The Latest Bubble

Here are further thoughts about Amazon and its effect on the retail world, which I have named “The Amazon Retail Distortion”.  See the article I wrote in my last Real Estate Philosopher.

I note that roughly fifteen years ago – in mid 2001 – Barrons wrote a perceptive piece that, in one article burst the internet bubble.  It pointed out that no matter how many “eyeballs” internet companies were getting, almost all of them only had a few months left of cash to burn and if they didn’t raise more money by then they were broke.  And so it was.  Between three and six months later virtually all of these companies disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Of course, I am not Barrons, and I don’t see Amazon going bankrupt any time soon, but I continue to wonder when the Amazon bubble will burst.  When it does there will certainly be a mass celebration in the retail world.

Consider my last article where I made the point that Amazon has been given a now twenty-year gift from Wall Street and investors that it doesn’t have to make money.  And this still continues, incredibly.

Their last quarter – which came out after my last article – put them at breakeven or worse when taking out stock based compensation and losing significant money if their cloud business – which has nothing to do with their retail business model – is excluded.  Indeed the article I read said they made 40 cents a share (for a stock trading at $1,017 a share), they expect somewhere between a small loss or a small profit next quarter, their income fell 50% from last year, and their operating costs were increasing.  The same article – incidentally – mentioned that Jeff Bezos was temporarily the world’s richest man…

Face it – Amazon makes no money in retail!

Yet retailers that used to make money – or are making money – are getting clobbered by it.

My – continued and reinforced — view is that Whole Foods will reveal the lack of clothing of Emperor Amazon.  Consider a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled “Amazon Rewrites Rule Book for Grocers.”  The second paragraph starts with “while Amazon doesn’t need to make money from its grocery division yet, food sales are crucial for traditional players like Kroger, WalMart and Target….”  Seriously?  Amazon doesn’t have to make money on food but WalMart does?  Seriously?

And then a few days later what appears to be a “shocking” headline that Amazon is lowering some prices at Whole Foods crushes grocery stocks.  Again, I ask, seriously?

Whole Foods is known informally as “whole paycheck” and is struggling, so they lowered some prices.  Gee – wow.   I looked at the article and the price changes on some vegetables wasn’t enough to change my shopping patterns.  Amazon’s (brilliant?) strategy in groceries is to take on experienced behemoth players in a razor-thin-margin business and lower prices against WalMart?  Seriously?

If you are going to bet on WalMart – which makes something like $15B in cash a year — versus Amazon – which makes nothing – and you bet on Amazon, your bet has to be based on one thing; namely, that it will continue to have a free pass on making no money in its core business.

My last article generated a lot of responses – some favorable and some implying I had no clue.  The ones telling me I had no clue mentioned that a huge percentage of Americans use Amazon and they are brilliantly run, etc.  My response is that even if that is true, Amazon is still losing money or at least not making money.  Plus, I don’t know why the fact that you use Amazon to buy a book has much to do with groceries.

Maybe the theory is that someday, once they have put all the retailers out of business they will have a monopoly and raise prices then?

It is a lot like my partner coming in and telling me about a new client that wants our pricing so low that we are losing money.  He then says to me “Bruce, don’t worry, we’ll make it up on volume!”

I reiterate my prediction that Amazon’s ability to destroy the retail world is based on mis-placed hype and an irrational stock market valuation.  I do have to admit though that irrational stock market valuations can persist for a long period of time.

My advice to retailers is the same as in my last article:

  • Don’t freak out – this is a temporary phenomenon – albeit a long one – it will end at some point, and I think pretty soon.  Sooner or later someone more respected than me – like Barrons maybe – will poke at the same hole in Amazon I am poking.

  • Set up your business so that you can survive until the Amazon Retail Distortion ends.

  • Perhaps follow the other suggestions in my previous Real Estate Philosopher articles; namely: (i) don’t try to be “better” than others and instead try to be “different” from others, (ii) sell only exclusive branded goods in your store, (iii) consider yourself as much in the distribution business as the retail business, and (iv) don’t go nuts setting up expensive structures to enhance the consumer’s “experience” in the store, which I bet will get old awfully fast and be intensively expensive and difficult to maintain.

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