Amazon: Free Shipping and Low Prices Don’t Add Up To a Moat

The smartest guy in financial journalism, James B. Stewart, earlier this month in his Saturday New York Times column, praised Amazon (AMZN) for taking the long view in building its business and criticized the company’s critics for failing to appreciate the company’s steadfastness.

Amazon revenue continues to rise spectacularly. Its profits, however, have fallen, as margins are squeezed by aggressive product pricing and surging use of the company’s popular free-shipping option. So, the question seems to be, will those strategies help Amazon build what Warren Buffett would call a moat – a protective fortress around its business that long-term allows it to reap substantial profits and build value?

Stewart, author of several fabulous business books, including “Den of Thieves,” about the late-1980s Wall Street scandals, and a Pulitzer Prize winner for his work at the Wall Street Journal, is such a well-regarded thinker about companies that we at YCharts were forced to stop and consider his point of view; he’s not just another pro-Amazon tout.

We have regularly written that we view Amazon as overvalued and have marveled at how its recent growth has made it less profitable, not more so.

The critics have certainly influenced Amazon’s share price in recent months.

Amazon.com Stock Chart

Amazon.com Stock Chart by YCharts

Yet the PE remains in the 90s, and this for a company with a plunging and razor-thin profit margin.

Amazon.com PE Ratio Chart

Amazon.com PE Ratio Chart by YCharts

Stewart’s admiration of Amazon certainly makes sense if you’re an Amazon customer. The service is wonderful, and like so many American shoppers during this holiday season we have ventured into actual stores very few times because shopping online – from Amazon and its many imitators – is so much easier. That change in consumer behavior seems to suggest a moat is forming. But does the moat encircle Amazon protectively, or is it instead a moat encircling bricks-and-mortar retailers into a market-share-losing ghetto?

The brutal price-comparison ethic Amazon unleashed on the book business years ago helped it take huge market share. But it also rendered the book business less profitable for all players. And as that ethic unfolds across product categories – aided most recently by Amazon’s Price Check app – results at Amazon and Best Buy (BBY) would suggest the greater transparency on pricing is helping consumers, but not so much retailers.

Amazon.com Net Income TTM Chart

Amazon.com Net Income TTM Chart by YCharts

Running Borders out of business, sadly for Amazon and other booksellers, didn’t make the book business more profitable again. Rather, the pricing model Amazon brought to the market seems to have rendered book retailing a crummier business. And it’s also unlikely that consumer electronics and the other categories Amazon is transforming will, once a few large competitors go bust, miraculously become more profitable. There isn’t a shortage of players in any of these markets and the consumer behavior Amazon helped spur – constant price shopping, demanding free or reduced-priced shipping – would seem impossible to reverse.

The Wall Street Journal recently noted the toll free shipping is taking on retailers’ profits. The Journal, noting Amazon’s shrinking margins, said, “Free shipping has likely played a meaningful role in this, although the company hasn’t detailed the cost.”

Actually, Amazon does detail the cost in its 10-K filings (page 26). Its net shipping costs – total shipping costs minus what Amazon collects from customers for shipping – totaled $1.39 billion in 2010, up 63% from $849 million the prior year. Total sales were only growing by 40%. So net shipping costs were equal to 4% of sales in 2010, versus 3.4% in 2009. That trend may have accelerated during 2011, and could largely explain why profits have fallen.

The strategy Stewart lauds is doing a bang-up job of boosting revenue. And consumers love Amazon’s service. But it’s hard to see how the company is going to fatten its margins when competition remains fierce; consumers have been taught to demand low-low prices (and free shipping); and beyond elegant technology, Amazon’s main tools for attracting consumers are both margin killers -- low-low prices and free shipping.

Certainly the Kindle is an attempt to build a moat around Amazon’s book business. Selling the devices at what has been reported as a loss suggests the company sees future payoff from Kindle-owning consumers downloading their reading (no shipping expense here) exclusively from Amazon. But in the more general merchandise categories that increasingly make up Amazon’s sales, it’s hard to see how to insert such a loyalty device.

Stewart’s argument seems in part based on the notion that, forgoing current profits, Amazon must be managing for the long term. But if your very pricey stock is reliant on spectacular revenue growth, a cynic might reason that a strategy of adding sales -- even if they’re increasingly less profitable (or money-losing) – appears short-term and somewhat desperate.

Amazon management is smart, as is Jim Stewart, and investors could be inviting ruin by shorting Amazon shares. But to us, the company hasn’t made a persuasive case that it’s building a moat – just that it’s delivering great service and selling stuff cheaper than the next guy.

Jeff Bailey is an editor for the YCharts Pro Investor Service which includes professional stock charts, stock ratings and portfolio strategies.

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