Amazon's Australian invasion: separating hype from reality

And so it begins.

Amazon, the $US500 billion ($630 billion) gorilla stalking Australian retail, took a giant step towards establishing a bona fide e-commerce presence in this country last week. It appointed one of its top German executives to run its local operations, and signed a lease on a former Bunnings Warehouse space on the outskirts of Melbourne for its first fulfilment centre.

In a press release heralding this news, Amazon declared it would create hundreds of jobs in Australia. In fact, Robert Bruce, Amazon's director of operations in this country, went quite a bit further than that. "This is just the start. Over time, we will bring thousands of new jobs to Australia and millions of dollars of investment," he said.

These claims - which were backed up by a Victorian government minister - were mostly taken at face value. (A spokesman for the company said there were no rebates or state funding paid to the company that influenced the decision to set up first in Victoria).

And it is true Amazon is already advertising for 140 positions in Sydney and 20 jobs in Melbourne. If and when it fills them it has made good on its claim.

Except I think there is quite a bit more to it than that.

How many net jobs in Australia will Amazon create? At least one study in the US has claimed Amazon has destroyed 149,000 more jobs than it has created in that country, though others argue the reverse. What will the quality of jobs Amazon creates in Australia (its warehouses overseas have a reputation for being gruelling places to work) be like?

This got me thinking. So many bold predictions have been made about what Amazon will do in Australia. How many will prove accurate?

Amazon will smash Australian retail

Who said it? Various investment bank analysts, fund managers and observers.

Likelihood it will happen: Reasonably likely, with exceptions.

"Winter is coming," Robert Luciano, a respected portfolio manager at Sydney and New York based VGI Partners, which owns Amazon shares, told me earlier this year of Australian retailers and Amazon. "These guys have no idea what is going to hit them."

Credit Suisse analysts said back in March that within five years, Amazon could slice one-third off JB Hi-Fi's earnings, and cut Myer's in half. With global scale, advanced logistics expertise, and no pressure to generate profits (let alone pay dividends), Amazon has multiple advantages local players won't be able to live with.

Venture capitalist Daniel Petre recently said the Australian retail industry is going to get "smacked terribly" by Amazon. He argued retail in this country can be a "sh-tty experience". It's hard to disagree with that.

"Amazon will not smash Australian retail"

Who said it? Gerry Harvey and other retail incumbents. Bank of America Merril Lynch.

Likelihood it will happen: Good luck with that.

Gerry Harvey has been the most vociferous critic of Amazon. Among other things, he has, in unfortunate comments, called for it to be banned from Australia "like Donald Trump not letting the Muslims in." Most recently, the Harvey Norman founder has said Amazon's expansion in Australia will be slower than people expect. He has argued the logistical challenges it will face here are being underestimated.

That may sound like wishful thinking. But last week Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst David Errington echoed these sentiments. He said the recent sell-off in local retail stocks was "unjustified" and noted the sparsely populated nature of our continent means it will be hard for Amazon to replicate the service it has achieved overseas.

"Amazon will hurt traditional media"

Who said it? Morgan Stanley analysts

Likelihood it will happen: No way!!! OK, it probably will.

Retailers account for about 20 per cent of spending in Australia's $14 billion a year advertising market, according to Morgan Stanley research published in April. If retailers get smashed, this spending will shrink.

The good news is, Amazon itself spends billions of dollars a year on advertising. The bad news is, that works out to just 5 per cent of its sales. And even worse, most of that money is spent on search advertising, which means it goes to Google, not traditional media. Ugh.

"Amazon will bid for sports rights in this part of the world"

Who said it? Various news outlets.

Likelihood it will happen: It's possible.

Amazon recently outbid Twitter to gain rights to stream Thursday night NFL matches in the US. It has spent significant sums bolstering its online TV streaming platform, which is one of the key perks of subscribing to Prime, its faster delivery program.

There are already signs it will pursue this strategy outside of the US. Amazon recently secured rights to stream tennis matches in the UK. That prompted Foxtel boss Peter Tonagh to immediately call for Australia's anti-siphoning regime to be abolished, because of course he wants that.

It also prompted the New Zealand press to somewhat wildly speculate whether Amazon will try to secure broadcast rights for All Blacks rugby games in that country, where it does not yet have a presence.

"Amazon will help keep a lid on interest rates"

Who said it? The Reserve Bank, kind of.

Likelihood it will happen: That's above my pay grade.

The RBA noted last week that a factor likely to dampen inflation, and thus the chances of an interest rate hike, was "increased competition from new entrants in the retail industry." This was widely interpreted as a nod to Amazon, even though it's not even up and running yet.

It is often said that the closest way to an Australian's heart is through lower interest rates. OK, no one has said that, but we are property-obsessed people, with among the heaviest household debt burdens in the world.

If Jeff Bezos can somehow contribute to keeping a lid on mortgage rates, then Australia will truly be his.

The story Amazon's Australian invasion: separating hype from reality first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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