Fifteen years ago, Jason Boyce made a bet on Amazon that changed his life. He started selling basketball hoops on the site — known mostly for books at the time — and his sales and profits took off.
Today, Boyce worries his relationship with the world’s biggest online retailer is getting more and more lopsided. Amazon has evolved from partner to competitor, making products similar to his, selling them for less and giving them prominence on the site. To stand out, Boyce must now buy advertising, which makes Amazon even more profitable at his expense.
Amazon.com Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos touted the success of merchants like Boyce this month in his annual letter to shareholders, suggesting they were beating Amazon at its own game because they make up 58 percent of all sales on the site. What Bezos neglected to mention is that Amazon is the biggest winner of all. Amazon captures 50 cents of every dollar spent online in the U.S. EBay Inc., its closest competitor, gets just six cents.
That dominance puts Amazon in control of a $600 billion market that is growing at triple the pace of overall retail spending. Merchants like Boyce might be selling more stuff than Amazon, but Amazon takes a bigger bite of each sale. Its share has almost tripled to more than 40 percent in the past few years, merchants say, mostly due to the new cost of advertising. Those who don’t like it have to shrug, sigh and roll with it because no other site comes close to Amazon’s reach.
Like the dozen successful merchants interviewed for this story, Boyce acknowledges that selling products on Amazon has helped him earn a comfortable living. As businesspeople, he and other merchants are wary of regulation. But when Sen. Elizabeth Warren proposed prohibiting Amazon from competing against them, they were at least prepared to listen.
“If you’re going to have a marketplace,” Boyce says, “you shouldn’t be able to piggyback off the hard work and labor of your sellers to beat them.”
To be clear, the call to break up Amazon is simply one proposal, from one Democratic presidential candidate in a crowded field 19 months before the election. Amazon holds less than eight percent of the U.S. retail market. There’s little evidence that the company hurts consumers with predatory pricing, the yardstick typically used to prove anti-competitive behavior. All the same, the fact that Bezos indirectly addressed antitrust at the top of his annual shareholder letter demonstrates how seriously he is taking the threat of stepped-up regulation. Ditto his company’s lobbying efforts in Washington, where it has dispatched senior executives to woo antitrust enforcers.
“Amazon is definitely perceived as getting more and more powerful,” says James Thomson, who organizes the Prosper Show, an annual e-commerce conference focused on Amazon. “There are a lot of reasons for merchants to be highly skeptical and cynical about what Amazon is doing.”
It wasn’t always that way.
Boyce, a former Marine Corps officer, began selling basketball hoops online in 2002 at superduperhoops.com, buying search ads to direct people to the site. In 2004, his brother got a phone call from an Amazon representative who said the up-and-coming company liked their products. Amazon was predominantly a bookseller at the time, so the hoops stood out, and orders rolled in. A photo and product description was enough to lure customers. Amazon took a small commission. Customers waited a week or two to get their hoops. And the business had little risk since Boyce didn’t buy any inventory until after a customer ordered one.
Then Amazon started selling its own products. AmazonBasics appeared in 2009 and mostly focused on batteries. For several years, the house brand “slept quietly as it retained data about other sellers’ successes,” according to a 2016 report from Skubana.com, which helps merchants manage their sales. Then about five years ago, AmazonBasics rolled out a range of products that seemed perfectly tailored to customer demand.
Amazon also started selling bocce ball sets that cost $15 less than Boyce’s. He says his products are higher quality, but Amazon gives prominent page space to its generic version and wins the cost-conscious shopper. “They’re pulling market share away from us and our competitors as well,” he says.
Amazon is hardly the first company to create its own brands, and it says its own products represent about 1 percent of its total sales. Walmart Inc. and other retailers have done this for years, putting their food, soap and cereal on the shelf right next to household names. But Amazon’s monster trove of data tell it not just what items are selling well but what shoppers are searching for and can’t find. And while many of Amazon’s branded products flop, that’s little consolation to merchants who watch the company copy a product and then proceed to nibble away at their business.
“Amazon crushes small companies by copying the goods they sell on the Amazon Marketplace and then selling its own branded version,” Warren said in her proposal to break up Amazon.
Jason Boyce, having navigated Planet Amazon for 15 years, is selling his business and has started a consulting firm helping other merchants. It wasn’t an easy decision, but he says the money he was forced to spend to advertise his products reduced his profits by several hundred thousand dollars a year. To account for those extra costs, he had to raise his prices and decided it was time to get out.
“I know what to do because it’s a problem I faced myself,” he says. “Amazon is constantly throwing curve balls at you.”