Monday, 17 February 2014

Amazon 10K 2013 - a profitable services company with a loss-making retailer attached? Amazon through the looking glass.

Another year, another Amazon 10k, another conjuring trick

So Amazon have published their annual report (10K) for 2013. I've looked in previous posts at some of the numbers and trends, especially their ongoing treatment of "free shipping" type offers as a marketing expense.

As usual, they confuse the data by presenting shipping as a percentage of total revenue instead of only applicable revenue (i.e. by including services such as AWS, instead of excluding them and looking only at product sales fulfilled by Amazon). Once you strip out the obfuscation, then shipping income has risen in 2011-2013 from 3.7% of sales to 5.5% of sales: a pretty hefty 37% hike over 2 years. Shipping costs, meanwhile have risen from 9.5% of sales to 10.9% of sales (a huge number). Net shipping costs, after a dip last year, have stayed constant 2011-2013 at 5.8% of sales.

Just to put these numbers into context, the cost of subsidising shipping has come down from 49% larger than the marketing budget to a mere 12% larger than the marketing budget.

Where it all gets a bit more interesting is when you start to strip out the effects of shipping and consider Amazon as a retailer of products only i.e. exclude their services. According to their 10K, "product sales represent revenue from sales of products and related shipping fees". So presumably, deduct the shipping fees and you find out what their true product-only sales are.

Similarly, cost of sales apparently includes shipping fees, so we should strip these out to get to actual "product" figures only. If we do this, we end up with gross profits of $10.26Bn on sales of $57.81Bn, or a gross margin of 17.7%.

Look no margins!

The first thing to note is that this is significantly less than the 27.2% mentioned in the 10K, although to be fair they do point out that gross margin is not a particularly sensible way to measure their overall business. No it isn't, but it is a fair way to measure their business purely as a retailer.

The second thing to note, is that these figures are gross margins: they exclude variable (i.e. non-fixed) operating costs. Being very kind and treating marketing, I.T., content and admin costs all as fixed costs, then we are left with the costs of fulfilment as a variable operating cost.

What happens then when we try to calculate an operating margin excluding services and (temporarily) excluding shipping fees and income: operating margins on product sales suddenly look quite sick: 6.4% in 2011, 4.4% in 2012, and a mere 2.9% in 2013. Wafer thin in other words. Once you figure in net shipping costs (fees minus costs) of 6.1% it all starts to look a bit sick.

It's all rather "Amazon-through-the-looking-glass". Suddenly we see a loss-making (and barely break-even prior to 2013) retailer effectively acting as the traffic-driving operation for a very profitable marketplace and services business.

One day, when they finally get big... NOT

And before the standard cry of "wait until they reach their full scale" goes up, then I should point out that this excludes anything that might be considered a cost that reduces with scale. It's all directly variable costs - shipping, fulfilment, cost-of-goods on which scale has no effect at all.

What then is the biggest threat to Amazon? No it isn't BestBuy getting their act together, it's eBay (and its equivalents in other markets such as Allegro, Rakuten and TaoBao) getting theirs together instead. If you really want to scare the life out of Amazon, open a marketplace with half their fees. Because their retail operation isn't the part that makes the profits, it's just their visitor source.

No wonder the BestBuy's of this world have a few problems. They're up against a retailer that  isn't particularly interested in making a profit from their retail operations!