Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Myth of Amazon (And Walmart)

Are Amazon and Walmart going to "take over" retail as we know it?  Maybe not.

The media is still all agog about Amazon, which is probably because one of the largest media outlets in the country is owned by Amazon.   We are told that Amazon is causing "retail Armageddon" or that it is the "death star".   Amazon, we are told, will take over retail and put every brick-and-mortar store out of business.

We are told.

We are also told that the "last man standing" in brick and mortar is Wal-Mart, who like Amazon is "putting everyone out of business" with its low prices.   Once Wal-Mart comes to town, everyone else goes bankrupt!

We are told, anyway.

The reality is more complicated that that.   Retail is a business that anyone can get into, without a lot of capital investment.   There are no Patents or Copyrights involved in setting up shop and re-selling goods.   And this goes double for the Internet.

Recently, I made a number of purchases of parts and materials to do a makeover on our camper.  The 18-year-old carpet was kind of nasty, so I ripped it out and bought some vinyl flooring at Home Depot.  I hope to post a video of it soon.   At the same time, I replaced or upgraded a variety of items - adding lights inside the cabinets, installing new swivel chairs (the old ones were serviceable, but getting worn) and replacing a number of bits of hardware.   About half of this stuff was bought online, and half at the local Home Depot.   Wal-Mart doesn't carry RV parts, other than a small inventory of accessories.  And their "hardware" section is, well, as you know, kind of an afterthought joke.

But what about Amazon?   Certainly you can buy anything on Amazon, right?   Well, I ended up buying only one thing - a set of table bases - and that was a mistake.   Although they offered "free" shipping, making the price less than eBay, I ended up buying another $30 worth of travel guides (we are going to Alaska) to qualify.   Score:  Amazon 1, Chump 0.    By the way, used library books on Amazon can be a good deal - hardly used and usually coming with a plastic cover protector.

But the best prices for various RV parts wasn't on Amazon - often Amazon wasn't even close.   eBay was often the best place for really cheap stuff, or the website of an RV parts store.   I noted before how Amazon's prices are somewhat high - and this is not counting the bizarre listings for $100 jars of Mayonnaise.   Not only that, but the product Amazon delivered wasn't the actual item I ordered (which was made by Edelbrock - the header people) but rather a knock-off with "Made in China" on it (of course).   No big deal, it worked OK.  But it was not the thing advertised.

Amazon simply isn't a bargain anymore - compared to other online sites.   Or put more succinctly, if I am shopping for something, I check Amazon, to be sure, but more often than not, I buy the item on some other site (eBay, for example) for far less.   Amazon's complicated "gotcha" checkout procedures are not an inducement either.   No, I do not want Amazon Prime, Sam-I-Am.   Nor do I want green eggs and ham.

And therein lies the problem for Amazon.   People buy things online because of lower prices and convenience.  If you take away lower prices and make it a hassle to find things (after wading through pages of bizarrely priced items and then making checkout a hassle worse than a timeshare presentation) people will move elsewhere.   And on the Internet, there is an awful lot of "elsewhere" to find things for sale.   Being an online merchant isn't rocket science.

Wal-Mart is going upscale into the fashion industry, selling Lord and Taylor online.

But what about Wal-Mart?   As I noted before, Wal-Mart seems to be shedding its low price image and going upscale.  They are even now selling Lord and Taylor fashions online and have stated they want to become an "upscale" online fashion center.   This should be a shock to their regular customers.  And others have noted this as well.   Brand name products and high-priced items are slowly filtering into the store, displacing the cheap-but-good "Great Value" brands.   The other day, I could not find a 12-pack of seltzer at the store.   Winn-Dixie had it, though, at a very low price.   When Wal-Mart stops carrying the products I want and raises prices, I will shop elsewhere.   And I suspect a lot of other people feel the same way as well.

The "invisible hand" of the marketplace can be denied and skewed and diverted - but only for so long.  Eventually, people figure these things out.   I have a friend who cross-shops at every grocery store in town - and often has to make six stops to get all their groceries.   Maybe it isn't worth it to drive two miles to save 10 cents on a can of peas, but they do it.   And they report back to me (and to others) where the best deals are.   And increasingly, they are not at Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart succeeded where others failed by offering staggeringly low prices and getting warm bodies into the store.   Many traditional grocery stores went by the wayside as a result, as their prices were far higher and selection less.   Sure, people will keep shopping at the old grocery store for years - out of habit.  But eventually, they will hear from friends and neighbors about the great deals at the "new" store and try it out for themselves.   And often, this converts them to the new store.

In 2009, this happened to us.  We shopped at Wal-Mart and were impressed by the variety of goods and the low prices.   We never went back to Publix after that.   So our loyalty is today to Wal-Mart.  But that loyalty could evaporate just as quickly, if they keep raising prices and concentrating on brand-names.   Something else will come along, and people will slowly figure out there are better bargains to be had elsewhere.

My recent experiences with Wal-Mart and Amazon are not an anomaly, I think.   Amazon is trying hard to make money, but with a P/E ratio of over 500, isn't making nearly enough to justify its stock price.  Their logic is that they are plowing money back into the business, so as to take over a larger and larger market share.   Eventually, after they put everyone else out of  business, they will make enough profits to justify their $1000+ share price.


But eventually could never come.   The idea that you can dominate a free-market in a monopoly fashion is a dream many a capitalist has had - a dream that eventually fails.   GM used to have 60% of the auto market.  Used to have, that is.   The problem, of course, was that others could and did take away that market share by offering better products at lower prices.   Back in the day, GM could afford to under-cut the likes of Studebaker or Kaiser by selling stripped versions of their cars for about the same prices.   You could buy a low-budget "Henry J" from Kaiser, or for a few dollars more, get a nice Chevy.   It is an old game - one that Wal-Mart played well back in the day, too.   Undercut your competitors and then run them out of business.  Profit.

The problem with this business model is that you never run out of competitors.  You end up playing whack-a-mole with each new entry into the marketplace, and cut your own margins - and your own throat - by lowering your prices in an attempt to not only compete, but run them out of town.  The vaunted "easy street" part of the plan when you have a total monopoly and can charge monopoly prices never happens as a result.

And the same is true for Amazon and Wal-Mart.   Yes, they are both huge retailers (Wal-Mart being substantially huger, though).   But neither has a monopoly in the marketplace and never will.   Neither will ever be able to dictate prices to consumers, so long as there is even one competitor in the market.  And for Amazon, that could be some kid re-selling junk he gets from China, using his own website.   The barriers to entry in online retailing are remarkably low.

So what is the takeaway on this?   I think the following:

1.  Amazon stock is horrifically overvalued.  They are not about to increase profitability by a factor of 10-20 in order to have a rational P/E ratio anytime soon.   Don't buy Amazon stock because you are familiar with the brand and use the service.  As I learned the hard way, that is the dumbest way to invest known to man.

2.  Wal-Mart could be vulnerable.   They have made mis-steps in the past, however, and recovered.  I think if we see recession in the future (and we will, eventually, we always do) the brand-name and high-price strategy will falter.  The big attraction for Wal-Mart is low prices.   Take that away, and all you have left is gawking at the other customers.

3.  Habit shopping is a bad idea.   We get into the habit of buying things on Amazon or eBay with "just one click" and don't bother cross-shopping on price.   It isn't hard, particularly online, to search for competing prices by typing in the product name or model number.   For brick-and-mortar, this is a little harder, but it can be done.   Going to the same store again and again out of habit is never a good idea, as prices can edge up over time and you might not notice it.

4.  The financial media's prognostication that Amazon or Wal-Mart (or both) are going to "take over" is a little overstated.   The mercantile business can't be protected with a Patent or Copyright.  There are other alternatives out there - and new ones being created all the time.  Don't listen to the financial press when they gush about things.  Usually that is a sign.