Thursday, March 10, 2016

Vertical Integration at Amazon

The Wall Street Journal reports today that Amazon will be moving aggressively to expand its in-house logistics capabilities.  Here is the lead of the article: Inc. is taking to the air with a fleet of planes, part of a broader effort to reduce its inflated shipping costs. The Seattle retailer plans to shuttle merchandise around the U.S. using as many as 20 Boeing Co. 767 aircraft it will lease from Air Transport Services Group Inc. News of the deal sent the air-cargo transportation company’s shares soaring as much as 24% on Wednesday.

Does this vertical integration strategy make sense?  Let's start with the first sentence of the Wall Street Journal article.  Will the move reduce costs for Amazon?  One would find it hard to believe that Amazon can move goods around the country more efficiently than UPS and FedEx.  Clearly, they cannot match the efficiency of those established players at the moment.  One does not save money simply by doing something in-house.  Some managers think you save because you eliminate the profit margin earned by the supplier (UPS and FedEx in this case).  However, that is not the case because you must invest heavily in new assets in order to conduct this activity within the firm.  Moreover, you may not be as effective at conducting this activity as your supplier.  Thus, it's not clear that profits will automatically improve.

Why then would they pursue vertical integration?  There may be other valid reasons.  First, they may be trying to offset supplier power in this case. In other words, building an in-house capability gives them negotiating leverage with big players such as UPS and FedEx.   Second, UPS and FedEx may be worried about investing in assets specific to Amazon.   Economists call this situation the "holdup" problem that arises when transaction-specific assets are in place.  If UPS and FedEx invest in assets that are unique to Amazon, they may find themselves in a poor negotiating position vis a vis Amazon.  Thus, Amazon may have to invest in these assets because their partners are reluctant to do so.  Finally, Amazon may make their entire supply chain more efficient through closer integration of their ordering, fulfillment, and delivery services.   Conducting delivery in-house may enable that closer integration and perhaps some resulting efficiency.   

In the end, it will be interesting to see how the vertical integration strategy plays out.  Once again, though, Amazon will have more latitude than most publicly traded companies, because investors have proven to be quite patient with them.   Most publicly traded firms would have a hard time justifying this type of vertical integration strategy, which may take some time to pay off.  Amazon will likely have the time to develop this strategy and realize the efficiency gains over time.  

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