With a stroke of the pen, or more likely the click of a mouse, Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos approved the second largest acquisition in the company’s history, when it announced last week that it will buy privately-held Kiva Systems of North Reading Massachusetts for $775 million. Kiva’s orange-colored robots have become the rage among ecommerce companies that are looking to reduce labor costs and collapse the time between a website order and shipment.
Kiva Systems, which opened a new 160,000 square foot facility in May of 2011, had risen to about $100 million in annual revenue, and an unknown level of profitability. As a venture-backed start-up that had undergone a management shakeup two years ago, Kiva Systems, we surmise, had been positioning itself for an IPO, as evidenced by the hiring of a high profile CFO last year. That a bird in the hand may well be worth two in the bush certainly explains the motivation of Kiva’s owners to sell the company.
The same, however, cannot be said of Amazon.com, whose motivation to buy Kiva Systems is less obvious.
Amazon’s acquisitions of recent years, including Audible, Zappos, and Quidsi, the parent of Diapers.com, added new products to sell over its websites. Kiva Systems, on the other hand, makes robots that help retail and ecommerce companies manage their warehouse operations. To be sure, Amazon.com has invested heavily in website development and other technology infrastructure since its inception, and Kiva certainly fits into Amazon’s strategy to add millions of square feet of fulfillment center capacity each year around the world.
And yet, if Amazon.com was already a Kiva Systems customer—and presumably had the ability to purchase tens of millions of dollars of robots over the next several years—why would it pay eight times revenue when there is no evidence to suggest that Amazon has ever paid more than three times revenue—and often substantially less—for any company it has acquired in recent memory?
Theories abound. Could it have been that Kiva gave Amazon a glimpse into its future product plans, which in turn led it to believe that such technology in the hands of its competition would reduce its competitive advantage? Or could it have been a logistics automation vendor that lured Amazon into a bidding war for Kiva?
After reflecting on these questions, we conclude that Amazon.com bought Kiva for four reasons:
Against all odds, Kiva Systems founder Mick Mountz built a substantial enterprise, selling orange colored robots capable of performing incredible feats of industrial strength and cunning. As a replacement for conveyor belts, and human beings wandering miles of warehouse space, Kiva’s robots are able to locate and lift loads of several thousand pounds, moving palettes over a warehouse floor, even in conditions of poor lighting, and ventilation. The labor cost reduction stemming from the elimination of workers who walk several miles each day to retrieve goods from remote parts of the warehouse is a key benefit cited by Kiva’s customers. As the fulfillment center becomes the physical store, and the website a cash register for the retailer, Kiva has become an integral part of many ecommerce vendors’ fulfillment efforts.
Another benefit is making the most obscure and infrequently ordered products as accessible as the most popular items, a key differentiator for an ecommerce site versus a physical store, and one of the many reasons that Amazon.com has been so successful against its brick and mortar competitors.
Just as brick and mortar retailers were keen to stock up on inventory management and replenishment systems in the 80s and 90s for fear of getting pushed out of business by Wal-Mart, so have the country’s leading retailers and ecommerce sites been stocking up on Kiva Robots for fear of being upended or obliterated by Amazon.
Kiva’s Many eCommerce Customers
Known Kiva customers—all of whom compete with Amazon.com in some way, shape, or form—include Staples, the Gap, and Drugstore.com (now owned by Walgreens) which chose Kiva for help in fulfilling orders drawing from a catalog of 50,000 unique non-prescription drugs and health oriented consumer items. Kiva evidently also assists in things like inventory control, forward replenishment, as well as classic pick, pack and ship. Accumen Brands, the Fayetteville Arkansas ecommerce leader that runs trailsedge.com, toughweld.com, scrubshopper.com, and babyhabit.com, was able to install and get Kiva up and running in its 400,000 square foot warehouse in 14 weeks.
Dillards, the multi-channel US retailing giant with annual sales exceeding $6 billion, and 294 sore locations and 13 clearance centers across 29 states also utilizes Kiva, as does Timberland, Dickies, Fisher Price, Under Armour, Crate & Barrel, Toys R Us, Office Depot, SaksFifth Avenue, and Dansko, the footwear maker that ships its shoes to over 2,500 US and international locations. The Gilt Groupe found that it could process orders from website customer click to fulfillment in as little as 15 minutes. Even Follett Corp. the venerable 150 year-old, privately held purveyor of, among other things “pre-owned” textbooks for college students, has been using Kiva for order fulfillment through its stores and website.
To make things easier for retailers, Kiva announced a robot rental program in June of 2011, designed to help ecommerce fulfillment centers handle peak demand during the holiday season, thus easing the burden to purchase a basic system, which is estimated to be in the vicinity of $5 million or so.
Amazon’s Rising Fulfillment Costs
In each of the last two years fulfillment expense—excluding stock-based compensation—has outstripped revenue growth at Amazon.com. Though each of Amazon.com’s operating expense line items, which include marketing, technology and content, and general and admin, have all risen in excess of sales growth, fulfillment expense may be the most labor intensive of Amazon’s operations, and likely susceptible to further automation.
Fulfillment costs in 2011 were $4.4 billion. Assuming that Amazon can shave as much as 10 percent from its fulfillment expenses annually, the acquisition may pay for itself in as little as two years—not to mention the incremental revenue Amazon can generate from selling robots to its competitors, as well as other industries. The ability to avoid additional labor costs during peak shopping seasons, by deploying more or smarter robots, is a benefit that Amazon will reap as well.
In the mean time, Amazon shows now sign of letting up on fulfillment center expansion as it opened 17 new fulfillment centers in 2011, bringing the total to 69 world-wide. This year, it plans to open another 17.
Amazon.com as eCommerce Sphinx
Amazon has stated that it intends to continue to conduct business with Kiva’s customers, most of whom are dyed in the wool competitors. At first glance this might appear to be preposterous. However, when one considers that Amazon licenses elastic cloud computing resources to Netflix even as it competes head to head against it in online movie rentals, and that Amazon sells books that it publishes under its own imprint— alongside books from Random House and virtually every other book publisher—as well as new and used books from their party merchants, one begins to get a sense of how large and intertwined with its competitors are Amazon’s operations.
The extent to which Amazon’s ecommerce competitors will continue to buy robots from a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon is unclear. The acquisition may provide the opportunity for other robot companies to fill the void. These include privately-held Seegrid, a robotic technology company based in Pittsburgh, whose solution is working at Cabela’s.
Fear of Kiva Falling into the Wrong Hands
An unanswered question that lingers in our mind is why Amazon.com paid eight times revenue for Kiva, when a Kiva IPO certainly would have valued the company at a much lower EV-to-sales multiple. While Wal-Mart has publicly claimed that it was not interested in buying Kiva, we find it hard to believe that there were not other companies who may have been approached by Kiva’s private equity owners, and who may have placed a bid for the company, given the success of its customers, its unique technology, and the large opportunity for robot sales into ecommerce and other industries.
The desire to achieve cost reduction and faster order fulfillment times only partially explains Amazon’s desire to buy Kiva. More likely, there are four other reasons: the desire to secure access to a future flow of robots ahead of its competitors; the ability to drive Kiva’s software development efforts in Amazon’s direction; the preference to customize Kiva’s robots for its proprietary warehouse operations, and finally the necessity to keep Kiva out of the hands of another suitor that may have wanted to point the company’s orange robots in a new direction.
One of the most perplexing aspects of Amazon.com’s business model is the ability to sell products and services that compete directly with its many suppliers and resellers. For example, Amazon is the world’s largest reseller of new and used books, both physical and digital, yet it offers CreateSpace, a venue for self-publishing authors, as well as seven publishing imprints. Thus, Amazon competes with major book publishers for new author talent.
Amazon also conducts a large music download business, competing directly against Apple, yet it also sells both new and used iPods on its website. In its most audacious move to date, Amazon will sell the Kindle Fire, a bona fide competitor to Apple’s iPad, and Motorola’s (soon to be Google’s) Xoom. Yet Amazon sells both iPads and Xooms on its website.
Amazon recently boasted that the Kindle Fire will support Netflix’s streaming service, even as it ramps up its own movie and television show streaming service, a portion of which will be free for any Amazon.com Prime customer, of which there are millions.
How and why does Amazon do—or get away— with this?
First, it is important to know that its seeks to be dominant in any category in which it participates. This means that it takes an interest in not just reselling others’ products, but in creating products itself.
Second, unlike other companies that evaluate profit margins by product line, seeking to maximize the sales of their most profitable products, Amazon.com has a completely different strategy: maximizing gross margin dollars. This means that it seeks to gain market share, regardless of the level of profitability generated by the category.
Finally, I suggest that the company is respectful, or perhaps fearful of the potential anti-competitive implications of its success. Amazon.com’s management team is likely mindful of Microsoft’s missteps when it fought against the USgovernment’s anti-trust efforts. It is not difficult to imagine Amzon.com, through the success of the Kindle Fire—or Apple through the success of its iPad—guilty of anti-competitive behavior, should the government decide that bundling proprietary services stifles competition.