Amazon's house-brand products become a target for regulators
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
By selling more of its own products, Amazon is becoming a competitor to the outside manufacturers it hosts on its platform — and that's worrying regulators around the world.
Why it matters: Governments have rarely tried to rein in Amazon's ambitions, allowing it to avoid most of the recent scrutiny directed at other large tech platforms. But the increased focus on Amazon's house-brand offerings suggests it may now be Amazon's turn.
Driving the news: Amazon built a robust business as a participant in its own marketplace when it saw growth stall in stateside e-commerce, which is why holiday shoppers might have seen Amazon-owned brands like Happy Belly for food or Solimo for household goods when they browsed the site last year.
- It created more private-label products, from its AmazonBasics line to brands for fashion and furniture, that are in-house versions of things others sell on the site.
- It struck deals with outside manufacturers to sell their products exclusively.
Critics say Amazon uses its sales data to find fruitful areas where it can produce generic versions of already-popular products.
- Then, its critics argue, Amazon favors its own brands when customers search for a certain item.
- They admit that brick-and-mortar businesses have done the same thing for decades, but argue that Amazon's dominance over online retail makes it more of a problem when the company moves so aggressively into house brands.
By the numbers: Amazon currently has 135 private-label brands, and it has deals to sell another 332 brands exclusively around the world, according to a database maintained by TJI Research.
The big picture: Regulators in major overseas markets for Amazon have already taken aim at its efforts.
- E-commerce rules going into effect next month in India appear to forbid a marketplace like Amazon — or Walmart-owned Flipkart — from selling products it has a stake in and to ban exclusivity deals. Analysts have questioned whether there may be a way around the prohibition.
- European competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager launched a preliminary look at Amazon's practice of using its data to build its private-label business last year, although a spokesperson said in an email that the EU has not yet begun a formal probe.
- Germany's antitrust regulator is probing how Amazon treats third-party merchants who use its marketplace. It says its investigation differs from the EU inquiry, but that the two "proceedings supplement one another."
In Washington, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren — who's running for the White House — has expressed concerns about Amazon’s growing role as a seller on its own platform.
- “You got to pick one business or the other, baby,” Warren said in September. “You want to be a competitor, be a competitor, that’s great. You want to be the platform provider, that is a different function.”
Yes, but: It could be hard for regulators to crack down on Amazon’s in-house product efforts in the United States, where most anticompetitive practices are ruled illegal only when consumers are hurt — often by a price increase.
- Progressive lawmakers could use legislation to make antitrust law more applicable to major tech platforms, including Amazon.
- "Would you speak to how the commission determines whether conduct has anti-competitive effects in non-price competition and how you make those determinations?" Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), the new chair of the House Judiciary Committee's antitrust subcommittee, asked Federal Trade Commission chairman Joe Simons at a recent hearing.
The other side: Amazon told Axios that selling private-label products is a standard practice in retail that broadens selection for customers. It said third-party sellers continue to do well on its platform.
- "Retail is fiercely competitive and it’s common for companies to offer customers private label products — consumers see it every day when they walk into a store," said an Amazon spokesperson in a statement, which noted the company represented only a small percentage of global retail, although its share of online retail is large.
- “Amazon’s private label products are less than 1% of our total sales. This is far less than other retailers, many of whom have private label products that represent 25% or more of their sales," the spokesperson said in an additional statement after this story was published. The company added that private-label products accounted for a greater percentage of sales at retailers like Costco, Walmart and Kroger, as well as major European brands, than they do at Amazon. (The "less than 1%" figure does not include sales at the Amazon-owned Whole Foods grocery chain.)
What’s next? Amazon watchers say the company has accelerated its efforts to sell its own products or products it markets exclusively.
- SunTrust Robinson Humphrey analysts Youssef Squali and Naved Khan estimated in June that private-label product sales would generate $7.5 billion for Amazon in 2018, a significant increase from their estimate for 2017.
- “The company remains very early in building a sizable private-label business, and as such, we expect growth in this segment to continue to outstrip overall e-commerce’s growth at Amazon,” they said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional comment from Amazon.