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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Amazon, Friction, and the FTC

Amazon, Friction, and the FTC

By Ben Thompson, Stratechery

It was Friday morning, and I needed sunglasses — specifically the nerdy ones that fit on top of a pair of prescription glasses. I wasn’t sure where to buy them — my dad (and who else would know better) suggested Walmart — but Amazon had a few; the only problem is that I was leaving early Saturday morning on a fishing trip, and surely that wouldn’t be sufficient time for e-commerce!

In fact, it was more than enough: Amazon had delivery options of 12-4pm, 4-8pm, or 4-8am the next morning; four hours later I had extra sunglasses in hand (and Walmart, for the record, didn’t have any).

This wasn’t the first time I’d leveraged Amazon’s same-day delivery: I was shocked to even see that it was an option when I arrived back in the U.S. and needed an ethernet cable at 4am; it showed up at 9:30am. It is fairly new, though; from the Wall Street Journal earlier this year:

Amazon.com Inc. is expanding ultrafast delivery options, a sign that it remains committed to pushing its logistics system for speed as it scales back plans in other areas. The tech giant is continuing to devote resources to facilities and services structured to deliver packages to customers in less than a day. The expansions are happening at a crucial point for Amazon, which faces competition for fast-delivery options while Chief Executive Officer Andy Jassy puts a renewed focus on profits.

A central part of Amazon’s ultrafast delivery strategy is its network of warehouses that the company calls same-day sites. The facilities are a fraction of the size of Amazon’s large fulfillment warehouses and are designed to prepare products for immediate delivery. In contrast, the larger Amazon warehouses typically rely on delivery stations closer to customers for the final stage of shipping.

Amazon has opened about 45 of the smaller sites since 2019 and could expand to at least 150 centers in the next several years, according to MWPVL International Inc., which tracks Amazon warehouse operations. The sites have primarily opened near large cities and deliver the most popular 100,000 items in Amazon’s catalog, MWPVL said. New locations recently opened in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Phoenix, according to Amazon, which declined to provide information on how many of the same-day sites it has.

The reason to bring this program up now is to provide some personal context about the FTC’s latest lawsuit, this time against Amazon. Again from the Wall Street Journal:

The Federal Trade Commission sued Amazon.com on Wednesday, alleging the retail giant worked for years to enroll consumers without consent into Amazon Prime and made it difficult to cancel their subscriptions to the program. The FTC’s complaint, filed in federal court in Seattle, alleged that Amazon has duped millions of consumers into enrolling in Amazon Prime, a $139 annual subscription service with more than 200 million members worldwide that has helped Amazon become an integral part of many American households’ shopping habits.

“Amazon tricked and trapped people into recurring subscriptions without their consent, not only frustrating users but also costing them significant money,” FTC Chair Lina Khan said. The complaint, which is partially redacted, is the culmination of an investigation that began in March 2021. The FTC, a federal agency tasked with enforcing antitrust laws and consumer protection laws, seeks monetary civil penalties without providing a dollar amount.

I started with my own anecdote to explain why I am not personally familiar with the FTC’s complaints about the ease of signing up for Prime and the difficulty of cancelling: I haven’t had even a thought of going through either process for years. Indeed, even though I only live in the U.S. for a part of the year Prime is still worth it (and you get international shipping considerations as well).

It was Friday morning, and I needed sunglasses — specifically the nerdy ones that fit on top of a pair of prescription glasses. I wasn’t sure where to buy them — my dad (and who else would know better) suggested Walmart — but Amazon had a few; the only problem is that I was leaving early Saturday morning on a fishing trip, and surely that wouldn’t be sufficient time for e-commerce!

In fact, it was more than enough: Amazon had delivery options of 12-4pm, 4-8pm, or 4-8am the next morning; four hours later I had extra sunglasses in hand (and Walmart, for the record, didn’t have any).

This wasn’t the first time I’d leveraged Amazon’s same-day delivery: I was shocked to even see that it was an option when I arrived back in the U.S. and needed an ethernet cable at 4am; it showed up at 9:30am. It is fairly new, though; from the Wall Street Journal earlier this year:

Amazon.com Inc. is expanding ultrafast delivery options, a sign that it remains committed to pushing its logistics system for speed as it scales back plans in other areas. The tech giant is continuing to devote resources to facilities and services structured to deliver packages to customers in less than a day. The expansions are happening at a crucial point for Amazon, which faces competition for fast-delivery options while Chief Executive Officer Andy Jassy puts a renewed focus on profits.

A central part of Amazon’s ultrafast delivery strategy is its network of warehouses that the company calls same-day sites. The facilities are a fraction of the size of Amazon’s large fulfillment warehouses and are designed to prepare products for immediate delivery. In contrast, the larger Amazon warehouses typically rely on delivery stations closer to customers for the final stage of shipping.

Amazon has opened about 45 of the smaller sites since 2019 and could expand to at least 150 centers in the next several years, according to MWPVL International Inc., which tracks Amazon warehouse operations. The sites have primarily opened near large cities and deliver the most popular 100,000 items in Amazon’s catalog, MWPVL said. New locations recently opened in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Phoenix, according to Amazon, which declined to provide information on how many of the same-day sites it has.

The reason to bring this program up now is to provide some personal context about the FTC’s latest lawsuit, this time against Amazon. Again from the Wall Street Journal:

The Federal Trade Commission sued Amazon.com on Wednesday, alleging the retail giant worked for years to enroll consumers without consent into Amazon Prime and made it difficult to cancel their subscriptions to the program. The FTC’s complaint, filed in federal court in Seattle, alleged that Amazon has duped millions of consumers into enrolling in Amazon Prime, a $139 annual subscription service with more than 200 million members worldwide that has helped Amazon become an integral part of many American households’ shopping habits.

“Amazon tricked and trapped people into recurring subscriptions without their consent, not only frustrating users but also costing them significant money,” FTC Chair Lina Khan said. The complaint, which is partially redacted, is the culmination of an investigation that began in March 2021. The FTC, a federal agency tasked with enforcing antitrust laws and consumer protection laws, seeks monetary civil penalties without providing a dollar amount.

I started with my own anecdote to explain why I am not personally familiar with the FTC’s complaints about the ease of signing up for Prime and the difficulty of cancelling: I haven’t had even a thought of going through either process for years. Indeed, even though I only live in the U.S. for a part of the year Prime is still worth it (and you get international shipping considerations as well).

This, to my mind, is the chief reason why this complaint rubs me the wrong way: even if there is validity to the FTC’s complaints (more on this in a moment), the overall thrust of the Prime value proposition seems overwhelmingly positive for consumers; surely there are plenty of other products and subscriptions that aren’t just bad for consumers on the edges but also in their overall value proposition and reason for existing.

Dark Patterns

The FTC makes two primary allegations in its complaint; the first is about the use of “dark patterns” to sign up for Prime:

For years, Defendant Amazon.com, Inc. (“Amazon”) has knowingly duped millions of consumers into unknowingly enrolling in its Amazon Prime service (“Nonconsensual Enrollees” or “Nonconsensual Enrollment”). Specifically, Amazon used manipulative, coercive, or deceptive user-interface designs known as “dark patterns” to trick consumers into enrolling in automatically-renewing Prime subscriptions…

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