Amazon is often regarded as one of a handful of online tech darlings, frequently grouped along with the likes of Google, Yahoo, Facebook and others. Yet, in some ways it is very, very different.
Many web-based giants are not using the Internet to sell “physical” products, at least not for the most part. Instead, they provide web-based services – cloud computing, online storage and backup, search, email and messaging, software, consumer reviews, video streaming and music downloads – and many make their revenues on advertising and some on subscription fees. This distinction makes the e-tailers, like Amazon, very different from most other web-based providers.
Amazon’s successes have earned it some industry bragging rights. After more than twenty years of meteoric growth, Amazon has become the number one e-tailer in the world with 2015 sales reaching $107 billion – more than double its 2011 revenues. It has become the “go to” place for many consumers to buy electronics, books and videos, health and beauty products, sports equipment and other goods. Often with free delivery and access to additional products, its Amazon Prime membership is akin to a wholesale membership at a bricks and mortar store – but with the distinction that its ordered online.
The growth of Amazon and other e-tailers have made marked inroads into the retail market, as evidenced by the direct rivalry between big box retails and Amazon. In July of 2015, Amazon began its Prime Day, a special one-day discount available to its Prime members, which ultimately brought in a one-day haul of over $400 million in sales for the online retailer. When it first announced its Prime Day, Walmart responded with its own “rollback” specials and Target offered its “Black Friday in July” sale. Clearly, they are all direct rivals, selling similar goods to the same customer base.
The financial similarities among Amazon and the major big box chains are very plain to see. While Amazon, has higher market capitalization, its operating statistics are quite similar to the bricks and mortar giants. As the table below shows, its employment per billion dollar of revenue is well within the range of the big box stores, though on the lower side and closer to the wholesaler Costco.
Amazon’s high operating costs – indicative of the high cost of purchased goods, inventory costs, and warehousing and transportation expenses – explains why its cash flow per dollar of revenue is quite low (shown above), and similar to the major U.S. retailers. What cash flow remains, Amazon invests half of it back into the business – again, much like the big box chains, particularly Costco.
Essentially, while Amazon is often characterized as belonging to the Internet ecosystem, over the years it has evolved into becoming the “Walmart” of the e-commerce business. In fact, as shown below, Amazon and big box retailers run very low margins, unlike other web-based giants, which exhibit much higher rates of profitability. While Amazon’s historical net income has been near zero, it has experienced record profitability in recent quarters that puts it in line with its big box competitors, though some of the surge in earnings can be attributable to its successful cloud computing business.
If Amazon is a tech wonder, it is because it had early success in using the Internet to reach the retail market, something that many other retail firms have learned to do as well. Today, all of the big box stores have a similar online presence, which is evidence of Amazon’s success as a trusted provider in the marketplace. Consumers are clearly better served by this heighten competition.
Putting Amazon’s early tech savvy and success aside, the reality is that Amazon is not like the other large web-based firms. Instead, it is giant retailer – both in terms of its targeted consumer market and its financial characteristics – and should be thought of as such.
This commentary was co-authored with Professor Joseph Fuhr, Senior Fellow for the American Consumer Institute. This piece was published in FORBES.