[Note: This item comes from reader Randall Head. DLH]
The High-Speed Trading Behind Your Amazon Purchase
Beneath the placid surface of product pages lies an unseen world of bots, algorithms, flash crashes and fierce competition.
By CHRISTOPHER MIMS
Mar 26 2017
I wanted to buy some mini marshmallows recently, so I went on Amazon. Perhaps because of their resemblance to packing material—light, bulky, ubiquitous—I figured they’d be cheap. But when I found the most popular brand, not only did the marshmallows cost twice what I’d pay at my local store, but the price had skyrocketed overnight.
Just beneath the placid surface of a typical product page on Amazon lies an unseen world, a system where third-party vendors can sell products alongside Amazon’s own goods. It’s like a stock market, complete with day traders, code-slinging quants, artificial-intelligence algorithms and, yes, flash crashes.
Amazon gave people and companies the ability to sell on Amazon.com in 2000, and it has since grown into a juggernaut, representing 49% of the goods Amazon ships. Amazon doesn’t break out numbers for the portion of its business driven by independent sellers, but that translates to tens of billions in revenue a year. Out of more than 2 million registered sellers, 100,000 each sold more than $100,000 in goods in the past year, Peter Faricy, Amazon’s vice president in charge of the division that includes outside sellers, said at a conference last week.
It’s clear, after talking to sellers and the software companies that empower them, that the biggest of these vendors are growing into sophisticated retailers in their own right. The top few hundred use pricing algorithms to battle with one another for the coveted “Buy Box,” which designates the default seller of an item. It’s the Amazon equivalent of a No. 1 ranking on Google search, and a tremendous driver of sales.
Amazon’s retail business “is like this massive slowed-down stock exchange,” says Juozas Kaziukėnas, founder and chief executive of Marketplace Pulse, a business-intelligence firm focused on e-commerce. The usual market dynamics are at work: Sellers entering and leaving the market, temporary scarcity when someone runs out of stock or a manufacturer falls behind, and sellers testing consumers and each other with high and low prices.
The vendor of the marshmallows I wanted told me his high price was an attempt to bait competitors into raising their own asking prices for the item. This works because sellers of commodity items on Amazon are constantly monitoring and updating their prices, sometimes hundreds of thousands of times a day across thousands of items, says Mr. Kaziukėnas. Most use “rules-based” pricing systems, which simply seek to match competitors’ prices or beat them by some small fraction. If those systems get into bidding wars, items offered by only a few sellers can suffer sudden price collapses—“flash crashes.”
More sophisticated systems for pricing are offered by companies like New York City-based Feedvisor, which claims to use artificial intelligence to learn the market dynamics behind every item in a catalog. This system is “set it and forget it,” says Barry Lampert, one of Feedvisor’s customers and a top-500 seller on Amazon. The algorithm will often raise the price on items in a seller’s catalog, to see if other sellers will follow suit. The goal is to maximize sales while avoiding bidding wars that can be a race to the bottom.
The result, said my marshmallow merchant, is that the customer isn’t always getting the absolute best price, especially compared with in-store retail. But the point of Amazon, he adds, isn’t to offer a consumer the absolute lowest price possible; it’s to offer the lowest price possible given the convenience that Amazon offers. “Free shipping,” after all, isn’t free for the seller.