When it comes to online merchandising, nothing is bigger than Amazon. The same can be said for Walmart’s absolute dominance of physical retail. But in a short period of time in 2016, the two behemoths are trying to get all up in each other’s tracks. The resulting multi-year fracas will shake the world of commerce to its foundations with every above-board strategy and under-handed trick available to crush the competition. on Winner Sell All, journalist Jason Del Rey recounts the business battles between and within these industry titans as both corporations seek to further strengthen their market positions. In the excerpt below, we can see some of the said tricks.
Excerpt from The Winner Sells It All: Amazon, Walmart and the War for Our Wallets by Jason Del Rey. Published by Harper Business. Copyright © 2023 by Jason Del Rey. All rights reserved.
In the late 2010s, the power and valuations amassed by Amazon and other titans of the technology industry prompted a new movement of antitrust groups, catalyzed by a school paper in law written by an anonymous law student named Lina Khan. In his seminal paper, “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox,” published in the Yale Law Journal, Khan argues that our interpretation of antitrust laws is outdated because of a new digital economy, and there is a need to going back to the days when there was less. Prices or providing free services are not sufficient to avoid scrutiny for anticompetitive behavior.
“Amazon doesn’t just want to dominate markets; it wants to own the infrastructure that supports markets,” said Stacy Mitchell, a longtime critic of Amazon and Walmart who runs a left-leaning think tank called the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) .” And that’s an order of magnitude different from a monopoly ambition than Walmart.” Mitchell spent years agitating for the government to act to slow Walmart down during the Supercenter development. years of it and he still clearly sees that there is a problem with the power of the company.
But in his view, and that of many Big Tech critics in his circles, Amazon poses a distinct threat to business competition. “It’s not just the retail platform, but it’s AWS [Amazon Web Services]this is the logistics part, this [Alexa] and the interface of how we interact with the web, and all the devices and everything connected to the smart home,” he said. “It allows Amazon to favor its own goods and services in those markets, to charge a single tax on all businesses that rely on the infrastructure, and to monitor all activity and use that intelligence to own advantage.”
As pressure mounts from Washington, DC, Amazon’s leaders are heating up. At an important annual meeting of Bezos’ senior leaders in early 2020, Jassy, the former CEO of AWS, digested the contents of a memo sitting in front of him. It laid out Amazon’s plans for messaging in response to accusations that it was too big or too fast and engaged in anticompetitive behavior. As Bezos listened by phone, Jassy asked his predecessors why the message didn’t argue that Walmart, and AWS rival Microsoft, should be investigated. Some senior company officials tried to explain that each of the companies had been investigated years ago and their time had passed. But Jassy’s reaction left a lasting impression on the audience.
“His comments made it very clear that we should not let our foot off the gas,” one attendee told me years later. In the following years, especially in the part of the company that focused on the so-called competition issues, “there was not a day that Walmart did not come.” The fact that Walmart, which has more annual revenue than Amazon, is not being scrutinized by policymakers drives executives like Jassy crazy. It didn’t help when Amazon executives discovered that Walmart was indirectly funding a nonprofit front group called Free and Fair Markets, which bombarded journalists and social media with anti-Amazon accusations. For some time, Amazon leaders suspected that a competitor, or group of competitors, was funding the operation but could not prove it. One of Amazon’s longtime spokesmen, Drew Herdener, is frustrated every time the group puts out an op-ed or message on social media that gains traction.
“How did the press not know it was a front group?” he will lament. As a result, an Amazon communications staffer named Doug Stone spent more than a year trying to help reporters find the group’s funders. Finally, in the fall of 2019, the Wall Street Journal lifted the veil on an expose titled “A ‘Grass Roots’ Campaign to Take Down Amazon Is Funded by Amazon’s Biggest Rivals.” A Walmart spokesperson denied funding the group to the newspaper—the article said Walmart used an intermediary to channel the funds to FFM, so the company’s defense may be a matter of semantics—but said Walmart is “sharing[s] concern about the issues” announced by the group.
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