The purpose of the team is to calculate the proper price to sell items for, the "discount" to vendors, and the items to put in the "buy box" in order to make the most profit for Amazon. I think the what is described here in the article is only the tip of the iceberg. Amazon isn't doing something as simplistic as cutting out the competition with low prices... they are feeding all the numbers into neural networks and analyzing and predicting competition and profits, and then doing what the systems tell them is the most profitable.
That is, anything that Amazon can predict will make them more money or gain more market share... they are doing. I have full confidence that they are doing all of the terrible things outlined and more. The bigger question is whether government and law allow them to continue doing this. I think that it will continue to be allowed, despite being super shady and destroying both small and medium size businesses.
It cannot easily be proven that there is anyone orchestrating the monopolistic processes, because Amazon has essentially turned the process of dominating the market into an equation and they just do what the equation tells them to.
Amazon will claim "we are just being smarter; we mean no harm", and without providing open minutes of their internal discussions it will be impossible to prove wrongdoing.
What is needed is open accountability for internal plans, but that is against the "American way" so I doubt it will happen anytime soon.
But they are hard to reconcile with why Amazon keeps showing me a rice cooker ad, after I buy a rice cooker from them.
I've done similar things a lot, in this case it was because the first cooker had too large a minimum cooking amount. I'm currently looking at buying my mother google WiFi - which I bought a few weeks ago. And a few months back I rebought a tool I had just purchased because I lost it.
I currently work for a (responsible) own site adtech (personalization) company. Its surprising what behaviours our clients find profitable for their business.
It seems like an effective ad would be this: Say you bought a rice cooker on Amazon for $75. Now Walmart shows you an ad for the same rice cooker for $60. That would certainly stick in my head- not for the rice cooker but for the price difference that Walmart can provide.
With the Google wifi I had forgotten, and it caused me tk reconsider and write it on my whiteboard.
The tool I wpuld purchase anyway.
One thing to keep in mind is that the purchase data is per-user, so it's different from the segment approach I was mentioning above. It would require a whole new schema* that is queried whenever bids are processed for an ad event.
* Sorry for using the word schema here. It was used a lot on a team I was on in a similar context, and it bothered me at first but I got used to it. What I mean by schema is a "blob" with purchase data that is periodically processed by the bidding subsystem to add bid exclusions per user.
Is it possible the ratio is so large to where while it obviously could be optimized to exclude people who have since purchased said item - the optimization is only a rounding error, and may not turn out to be worth it?
But maybe they should. The recipients of those 9,000 ads are being trained to ignore the recommendations because they’re so useless, and may continue to ignore its suggestions even after it improves. Likewise, a few clueless recommendations can “spoil” good ones shown at the same time.
None of this shows up in the test set, of course, but people tend to turn off their brains when ‘evaluating’ ML stuff.
How can you be sure that "random" untargeted ads don't have just as bad of an effect? Ultimately Amazon can see the numbers and we can't, and they made their decision based on that. It's pointless to argue over theories without data.
It’s quite possible that those are still the best items to recommend to us, to mop up any “unhappy with the one they got, so save them with a return/rebuy” sales.
For 99% of people that probably doesn't happen, but the people with the money to do that probably spend a TON of money, so they are worth targeting with ads.
You might not be happy with the purchase and on the lookout for a better model.
The law article cited in ths news story seems to be saying that even though Amazon's practices haven't visibly hurt consumers in terms of retail prices, this is due to the ability to play legal games with corporate accounting that conceal the present and future anticompetitive effects of Amazon's business model, and that its status as the dominant platform for online retailers presents some degree of threat to competition.
Lina Khan published a very informative and influential review on Amazon and antitrust in 2017.
What Sussman actually wrote was "In addition, [this paper] calls for the establishment of a viable framework under which a case may be brought against such firms [as Amazon] by injured competitors."
The journalist says no antitrust laws need be changed. What he fails to mention is the small matter of this framework Sussman says is needed before any case can be brought. It does not exist.
Sussman did not describe the framework in any detail or how it would work. All one can find in the paper is this single sentence: "It is, therefore, necessary to develop some means of oversight that will allow the public to determine whether firms such as Amazon are engaging in such activities."
"Linda Khan published a very informative and influential review on Amazon and antitrust in 2017."
I can remember when a story on the Khan paper was posted to HN. I thought at the time the journalist seemed just a tad overly optimistic. It felt odd to see a law review article being so "hyped" by a journalist. It almost seemed like he/she did not want the reader to actually read the paper. There was so much paraphrasing that the risk of the journalist getting something wrong would be very high.
In 2018, there was another paper in Yale LJ by Baker and Morton that discussed Amazon's anticompetitive activities. This paper was actually influential.1 Unlike Sussman's single sentence calling for "some means of oversight" and a framework under which cases can be filed, the authors included an entire section on "US Enforcement Challenges", about five pages devoted to how enforcement might proceed. The paper was cited by US Sen. Blumenthal in a letter to DOJ and FTC urging them to open investigations of Amazon's predatory pricing.2 (He did not cite Khan's paper.)
Not sure if the Baker and Morton paper received any hype from journalists, but it is indisputable the paper and the letters to DOJ and FTC had an impact. Amazon finally removed the MFN clauses from its agreements with US sellers, as it had done for sellers in Europe in 2013.3
2 https://www.blumenthal.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/12.19.18%20-... https://www.blumenthal.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/12.19.18%20-...
3 https://www.bbc.com/news/business-23881202 https://www.axios.com/amazon-price-practice-antitrust-elizab...
...so, not predatory pricing then?
If predatory pricing is effective, an algorithm can be taught, or learn to, exploit it if fed with the right data.
This, quite obviously, shouldn't change anything regarding the potential legality, as it's entirely self evident that a sufficiently powerful machine learning algorithm will exploit any patterns not expressly forbidden.
As always, the responsibility for following the laws, and making sure these extensions of our own agency we call machines also follow the same laws fall on whomever is making the machine act in their stead.
One can however be assured that several companies will argue otherwise, argue as if they were simply a victim of some sort. Which might be true in a sense. Victims of their own devices, both figuratively and almost literally at the same time.
How does it come about that that is that a concept?
Does the thought go something like: "We neglected to instruct the algorithm not to collude, and failed to monitor outcomes for collusion, therefore we're not responsible?"
> and each gives its software total autonomy to set prices
see Brooke Group Ltd. v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 509 U.S. 209.
essentially, all you have to do is prove that there is "dangerous probability" that a monopolist can recoup their losses after all competitors have been priced out.
Predatory pricing is either legal or not (in the eyes of the court, or legislations).
Not to this shareholder.
If Amazon is playing a dangerous game, then it's risking my money, which is not OK.
If you're so sure of that, then why did you buy AMZN? Why have you not sold your AMZN?
Amazon always ships packages ahead of time, at my leisure, and often cheaper than retail. They always process returns and complaints in my favour, without contest. They reach out to local logistics companies in order to improve delivery, and I can tell by the fact that those companies now have branded vehicles (and much happier and more attentive personnel than UPS!), and better verification processes (they found a logistics provider that actually emails the signature given at the door to you when the delivery is processed) that they've done well out of that.
I feel they're serving me very well as a customer, and every ordinary person in my life who isn't competing with Amazon is richer and happier because of Amazon's services.
> definitely not ... the businesses on the platform
The businesses fulfilling through Amazon would absolutely not have received my business were it not for Amazon; in many cases they do not have the expertise to handle the orders correctly, and I do not trust all of them to process the payments securely to the degree that I trust Amazon to.
They have every opportunity to improve their ordering and fulfillment systems, but they choose Amazon because it's where the customers are comfortable already.
I dreamt of a logistics integration system much like Amazon Marketplace when I was 16, and every year they make it closer to that dream, I think it's great. I'm willing to accept an argument from concrete evidence that they have somehow deliberately and systematically broken the law in so doing, but I've yet to see it.
I don't trust Amazon not to send me fake items or cheap Chinese knockoffs. There is absolutely no quality control on Amazon's end. Amazon has the resources to fight fake reviews, yet fake reviews are still rampant. As a result, I cannot trust Amazon's rating system at all.
While this is true, at least the part about fake reviews being pervasive, the fact is that I don't trust any reviews on a retailer's website anymore, especially those that aren't verified purchases, and the only retail site where I trust verified purchase reviews at all (and not all of those either) is Amazon.
> I get free shipping from Walmart.com
Yes! walmart.ca is great, very prompt and simple to work with them.
> AliExpress, which 90% of electronics on Amazon are sourced from.
More like 90% of obscure commodity electronic bits and bobs. But yes, some of these rinky-dink sellers and unrecognized brands do mess up the experience a bit, but imagine ordering directly from their individual weird off the shelf fulfillment sites and hoping your credit cards don't get burned. It's not any better of an experience, and at least with Amazon you generally have recourse outside the seller.
> I don't trust Amazon not to send me fake items or cheap Chinese knockoffs
I don't trust AliExpress not to send me fake items or cheap knockoffs either, but that doesn't stop me from trying sometimes. At least with Amazon you have recourse in my experience.
I feel like this is a dramatic market development. In the era of brick-and-mortar shops, a lot of those products were only available as branded versions. Think when you had to go in to a store and get a printer cable in 2001, and you were paying $25 for a Belkin cable in a fancy box because it's all they sell.
Branding from a consumer perspective is about building a message of "we're the quality one you know and trust" or "we're the cool/desirable one you recognize." It isn't necessary for a lot of these products: they're not sexy and the bar of competence is so low that you're unlikely to be burned.
AliExpress and friends have completely reinvented that market by tapping into that sentiment. Their products are unbranded (or as-good-as-unbranded, with a name with no meaning to the buyer) but trade on cheap and good enough. I'm sure a lot of the bits-and-bobs industry is up all night sweating.
Unfortunately as a non-Prime customer, Amazon's shipping has been getting so slow that the gap is closing and it's getting harder to see their value.
Only on Amazon do you find listings for headphones with 400 positive reviews for some BluRay version of Harry Potter, where those 400 positive reviews are displayed as if they're for the headphones themselves.
> I don't trust AliExpress not to send me fake items or cheap knockoffs either, but that doesn't stop me from trying sometimes. At least with Amazon you have recourse in my experience.
AliExpress has never given me a reason to distrust them, while Amazon has. I once received a defective item from a seller on AliExpress and I was refunded my money without having to ship the item back. I'm okay with that recourse.
The 2003 documentary "The Corporation" covers this subject in detail: "Documentary that looks at the concept of the corporation throughout recent history up to its present-day dominance." 
The general consensus around these parts seems to be that Amazon is a dog of a company.
In fact almost all large businesses use these types of data to maximize profits, I would assume. Is there a functional difference between changing a digital page to optimize return and changing a store shelf configuration at Wal Mart to do the same? Because of course Wal Mart uses analytics to determine their store layouts and deal placements etc.
The fact that the US only cares about how action like this effects the price an end-consumer pays in a good
The claim repeatedly and misleadingly made in the article that Amazon doesn't post a profit is easily debunked by the fact that they're a publicly traded company that legally has to have it profits made publicly available. They make a profit. They have for a long time. It goes up and it goes down as they expand and reinvest, but they're definitely not intentionally taking a loss.
And they have to have their accounting methods and control systems used to be audited by an independent third party annually to ensure compliance with generally accepted accounting principles. As far as I'm aware, they've never had an adverse opinion issued against them. The whole point of making public companies undergo an audit every single year is to make sure they're doing any shenanigans that make their annual statements in some way not comparable to the financial statements of other companies in that industry.
It's incredibly annoying to see an article like this get shared because it's incredibly obvious the author doesn't know what the heck he's talking about, but just enough to fool readers into thinking he does.
 For people unaware of Amazon's practice of pushing out middlemen who conduct high volumes of business: http://fortune.com/2016/04/20/amazon-copies-merchants/
 People inside of the FTC are almost certainly aware, but happily continue to shove their fingers in their ears and sing "la la la I can't hear you la la la".
What might be illegal would be selling products at a loss to drive others away.
When I think of "loss leader" I think of the Thrifty pharmacies that used to have an ice-cream counter. People went in for a 35-cent cone and ended up buying $10 of other merchandise that more than made up for the 15 cents Thrifty lost on the cone.
1. undercut product x and y that Z Corp sales
2. wait for Z Corp to go out of business
3. Increase price of x and y
1. sale product x cheap
2. sale other products to people who buy x
3. continue to step 1 or terminate selling below market
1. Sell products x cheap and y at higher margin.
(x happens to be what Z Corp also sells)
2. At some point in time, coincidentally after Z Corp
folds, decide to stop selling x cheap.
1$ production cost
5$ market price
3$ -> Loss leader
.50ct -> Predatory pricing
Pretty certain amazon checked at least one of those boxes - reasonably confident they checked at least three of them.
What? What kind of standard is that?
It means that less groups take a cut of the profits, and prices.can be reduced because of it.
Yet another sensationalist headline that is unsubstantiated by the article.
"This law student" has a theory. He does not have evidence -- and, in fact, much ink in the article is spilled on the fact that the evidence needed to sustain an antitrust case against Amazon isn't readily available to the public or to the Government.
Nor has any Court ever held, to my knowledge, that an antitrust action can be sustained without consumer prices going up - merely keeping them the same is not enough.
Key quotes (emphasis mine):
"Sussman believes that if Amazon gave the full picture, it would show negative cash flow."
"No current accounting rules force full disclosure of itemized costs. Considered highly confidential, they’re typically redacted from public legal documents, even when a company is sued. More definitive cash flow numbers could help prove whether Amazon sells items below cost."
"Sussman believes that the Federal Trade Commission should force companies to break down their costs in confidential examinations."
"Right now, anti-competitive conduct like predatory pricing is judged under the “consumer welfare standard,” which has been interpreted to mean simply whether a market dominated by a single company results in higher or lower prices. But even though prices are the same on Amazon, consumers are arguably missing out, Sussman explains, because they’re not benefiting from Amazon’s soaring profits." (This is not my understanding of an actionable situation under current antitrust law.)
And many people don't think it's a valid standard. So you might be correct in that this is currently legal - or, perhaps, unenforceable because there's no way to prove that it is illegal to the requisite standard of proof. But if so, then to me that would be yet another argument in favor of getting back to antitrust that we used to have before it got Borked , since what we have right now is very clearly not working.
1. Amazon occasionally sells below cost (hence existence of CRaP products)
2. Amazon has pushed some vendors to 3p
3. Amazon directly or indirectly dictates allowable 3p prices
The progression from Amazon selling at a loss to them pawning the product off to 3p sellers and taking a larger cut is reasonably argued in the source article to be harmful to consumer welfare.
In this case, the nasty bits at the beginning of the comment could be replaced with a factual explanation about the issue at hand. Since you say it's clear, that ought to be easy to do, and it would make your comment into a good one rather than a bad one for HN.
Nothing I said was about the poster as a person, but rather the poster represented him/herself as a representative of a company at issue. If you're on here representing your company for good press, expect criticism. If you're moderating that away, look in a mirror and ask yourself why. Does one of the largest companies on earth really need to be defended in the public square by HN moderators?
You broke the site guidelines by accusing the commenter of posting in bad faith and by making a serious allegation in a snarky, drive-by way. If you're going to address that sort of issue on HN, your comment needs to lose those qualities and contain more information. That's true regardless of how correct your view is.
So according to Sussman, Amazon is already making money. I wonder what point in time the author thinks Amazon started making money.
If the author claims that happened e.g. in 2016, them Amazon was actually losing money for the first 20 years of its operation. That would require Amazon to have been raising capital for a long, long time. Can that be verified? Are there stock market metrics on total amount of capital raised/net borrowed in a given year?
Has anyone been able to access the actual article to check the details of authors claims?
Looking at Amazon's aggregate financials doesn't tell us anything about whether they're doing something anticompetitive.
<quote>However, Sussman asserts in his paper, “Amazon utilizes existing loopholes in Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) disclosure regulations to exclude a significant portion of its expenses.”</quote>
So the author is claiming amazon's _not_ been cash flow positive. If that is the case, then where was the money coming from?
What Amazon is currently doing isn't illegal. In the future, if they abuse their dominant position to jack up prices, they might be in some trouble. But running on thin margins isn't illegal, and it seems Amazon has created avenues to produce profit without increasing prices, thus falling within the law and also with what economic theory predicts should happen.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dumping_(pricing_policy) Dumping is a particularly interesting instance since there isn't a direct realized economic gain.
> 5 percent profit margin on Amazon’s own retail sales
Last I checked, 5 percent margin is still making a profit, and definitely doesn't fit the definition of dumping nor predatory pricing.
Part of the theory hinges on this:
> However, Sussman asserts in his paper, “Amazon utilizes existing loopholes in Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) disclosure regulations to exclude a significant portion of its expenses.”
> Amazon accomplishes this in part through using capital leases to purchase equipment and some of its 288 million square feet of office space. Instead of paying cash, Amazon borrows and finances these purchases over time. The leases don’t show up as expenses in Amazon’s free cash flow calculations, even though the equipment is listed as an asset. A 2017 Motley Fool report showed that, when you add in capital leases, Amazon’s 2017 cash flow was indeed over $1 billion in the red, although more recent numbers have bounced back.
Again though, there's nothing illegal about a firm using debt to finance expansion, nor is there anything illegal about a firm's net profit being negative, especially if there's positive cashflow from selling to consumers.
The whole article is nothing more than theories without any proof that Amazon is actually dumping products. And like I said, running thin margins isn't illegal. Undercutting your competition isn't illegal. Scaling out so your costs are less than your competition isn't illegal. You need to prove that a firm is actually dumping, it's not enough to think that they might be because they're out-competing you.
More from the article:
> As Sussman explains, if Amazon is recouping losses from a predatory pricing scheme by reducing its costs, the windfall profits aren’t being transferred to customers.
Reducing their costs to realize a profit literally is passing on the benefits to customers by continuing to sell at a low price.
Article aside, how does this work?
It works similarly with operating leases. But the actual accounting is a tad more complicated, so here's a link:
Equity = Sigma(Free-cash-flow) summed over time. In the case of AMZN, equity is about 43B. 18B of this amount is goodwill(intangible vaporware). That leaves with about 25B real equity. And surprisingly, this 25B matches with FCF over the last 2 years(2017-2018). Which essentially means, cumulative FCF until 2017 was indeed 0. Numbers do seem to support the claim that AMZN was running on 0(averaged over time) FCF. Showing 1B in one quarter, -1B in another. But overall 0.
Whether 0 cumulative FCF means predatory pricing is a different question altogether. I'm not so sure about that. How would visionaries build big things, that need, and money? If AMZN loses it and acts monopolistic, I think people will respond by migrating en-masse. No one likes too much inequality. Jeff should do something about that image.
We used to call this kind of activity a ‘service’ but apparently it’s now called a ‘privilege’
>Sellers can use “Fulfillment by UPS,” so UPS handles shipping of its products through its vast logistics network. But UPS also charges for that privilege.
It's just an expression.
Amazon launched a product called "Amazon Drive" in 2015 ...
Unlimited cloud storage!
$11.99/year for photos and $59.99/year for everything:
At the time, anyone familiar with cloud storage (Dropbox, Sync.com, Box etc.) knew that Amazon was undercutting their rivals (selling at a loss) to enter the consumer market.
Worse, many cloud providers resell AWS storage (Dropbox did at the time, and was an Amazon customer).
Amazon ran this "loss leader" for almost 2 years, hoping to drive the competition out.
In the end all they did was upset existing AWS customers, and eventually duped their own newly minted Amazon Drive customers, because they shuttered the service 2 years later (the losses started adding up on both sides):
This is actually kinda ironic, given that US is generally considered to be more on the side of the spectrum that strongly believes in the "invisible hand of the market" - and so it would make more sense for anti-trust to be defined in terms that would protect that hand from being "broken". And indeed, it was so defined originally, until this new standard came to be. Since then, we've seen steadily increasing market concentration , and the corresponding decline in competition, all while being assured that it's not harmful to us as consumers, and with some people even openly extolling the virtues of monopolies for consumers (e.g. Thiel).
To me, these sound very similar to the arguments that are used to justify "benevolent dictatorships", except here we're talking about economic power rather than political (and, of course, the two are not independent).
That's actually allowed by the contestable-market framing, at least in some cases. It all depends what you mean by "a complete monopoly" and "wiping out" competition - does it happen via some "natural" cost advantages, or has the company been building up an abusive "moat" around their position. Though even in the former case, economic theory implies that forcing a break-up of the firm that isolates the "naturally dominating" part of its business, and then subjecting that to appropriate regulation and market-openness requirements, can be a highly efficient approach and lead to improved consumer welfare.
This is part of the reason I think there should be concern over Amazon, Google & Apple's profitability (and to a lesser extent Microsoft and Valve) creating a walled garden app store opens up all sorts of crazy anti-trust exposure, just because the FTC is currently declawed doesn't mean that exposure doesn't exist, that risk is just being deferred.
In cases like Amazon where they are actively competing against competitors on their own platform... the question of how their suggestion algorithm works is a huge can of legal liability.
Aren't they known to operate at a loss to undercut the competition, and couldn't taxi drivers bring them to court for that?
At the end of the day, antitrust legislation exists to protect consumers and markets, not established businesses. Prices under cost, in isolation, pretty much can't be antitrust violations by definition. They have to be used to effect a harm to the market in other ways.
>The paper could also spur the Federal Trade Commission to make a simple rule change that would lay bare Amazon’s practices. And, it could blow up a scheme that Uber, Lime, and numerous other startups have been accused of undertaking.
"Both of these outcomes reflect consumers failing to share in Amazon’s bounty, which is key for current antitrust law. Right now, anti-competitive conduct like predatory pricing is judged under the “consumer welfare standard,” which has been interpreted to mean simply whether a market dominated by a single company results in higher or lower prices. But even though prices are the same on Amazon, consumers are arguably missing out, Sussman explains, because they’re not benefiting from Amazon’s soaring profits. “It’s illegal and even the most conservative neoclassical thinker would agree,” he says."
Ex: Purchased Whole Foods and have brought down those prices overall plus building Amazon Go stores which offer a much better consumer experience than traditional grocery. Amazon's Web Services platform has leveled the playing field and enabled many startups. Amazon has pressured almost all other retailers online & offline to offer free or cheap delivery which is great for consumers. Walmart would likely never have done this without pressure from Amazon.
 Except banks and toasters which is... a weird example case
How about quickie marts selling underpriced drinks in the back... but you usually end up buying other things on your way to the drinks that have the big margins. The drinks are probably undercutting other stores.
That said if a drink stand (maybe a food-cart) was unable to match the prices offered by a quickie mart because they were selling at a loss - then I think we've returned to a situation where loss leading is creating a barrier to market entry.
The quickie mart is a really good example (I also like toy stores that sell cheap diapers to try and leverage free eyeballs as they pass through the store) where the market has a very low natural level of competition and there aren't as many specialized sellers - I think in these cases a loss-leader could be permitted on a small scale, but still be held subject to legal action if the disparity started suppressing the local market.
(Also, sorry, I didn't mean to criticize the bank toaster example, I was actually quite amused by it, I've never heard that described as a loss-leader but it totally is)
In fact historically this has not happened before Anti-Trust laws. It has basically been used by competitors who couldn't compete on the market so they went to their friends in government to stop their competition. Since they didn't want to argue 'Their product is better and cheaper' they argued, 'Its predatory pricing, as soon as I'm gone this company is gone raise prices'.
The first US anti-trust law was enacted because butchers were extremely angry about centralized slaughtering houses that used refrigerated trains to transport meat. Classic special interest politics. But somehow 150 years later the evil centralized slaughtering houses haven't raised the prices yet.
The world has yet to see another monopoly on the scale of Standard Oil, and no, Amazon (specifically in the E-commerce market) is nowhere even close to that. One law student's "predatory pricing" is just another business' loss-leader.
I hope Mr.Sussman will one day acquire the knowledge that he won't be the first nor the last to come up with ideas on how to challenge Amazon.
To me it's very obvious that Amazon has a monopoly that is harmful to retailers. It also seems straightforward that it is an undesirable situation for consumers because it puts everyone at the mercy of this monopoly. Just because it isn't obvious that they are screwing us yet doesn't mean we should let them have total control until they do.
Anyone who wants to sell online has to worry what Amazon is going to do with them.
It's as if there was a big public square in the middle of the city and some day one of the vendors bought the entire square and then started charging all of the other vendors for the privilege of using the square.
The reason they are successful I think is because people need a platform for online shopping. Websites are not that platform. What I think we need are public decentralized protocols that vendors, logistics, and applications can plug into. Similar to what Amazon is doing now, but not controlled by one company who is also a competitor.