Five members of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee suggested Monday that Jeff Bezos and other Amazon executives lied or misled Congress when they testified in 2020 and 2019 about the retailer’s use of seller data.
There have been many published complaints from merchants about Amazon copying their best-selling products. The allegation is that Amazon tracks data about the products marketplace retailer sell and then copies popular products, introducing similar versions under its private-label brands such as AmazonBasics batteries and Goodthreads jeans.
The new allegation from members of the Judiciary Committee seemed to neither shock nor worry marketplace sellers that do business on the Amazon marketplace.
“Although the news does not come as a huge surprise to us—considering the very competitive landscape in both the marketplace and advertising spaces—it is frustrating to hear that Amazon may have intentionally misled Congress and downplayed the situation as a whole,” said Dion Rodrigues, marketing director for Pool Supplies Canada in a note to Digital Commerce 360.
Jason Boyce, founder and CEO of Avenue7Media and author of The Amazon Jungle, was similarly unsurprised. “Sellers have known about this kind of behavior from Amazon for a very long time, so there’s nothing new in terms of knowing that certain employees of Amazon use seller data in ways that are against Amazon’s public policy,” he says. “It’s just surprising to see it become so public, especially with Congress’ involvement.”
Rodrigues said his company isn’t particularly concerned about being hurt by how Amazon may, or may not, use seller data. “We feel as if our particular niche in the market has a higher barrier to entry and minimum level of industry-specific knowledge required to effectively perform in,” he said. “This, in addition to the fact that our utilization of Amazon as a sales channel is minimal, our concern about Amazon potentially utilizing our data against us is lower than I’m sure it is for most other merchants.” Pool Supplies Canada is No. 1623 in the 2021 Digital Commerce 360 Next 1000 Report.
Rachel Rice, vice president at PRx Performance, a maker of weight-lifting equipment, was also confident in her company’s ability to sell on the Amazon marketplace without substantial risk. “We have patents on our top-selling products, and we’re fairly niche. Our products wouldn’t be very attractive to Amazon considering their size and weight,” she says. “And for the smaller items in our category—the market is already very saturated.”
Others in the ecommerce industry said there was not enough information available yet from Congress or Amazon to know if something inappropriate is happening with seller data.
“I don’t know if Amazon manipulates search results to favor its own brands,” says Jason Ross, a former Amazon executive and founder of Digital Pedigree, a vendor that helps sellers navigate the Amazon marketplace. “They try really hard to deliver the best possible customer experience in search, which is incredibly challenging.
“Amazon’s search and recommendation algorithms reward successful products,” Ross added. “New products, therefore, struggle to get Page 1 visibility, which is critical to growing traffic and sales velocity. This is a chicken-or-the-egg problem facing every brand launching new products on the platform, even if you’re Amazon.”
Judiciary Committee letter
Five members of the House Judiciary Committee—Democrat Reps. Pramila Jaypal, David Cicilline and Jerrold Nadler as well as Republican Reps. Ken Buck and Matt Gaetz—sent the letter to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy questioning the truthfulness of executives’ testimony and saying the committee is considering “whether a referral of this matter to the Department of Justice for criminal investigation is appropriate.”
The letter comes a week after the Reuters news service published an investigation saying Amazon had deliberately and systematically copied products and rigged search results in India to boost sales of Amazon private-label brands.
The letter calls that reporting “credible” and notes that it “directly contradicts the sworn testimony and representations of Amazon’s top executives—including former CEO Jeffrey Bezos.”
Private labels and public policy
Certainly, Amazon is not alone in offering private-label products. Many retailers offer products under their own brands. In fact, private-label products accounted for 23.4% of all units sold by U.S. supermarkets in 2020 and 19.5% of dollars taken in, according to the Private Label Manufacturers Association.
But Amazon has come under intense criticism for offering its own brands of products. Critics say Amazon copies successful products sold by others on its online marketplaces, and then it uses the appeal of its brand to undermine the sales of third-party sellers of similar goods. Amazon disputes the charge.
There is no doubt Amazon has steadily increased the number of private labels it offers, growing from about 30 brands in 2017, according to ecommerce consulting firm Pattern, to 105 in summer 2021 by Digital Commerce 360’s count, even though the retailer says those products account for only about 1% of total sales.
Amazon provided a rare glimpse into the sales of its own brands when then-CEO Jeff Bezos appeared before the congressional antitrust committee in the summer of 2020. The data Amazon provided then showed its own brands accounted for less than 1% of listings in seven major merchandise categories and, in most cases, less than 1% of sales. Only in the books category did Amazon’s first-party sales surpass those of third-party merchants, and private-label products represented less than 1% of those first-party book sales.
Amazon brands represented the largest share of sales in softlines, which Amazon defines as apparel, accessories and footwear, according to a Digital Commerce 360 analysis of the data Amazon submitted. In that category, Amazon’s brands represented about 2.5% of sales.
One of Amazon’s first, and perhaps its best-known brand, is AmazonBasics, which includes a wide variety of everyday items, such as batteries, tools, coffee makers and yoga mats. Some say that Amazon introduced AmazonBasics in 2009 as a way to encourage shoppers to come back to Amazon more often.
If that’s the case, then Amazon’s success, particularly of its Prime loyalty program may make its private-label products less essential today. And given the criticism the company attracts because of its house brands, experts say Amazon may put less emphasis on them.
Consumer sentiment plays a role
Congressional worries about the power of tech giants are not new. Federal inquiries and investigations come and go on a regular basis. Old-timers in the industry will remember that it was 20 years ago last month that the long antitrust battle over Microsoft ended quietly.
And while the letter from the Judiciary Committee comes at a time when the environment may be ripe for dismantling tech giants, industry insiders say fixing the problems on Amazon’s marketplace won’t be simple.
“I definitely think that Congress must take action to open up competition and also to protect the small businesses that are critical to Amazon’s marketplace success. On the other hand, I’m slightly concerned that the compromises Congress will have to make in order to get legislation passed could create unintended consequences,” Boyce said. “I just hope that our Congressional leaders give this the careful consideration it deserves.”
Confidence in Congress’ ability to address the issues surrounding seller data isn’t high.
Kevin Mahoney, president and founder of FindTape.com LLC (No. 1751 in the Next 1000), testified in a hearing about Wayfair and taxation in 2020, but doesn’t have much faith anything will come out of this probe. “They (members of Congress) talk a good game,” he says. “They like to bring these people in to grill them and have a hearing. But does anything happen? I think it’s just going to be just a lot of hearings and then probably no real action will come out of it.”
Similarly, as seen in the chart below, while consumers have concerns about the power of tech giants such as Amazon, there’s no consensus on what the government should do about it.
Don Davis contributed to this article