President Donald Trumps latest bullying target, online retailer Amazon, is a corporate colossus known for vanquishing almost anything that gets in its way.
It has beaten out a long line of brick-and-mortar retail giants long after knocking down thousands of mom-and-pop stores. The company is generally beloved by its 135 million U.S. customers, a number larger than the combined vote for Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016. And it has firmly entrenched itself in the fabric of American life well beyond affluent, blue-state voters who enjoy the ease of ordering and speed of shipping.
Its a corporate foe unlike anything the president has ever faced, a challenge he appears to be looking past to bash Jeff Bezos, Amazons CEO, who also owns the Washington Post — which Trump sees as a political foe.
Trump is wrapping his tirades against Amazon in familiar old-economy vs. new-economy rhetoric, portraying himself as the protector of traditional retail stores much in the way he campaigned as a defender of the coal and steel industries.
“You have retailers all over the United States that are going out of business,” Trump told reporters Tuesday. “If you look at the cost that were subsidizing, were giving a subsidy to Amazon.”
“The magnitude that Amazon has achieved is just enormous” — Joshua N. Lowitz of Consumer Intelligence Research Partners
While the president may rage about Amazons contract with the U.S. Postal Service or its collection of state and local taxes, Wall Street analysts are not exactly quaking over Trumps attacks.
Many investors question the presidents command of the facts and doubt his ability to inflict long-term damage on a company that could be the first ever with a $1 trillion market value. Though Trumps repeated tweets and reports of his plans to target Amazon did shave nearly $60 billion off the companys stock market value in the past week, the stock bounced back amid reports that the White House does not currently have any plans to turn Trumps tirades into action.
“We expect more chatter out of the White House on Amazon throughout Trumps time in office,” Piper Jaffray analyst Michael Olson wrote in a note to clients. “We, however, believe that little will change which has the potential to negatively impact Amazons growth trajectory. Specifically, we find it unlikely that the Post Office will materially raise rates for Amazon deliveries, given Amazon would likely shift to alternative shipping options.”
Amazons Prime membership may currently skew to higher-income households, but the company does not fit neatly into the kind of blue-state vs. red-state, old-economy vs. new-economy battles Trump likes to wage.
“The magnitude that Amazon has achieved is just enormous,” said Joshua N. Lowitz of Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, which estimates roughly 90 million Americans are members of the companys Amazon Prime service and 135 million overall use the company to order products online.
“We are talking about more than half the adult population of the United States, and theyve started efforts to make it more appealing to people with differing means,” Lowitz said. “And its not an urban phenomenon. When you get to the kind of numbers Amazon has, its not just about the coasts.”
In recent days, Trumps Amazon-bashing has focused largely on the companys tax collection and shipping practices — though his remarks muddle some of the facts.
Like many other businesses, Amazon negotiates discounted rates on packages sent through the Postal Service. But by law, Amazons payments to USPS must cover shipment costs — meaning the company could not legally pay “very below cost” as Trump has stated.
Trump has also lamented that “fully tax-paying retailers” are going out of business because there is “not a level playing field” with Amazon. He has also tweeted that Amazon pays “little or no taxes to state & local governments.”
But Amazon now collects sales tax in every state that has it — succumbing to years of pressure from state and local governments. In most states, Amazon still does not collect sales tax for third-party merchants who use the site, however, a practice that Pennsylvania, Washington and South Carolina have sought to change through legislation or litigation.
“The tax issue is largely irrelevant; that ship has already sailed. Amazon is already collecting most of these taxes, and collecting a few more wont matter” — Neil Stern, senior partner at consulting firm McMillanDoolittle
Short of an unlikely antitrust lawsuit to break up the company, Trumps weapons include bully-pulpit bashings, attempting to force a new USPS contract and possibly some new requirements for tax collection. He could also stymie Amazons cloud-computing contracts with the Pentagon and other federal agencies.
Analysts say Trumps attacks could wind up denting the companys reputation, especially among those already worried about its growing dominance in online retailing and its impact on brick-and-mortar stores. But the president faces long odds in going after one of the most admired companies in America. And some of his moves could wind up helping Amazon.
“The tax issue is largely irrelevant; that ship has already sailed. Amazon is already collecting most of these taxes, and collecting a few more wont matter,” said Neil Stern, senior partner at consulting firm McMillanDoolittle. “And if you rip up the USPS deal, Amazon will just continue to build out its own delivery service. And the fact is, people love the services this company provides, Its been No. 1 in customer satisfaction for 15 years running. Peeling people away will be difficult.”
On the antitrust front, analysts generally point to Amazons relatively small market share in each of its product categories and its focus on low prices as reasons it likely wont face significant action from the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department.
Jeff Bezos, chief executive officer of Amazon | Drew Angerer/Getty Images
But liberals including Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have raised questions about Amazons market power, and Trumps crusade could discourage the company from more big acquisitions following its takeover of high-end grocery chain Whole Foods.
Where Trump could draw significant blood is in convincing his base that Amazon — and Bezos Washington Post — are bad actors and consumers should go elsewhere.
Walmart, which already serves a somewhat less affluent customer base than Amazon, is making a major push into consumer-friendly online ordering. And if Trump decides to ratchet up his attacks, he could theoretically drive some customers away from Amazon.
“His long-term impact could be on the reputational quotient,” Stern said. “He could really do some damage on that front. You can question the propriety of a president of the United States attacking a private company in this way. Its head-scratching. But he does have a very large bully pulpit.”