@scleland: Why Amazon Buying WholeFoods Will Attract Serious Antitrust Scrutiny

In proposing to buy WholeFoods for $14b, Amazon has surprisingly invited unwelcome serious antitrust investigation into, and public discussion about, Amazon’s core conflicted retail/MarketPlace business model and the many alleged predatory, discriminatory, and unfair standard Amazon business practices, that Amazon commits, not only in the grocery business segment, but in all other retail segments.

In statingthe parties expect to close the transaction in the second half of 2017,” that means Amazon expects no serious antitrust investigation of whether the transaction “substantially lessens competition,” and thus no “second request” from antitrust authorities requesting more information and questions to answer.

If a “second request” comes, which is likely, there is no way the companies can continue to “expect” the deal will be approved in 2017. That’s because such an investigative process effectively does not have any deadline for the reviewing authority, DOJ or the FTC, to either: approve, approved with conditions, or challenge the deal….

The combination of: the likely multiple alleged anticompetitive behaviors; the likely number of complaints and complainants; the online-offline complexity of investigating the complaints; the importance of this case as an online-offline antitrust merger precedent; the exceptional size, scope, reach, speed and non-transparency of Amazon’s online business; and the expected high-public profile of this transaction; all would auger for the reviewing authority to err on the side of caution and investigate the transaction fully.

Let me be clear here about what I am saying and not saying.

First, what’s obvious here is that the transaction will attract a lot of concern in private and publicly in multiple dimensions. That’s precisely because of the many serious implications this “Everything Store” proposed transaction will have for the future of competition in many markets, which in turn will delay Amazon’s transaction timetable.

…[M]ost of the antitrust concern will come with the exceptional market power that Amazon wields online, combined with the under-appreciated conflict in its business model where half of its retail revenues come directly from consumer-customers, and the other half of its retail revenues come from its MarketPlace offering where Amazon is the mall and gatekeeper for around 15 of its top 20 grocery competitor-customers, that have had to capitulate to Amazon’s market power and operate on Amazon Marketplace in order to reach all their offline customers online.

In layman’s terms, the problem Amazon’s retail intermediary model causes competitors is that it simultaneously is a direct retail competitor overall, at the same time it is the dominant online broker that has disintermediated its competitors from their customers when they are in the online world, and in that broker role, they are routinely criticized as not being an “honest broker” or as being a “non-neutral platform,” that routinely self-deals anti-competitively, because Amazon has market power to extract it with impunity, and no antitrust or regulatory accountability to speak of – to prevent it.

[T]his transaction review is the first genuine opportunity and powerful legal process for those alleging anti-competitive harm by Amazon to have antitrust authorities’ full ear in a confidential process where warranted.

Read the post on the Precursor Blog

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