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Amazon faces unprecedented perils even as its profits hit new heights

Amazon antitrust regulation

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically accelerated growth in online shopping. And arguably the biggest winner from that shift was Amazon.com Inc., according to the newly-released 2021 Amazon Report.

Amazon’s revenue, which had grown by a healthy 26.3% compound annual rate from 2010 to 2019, leaped ahead by 37.6% in 2020, growing to $386.06 billion in 2020 from $280.52 billion a year earlier. And it’s been more of the same in 2021, as Amazon, the No. 1 North American online retailer in the 2021 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000, posted 34.8% revenue growth to reach $221.60 billion in the first six months of 2021 versus $164.36 billion in the same period of 2020.

The huge growth in revenue led to a surge in profits, in part because more sales meant lower per-unit fulfillment costs, as Amazon’s massive investment in its delivery network was spread over more orders.  Another contributor to higher profits is the growing share of Amazon sales from marketplace sellers, which accounted for 62% of orders in 2020, up from 34% in 2010, according to Digital Commerce 360.

However, the biggest contributor to Amazon’s profits remains its market-leading Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud computing unit, which has accounted for well over half of Amazon’s net income in recent years and 52.6% in the first half of 2021. Revenue from advertising is also growing rapidly and most of that income falls directly to the e-retailer’s bottom line.

Despite spending more than $11.5 billion in COVID-19-related expenses in 2020, Amazon eclipsed its previous record for quarterly profits in each of the five three-month periods from the second quarter of 2020 through the second quarter of 2021.

Even with founder Jeff Bezos stepping down as CEO in July 2021 to take the post of executive chairman, the future would seem blindingly bright for Amazon and its new CEO Andy Jassy, the long-term AWS chief. But there is one ominous cloud in Amazon’s sky: the threat of government intervention to curb the company’s growth tactics and possibly force it to sell off important business units.

President Joe Biden has appointed key antitrust positions to prominent Amazon critics, who argue that Amazon’s dominant position in U.S. ecommerce demands government action to protect competitors and ultimately consumers. They’re right when they say Amazon is increasingly dominant: In 2020, Amazon accounted for 40.7% of U.S. online retail sales, up from 38.8% in 2019 and only 11.1% in 2011.

The 2021 Amazon Report from Digital Commerce 360 will provide detail on many aspects of Amazon’s business. But these are the three key trends that emerge:

The threat of new and onerous regulation is real. A bill before Congress could force Amazon and other major technology companies to split off important parts of their business, while a lawsuit filed by the District of Columbia’s attorney general seeks to curb some of Amazon’s business practices, such as denying the coveted Buy Box—where shoppers can buy with a single click—to marketplace sellers that offer an item for less on other websites.

But the biggest threat comes from the new chairperson of the Federal Trade Commission, Lina Khan, who came to prominence by arguing that Amazon’s ecommerce dominance requires a rethinking of U.S. antitrust law. Khan has already taken steps that would make it easier for the FTC to investigate Amazon and experts agree there is more to come.

Free of government intervention, Amazon’s ecommerce dominance is likely to grow. But the No. 1 online retailer in the U.S. can no longer be assured it will be able to operate with that kind of freedom in its home country.

The 2021 Amazon Report includes:

The 2021 Amazon Report is available as a downloadable PDF for $499. It is also included in our Gold and Platinum Memberships, which provide full access to all of Digital Commerce 360’s published reports and certain online retailer databases.