The pandemic has shown just how essential his firm has become—and that it has vulnerabilities
这场疫情证明了他的公司无比重要,也暴露出它的软肋

【双语】亚马逊奇才 The genius of Amazon-书迷号 shumihao.com

IN THE SUMMER of 1995 Jeff Bezos was a skinny obsessive working in a basement alongside his wife, packing paperbacks into boxes. Today, 25 years on, he is perhaps the 21st century’s most important tycoon: a muscle-ripped divorcé who finances space missions and newspapers for fun, and who receives adulation from Warren Buffett and abuse from Donald Trump. Amazon, his firm, is no longer just a bookseller but a digital conglomerate worth $1.3trn that consumers love, politicians love to hate, and investors and rivals have learned never to bet against. Now the pandemic has fuelled a digital surge that shows how important Amazon is to ordinary life in America and Europe, because of its crucial role in e-commerce, logistics and cloud computing. In response to the crisis, Mr Bezos has put aside his side-hustles and returned to day-to-day management. Superficially it could not be a better time, but the world’s fourth-most-valuable firm faces problems: a fraying social contract, financial bloating and re-energised competition.

一九九五年夏天,贝佐斯还是个有强迫症的瘦子,和妻子一起在地下室把平装书打包装箱。25年过去了,如今的他或许是21世纪最显赫的大亨:一个肌肉发达的离异人士,以资助太空任务和报纸为乐,巴菲特热情赞美他,特朗普多次炮轰他。他的公司亚马逊已不再只是个网上书店,而是一个价值1.3万亿美元的数字企业集团,成了消费者的心头好、政客的眼中钉,而投资者和竞争对手也长了记性,不敢再看扁它。新冠疫情推动了数字化浪潮进一步高涨,突显了亚马逊在欧美社会日常生活中的重要地位,因为它在电子商务、物流和云计算领域都发挥着至关重要的作用。为了应对这场危机,贝佐斯放下了副业,回归公司的日常管理。表面上看,这可能是一个再好不过的时机,但这家全球市值第四高的公司仍面临一些问题:破损的社会契约、臃肿的财务,以及再次加剧的竞争。

The digital surge began with online “pantry-loading” as consumers bulk-ordered toilet rolls and pasta. Amazon’s first-quarter sales rose by 26% year on year. When stimulus cheques arrived in mid-April Americans let rip on a broader range of goods. Two rivals, eBay and Costco, say online activity accelerated in May. There has been a scramble to meet demand, with Mr Bezos doing daily inventory checks once again. Amazon has hired 175,000 staff, equipped its people with 34m gloves, and leased 12 new cargo aircraft, bringing its fleet to 82. Undergirding the e-commerce surge is an infrastructure of cloud computing and payments systems. Amazon owns a chunk of that, too, through AWS, its cloud arm, which saw first-quarter sales rise by 33%.

这轮数字化浪潮始于线上“宅家囤货”——消费者大量订购厕纸和意大利面。亚马逊第一季销售额同比增长了26%。到4月中旬,美国人陆续收到刺激经济计划的支票后,开始大肆抢购更多种类的商品。eBay和开市客(Costco)这两个竞争对手均表示5月份线上消费加速上升。商家争相满足顾客需求,贝佐斯又一次开始每日盘点库存。亚马逊招聘了17.5万名员工,为他们配备了3400万副手套,并新租用了12架货机,使机队规模达到82架。云计算和支付系统等基础设施支撑起了此轮电子商务浪潮。凭借自家的云计算部门AWS,亚马逊在这方面也占据了相当大的份额。AWS第一季度的销售额增长了33%。

One question is whether the digital surge will subside. Shops are reopening, even if customers have to pay at tills shielded by Perspex. Yet the signs are that some of the boom will last, because it has involved not just the same people doing more of the same. A new cohort has taken to shopping online. In America “silver” customers in their 60s have set up digital-payment accounts. Many physical retailers have suffered fatal damage. Dozens have defaulted or are on the brink, including J Crew and Neiman Marcus. In the past year the shares of warehousing firms, which thrive on e-commerce, have outperformed those of shopping-mall landlords by 48 percentage points.

一个问题是这轮数字化浪潮会否退去。商店正在重新开门迎客,尽管顾客必须隔着一块有机玻璃挡板付款。但有迹象表明,这一轮繁荣中有一部分会持续下去,因为它已不仅仅是同一批人在买更多东西。一个新的群体也开始了网购。在美国,60多岁的“银发族”顾客已开通了数字支付账户。许多实体零售商遭受了致命打击。有几十家已经或者濒临违约,包括J Crew和尼曼(Neiman Marcus)。电子商务助推了仓储公司蓬勃发展,过去一年里,其股价表现已经抛离购物中心业主48个百分点。

All this might appear to fit the script Mr Bezos has written over the years in his letters to shareholders, which are now pored over by investors as meticulously as those of Mr Buffett. He argues that Amazon is in a perpetual virtuous circle in which it spends money to win market share and expands into adjacent industries. From books it leapt to e-commerce, then opened its cloud and logistics arms to third-party retailers, making them vast new businesses in their own right. Customers are kept loyal by perks such as Prime, a subscription service, and Alexa, a voice-assistant. By this account, the new digital surge confirms Amazon’s inexorable rise. That is the view on Wall Street, where Amazon’s shares reached an all-time high on June 17th.

所有这一切似乎都在按贝佐斯这些年在致股东信中写下的脚本走——如今投资者像研究巴菲特的信那样仔细研读这些信。他说,亚马逊现在处于长久的良性循环中,公司砸钱赢得市场份额,然后扩展到邻近的其他行业。它从图书业务一跃而入全面的电子商务,然后向第三方零售商开放它的云和物流平台,这些平台自身又成为规模庞大的新业务。Prime会员订阅服务和语音助手Alexa等福利确保了顾客的忠诚度。根据这种说法,新一轮数字浪潮证实了亚马逊的崛起不可阻挡。这正是华尔街的看法。6月17日该公司股价创下历史新高。

Yet from his ranch in west Texas, Mr Bezos has to wrestle with those tricky problems. Start with the fraying social contract. Some common criticisms of Amazon are simply misguided. Unlike, say, Google in search, it is not a monopoly. Last year Amazon had a 40% share of American e-commerce and 6% of all retail sales. There is little evidence that it kills jobs. Studies of the “Amazon effect” suggest that new warehouse and delivery jobs offset the decline in shop assistants, and the firm’s minimum hourly wage of $15 in America is above the median for the retail trade.

然而,目前待在他位于西德州的牧场里的贝佐斯不得不对付一些棘手的问题。首先是破损的社会契约。一些针对亚马逊的常见批评纯属误导。与搜索领域的谷歌不同,它并非垄断者。去年,亚马逊在美国电子商务的份额为40%,在整体零售中的占比为6%。没有什么证据表明它扼杀了就业。对“亚马逊效应”的研究表明,仓库和送货的新增就业抵消了实体店售货员岗位的减少,而该公司在美国15美元的最低时薪也高于零售业的中位数。

But Amazon’s strategy does imply huge creative disruption in the jobs market even as the economy reels. In addition, viral outbreaks at its warehouses have reignited fears about working conditions: 13 American state attorneys-general have voiced concern. And Amazon’s role as a digital jack-of-all-trades creates conflicts of interest. Does its platform, for example, treat third-party sellers on equal terms with its own products? Congress and the EU are investigating this. And how comfortable should other firms be about giving their sensitive data to AWS given that it is part of a larger conglomerate which competes with them?

但亚马逊的策略确实会给就业市场带来巨大的创造性破坏,即使是在经济动荡之时。此外,该公司仓库爆发疫情,再次引发了对其工作环境的忧虑:美国13个州的检察长已经表达了担忧。而亚马逊在数字领域里遍地开花也造成了利益冲突。例如,它的平台对第三方卖家和自营产品是否一视同仁?美国国会和欧盟正在对此展开调查。既然其他公司与亚马逊这个规模更大的企业集团有竞争关系,而AWS又归属它旗下,那么它们能否放心地将敏感数据交给AWS?

Amazon’s second problem is bloating. As Mr Bezos has expanded into industry after industry, his firm has gone from being asset-light to having a balance-sheet heavier than a Soviet tractor factory. Today it has $104bn of plant, including leased assets, not far off the $119bn of its old-economy rival, Walmart. As a result, returns excluding AWS are puny and the pandemic is squeezing margins in e-commerce further. Mr Bezos says the firm can become more than the sum of its parts by harvesting data and selling ads and subscriptions. So far investors have taken this on trust. But the weak e-commerce margins make it harder for Amazon to spin off AWS. This would get regulators off its back and liberate AWS, but would deprive Amazon of the money-machine that funds everything else.

亚马逊的第二个问题是体量膨胀。随着贝佐斯进军一个又一个行业,他的公司已不再是轻资产模式,现在的资产负债表甚至比苏联的拖拉机厂还要沉重。如今亚马逊拥有1040亿美元的厂房(含租赁资产),与采用旧经济模式的对手沃尔玛1190亿美元的资产规模相差无几。这样一来,除AWS以外的资产回报微薄,而这次疫情还在进一步挤压电子商务的利润。贝佐斯表示,通过收集数据、销售广告和订阅服务,公司的价值可以大于各业务部门之和。到目前为止,投资者对此深信不疑。但电商利润疲软使得亚马逊更难把AWS剥离出去。剥离可以摆脱监管机构的纠缠,也会解放AWS,但也会使亚马逊失去这个为所有其他业务提供资金的赚钱机器。

Mr Bezos’s last worry is competition. He has long said that he watches customers, not competitors, but he must have noticed how his rivals have been energised by the pandemic. Digital sales at Walmart, Target and Costco probably doubled or more in April, year on year. Independent digital firms are thriving. If you create a stockmarket clone of Amazon lookalikes, including Shopify, Netflix and UPS, it has outperformed Amazon this year. In much of the world regional competitors rule, not Amazon; among them are MercadoLibre in Latin America, Jio in India and Shopee in South-East Asia. China is dominated by Alibaba, JD.com and brash new contenders like Pinduoduo.

最后,贝佐斯还要提防竞争。他一直说自己关注的是顾客而非竞争对手,但他肯定已经注意到这次疫情为竞争对手注入了活力。沃尔玛、塔吉特(Target)和开市客4月的线上销售额可能已经同比增长了一倍或更多。独立的数字化公司也在迅猛发展。如果在股市里创建一个由Shopify、奈飞(Netflix)和UPS等亚马逊同类公司所组成的克隆体,今年其股价表现已经超过了亚马逊。在世界大部分地区,占据统治地位的不是亚马逊,而是它在当地的竞争对手,其中包括拉丁美洲的MercadoLibre、印度的Jio和东南亚的虾皮购物(Shopee)。主导中国市场的是阿里巴巴、京东,以及拼多多等势头正猛的新锐。

Imitation is the sincerest form of capitalism

模仿是最真诚的资本主义

The world’s most admired business is thus left having to solve several puzzles. If Amazon raises wages to placate politicians in a populist era, it will lose its low-cost edge. If it spins off AWS to please regulators, the rump will be financially fragile. And if it raises prices to satisfy shareholders its new competitors will win market share. Twenty-five years on, Mr Bezos’s vision of a world that shops, watches and reads online is coming true faster than ever. But the job of running Amazon has become no easier, even if it no longer involves packing boxes.■

因此,世界上最受推崇的企业必须解决几个难题。如果亚马逊通过提高工资来平息民粹主义时代政客的怒气,它将失去低成本优势。如果为了取悦监管者而剥离AWS,剩下的业务将陷入财务困境。如果它提高价格来满足股东的要求,将被新竞争对手夺走市场份额。25年过去了,贝佐斯对一个在网上购物、观看和阅读的世界的展望正以空前的速度成为现实。虽然他不再需要辛苦地装箱,但经营亚马逊的工作却丝毫没有变得更轻松些。