unit sales, and the fees charged to these vendors are now 20% of Amazon’s revenue.
This means, in passing, that for close to half of the units sold on Amazon.com, Amazon does not set the price, it just takes a margin. This alone should point to the weakness of the idea that Amazon’s growth is based on selling at cost or at a loss.
The tricky thing about these third party (‘3P’) sales is that Amazon only recognizes revenue from the services it provides to those companies, not the value of the goods sold. So if you buy a pair of shoes on Amazon from a third party, Amazon might collect payment through your Amazon account and ship them from its warehouse using its shipping partners – but only show the shipping and payment fees it charged to the shoe vendor as revenue. It does not disclose the gross revenue (‘GMV’). Given that (as it does disclose) third party sales tend to have a higher unit value, this means that the total value of goods that pass though Amazon with Amazon taking a percentage is perhaps double the revenue that Amazon actually reports. The revenue line is not really telling you what’s going on, and this is also one reason why gross margin is pretty misleading too.
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So, we have dozens of separate businesses within Amazon, and over two million third party seller accounts, all sitting on top of the Amazon fulfillment and commerce platform. Some of them are mature and profitable, and some are not. And someone at Amazon has the job of making sure that each quarter, this nets out to as close to zero as possible — at least as far as net income goes. That is, the problem with net income is that all it tells us is that every quarter, Amazon spends whatever’s left over to get the number to zero or thereabouts. There’s really no other way to achieve that sort of consistency.
If you listen closely, Amazon itself tells us this. The image below comes straight from Amazon – originally it was a napkin sketch by Jeff Bezos. Note that there’s no arrow pointing outwards labeled ‘take profits.’ This is a closed loop.
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Amazon’s business is delivering very rapid revenue growth but not accumulating any surplus cash or profits, because every penny of cash is being ploughed back into expanding the business further. But, this is not because any given business runs permanently at a loss – it is because the profits from what is already there are spent on making new businesses.