IN THE SUMMER of 1995 Jeff Bezos was a skinny obsessive working in a basement alongside his wife, packing paperbacks into boxes. Today, 25 years on, he is perhaps the 21st century’s most important tycoon: a muscle-ripped divorcé who finances space missions and newspapers for fun, and who receives adulation from Warren Buffett and abuse from Donald Trump. Amazon, his firm, is no longer just a bookseller but a digital conglomerate worth $1.3trn that consumers love, politicians love to hate, and investors and rivals have learned never to bet against. Now the pandemic has fuelled a digital surge that shows how important Amazon is to ordinary life in America and Europe, because of its crucial role in e-commerce, logistics and cloud computing (see article). In response to the crisis, Mr Bezos has put aside his side-hustles and returned to day-to-day management. Superficially it could not be a better time, but the world’s fourth-most-valuable firm faces problems: a fraying social contract, financial bloating and re-energised competition.
The digital surge began with online “pantry-loading” as consumers bulk-ordered toilet rolls and pasta. Amazon’s first-quarter sales rose by 26% year on year. When stimulus cheques arrived in mid-April Americans let rip on a broader range of goods. Two rivals, eBay and Costco, say online activity accelerated in May. There has been a scramble to meet demand, with Mr Bezos doing daily inventory checks once again. Amazon has hired 175,000 staff, equipped its people with 34m gloves, and leased 12 new cargo aircraft, bringing its fleet to 82. Undergirding the e-commerce surge is an infrastructure of cloud computing and payments systems. Amazon owns a chunk of that, too, through AWS, its cloud arm, which saw first-quarter sales rise by 33%.
One question is whether the digital surge will subside. Shops are reopening, even if customers have to pay at tills shielded by Perspex. Yet the signs are that some of the boom will last, because it has involved not just the same people doing more of the same. A new cohort has taken to shopping online. In America “silver” customers in their 60s have set up digital-payment accounts. Many physical retailers have suffered fatal damage. Dozens have defaulted or are on the brink, including J Crew and Neiman Marcus. In the past year the shares of warehousing firms, which thrive on e-commerce, have outperformed those of shopping-mall landlords by 48 percentage points.
All this might appear to fit the script Mr Bezos has written over the years in his letters to shareholders, which are now pored over by investors as meticulously as those of Mr Buffett. He argues that Amazon is in a perpetual virtuous circle in which it spends money to win market share and expands into adjacent industries. From books it leapt to e-commerce, then opened its cloud and logistics arms to third-party retailers, making them vast new businesses in their own right. Customers are kept loyal by perks such as Prime, a subscription service, and Alexa, a voice-assistant. By this account, the new digital surge confirms Amazon’s inexorable rise. That is the view on Wall Street, where Amazon’s shares reached an all-time high on June 17th.
Yet from his ranch in west Texas, Mr Bezos has to wrestle with those tricky problems. Start with the fraying social contract. Some common criticisms of Amazon are simply misguided. Unlike, say, Google in search, it is not a monopoly. Last year Amazon had a 40% share of American e-commerce and 6% of all retail sales. There is little evidence that it kills jobs. Studies of the “Amazon effect” suggest that new warehouse and delivery jobs offset the decline in shop assistants, and the firm’s minimum hourly wage of $15 in America is above the median for the retail trade.
But Amazon’s strategy does imply huge creative disruption in the jobs market even as the economy reels. In addition, viral outbreaks at its warehouses have reignited fears about working conditions: 13 American state attorneys-general have voiced concern. And Amazon’s role as a digital jack-of-all-trades creates conflicts of interest. Does its platform, for example, treat third-party sellers on equal terms with its own products? Congress and the EU are investigating this. And how comfortable should other firms be about giving their sensitive data to AWS given that it is part of a larger conglomerate which competes with them?
Amazon’s second problem is bloating. As Mr Bezos has expanded into industry after industry, his firm has gone from being asset-light to having a balance-sheet heavier than a Soviet tractor factory. Today it has $104bn of plant, including leased assets, not far off the $119bn of its old-economy rival, Walmart. As a result, returns excluding AWS are puny and the pandemic is squeezing margins in e-commerce further. Mr Bezos says the firm can become more than the sum of its parts by harvesting data and selling ads and subscriptions. So far investors have taken this on trust. But the weak e-commerce margins make it harder for Amazon to spin off AWS. This would get regulators off its back and liberate AWS, but would deprive Amazon of the money-machine that funds everything else.
Mr Bezos’s last worry is competition. He has long said that he watches customers, not competitors, but he must have noticed how his rivals have been energised by the pandemic. Digital sales at Walmart, Target and Costco probably doubled or more in April, year on year. Independent digital firms are thriving. If you create a stockmarket clone of Amazon lookalikes, including Shopify, Netflix and UPS, it has outperformed Amazon this year. In much of the world regional competitors rule, not Amazon; among them are MercadoLibre in Latin America, Jio in India and Shopee in South-East Asia. China is dominated by Alibaba, JD.com and brash new contenders like Pinduoduo.
Imitation is the sincerest form of capitalism
The world’s most admired business is thus left having to solve several puzzles. If Amazon raises wages to placate politicians in a populist era, it will lose its low-cost edge. If it spins off AWS to please regulators, the rump will be financially fragile. And if it raises prices to satisfy shareholders its new competitors will win market share. Twenty-five years on, Mr Bezos’s vision of a world that shops, watches and reads online is coming true faster than ever. But the job of running Amazon has become no easier, even if it no longer involves packing boxes.■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “The genius of Amazon”