Rich Countries Are Becoming Addicted to Cheap Labour
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    HOUSE MEDIAN ASKING PRICES AND WEEKLY CHANGE     Sydney $1,601,123 (+0.24%)       Melbourne $996,554 (-0.47%)       Brisbane $965,329 (+0.91%)       Adelaide $861,275 (+0.19%)       Perth $827,650 (+0.13%)       Hobart $744,795 (-1.04%)       Darwin $668,587 (+0.50%)       Canberra $1,003,450 (-0.84%)       National $1,033,285 (+0.03%)                UNIT MEDIAN ASKING PRICES AND WEEKLY CHANGE     Sydney $741,922 (-0.81%)       Melbourne $497,613 (+0.04%)       Brisbane $536,017 (+0.73%)       Adelaide $432,936 (+2.43%)       Perth $438,316 (+0.13%)       Hobart $527,196 (+0.43%)       Darwin $346,253 (+0.25%)       Canberra $489,192 (-0.99%)       National $524,280 (-0.05%)                HOUSES FOR SALE AND WEEKLY CHANGE     Sydney 10,012 (-365)       Melbourne 14,191 (-411)       Brisbane 7,988 (-300)       Adelaide 2,342 (-96)       Perth 6,418 (-180)       Hobart 1,349 (+24)       Darwin 236 (-2)       Canberra 995 (-78)       National 43,531 (-1,408)                UNITS FOR SALE AND WEEKLY CHANGE     Sydney 8,629 (-186)       Melbourne 8,026 (-98)       Brisbane 1,662 (-33)       Adelaide 437 (-23)       Perth 1,682 (-56)       Hobart 209 (-4)       Darwin 410 (+7)       Canberra 942 (-14)       National 21,997 (-407)                HOUSE MEDIAN ASKING RENTS AND WEEKLY CHANGE     Sydney $780 ($0)       Melbourne $600 ($0)       Brisbane $630 ($0)       Adelaide $600 ($0)       Perth $675 (+$5)       Hobart $550 ($0)       Darwin $700 ($0)       Canberra $690 (-$3)       National $660 (+$)                UNIT MEDIAN ASKING RENTS AND WEEKLY CHANGE     Sydney $750 ($0)       Melbourne $595 (+$5)       Brisbane $630 ($0)       Adelaide $485 (+$5)       Perth $600 ($0)       Hobart $450 (-$20)       Darwin $550 (-$15)       Canberra $565 (+$5)       National $591 (-$1)                HOUSES FOR RENT AND WEEKLY CHANGE     Sydney 5,001 (-128)       Melbourne 5,178 (-177)       Brisbane 3,864 (-72)       Adelaide 1,212 (+24)       Perth 1,808 (-26)       Hobart 372 (-8)       Darwin 113 (-16)       Canberra 534 (-16)       National 18,082 (-419)                UNITS FOR RENT AND WEEKLY CHANGE     Sydney 6,793 (-238)       Melbourne 4,430 (-58)       Brisbane 1,966 (-63)       Adelaide 334 (+12)       Perth 642 (+1)       Hobart 150 (-4)       Darwin 202 (-4)       Canberra 540 (-10)       National 15,057 (-364)                HOUSE ANNUAL GROSS YIELDS AND TREND         Sydney 2.53% (↓)     Melbourne 3.13% (↑)        Brisbane 3.39% (↓)       Adelaide 3.62% (↓)     Perth 4.24% (↑)      Hobart 3.84% (↑)        Darwin 5.44% (↓)     Canberra 3.58% (↑)      National 3.32% (↑)             UNIT ANNUAL GROSS YIELDS AND TREND       Sydney 5.26% (↑)      Melbourne 6.22% (↑)        Brisbane 6.11% (↓)       Adelaide 5.83% (↓)       Perth 7.12% (↓)       Hobart 4.44% (↓)       Darwin 8.26% (↓)     Canberra 6.01% (↑)        National 5.86% (↓)            HOUSE RENTAL VACANCY RATES AND TREND       Sydney 0.8% (↑)      Melbourne 0.7% (↑)      Brisbane 0.7% (↑)      Adelaide 0.4% (↑)      Perth 0.4% (↑)      Hobart 0.9% (↑)      Darwin 0.8% (↑)      Canberra 1.0% (↑)      National 0.7% (↑)             UNIT RENTAL VACANCY RATES AND TREND       Sydney 0.9% (↑)      Melbourne 1.1% (↑)      Brisbane 1.0% (↑)      Adelaide 0.5% (↑)      Perth 0.5% (↑)        Hobart 1.4% (↓)     Darwin 1.7% (↑)      Canberra 1.4% (↑)      National 1.1% (↑)             AVERAGE DAYS TO SELL HOUSES AND TREND       Sydney 27.0 (↑)      Melbourne 28.2 (↑)      Brisbane 29.1 (↑)      Adelaide 24.2 (↑)      Perth 33.4 (↑)      Hobart 30.3 (↑)      Darwin 36.2 (↑)      Canberra 27.0 (↑)      National 29.4 (↑)             AVERAGE DAYS TO SELL UNITS AND TREND       Sydney 26.7 (↑)      Melbourne 27.3 (↑)        Brisbane 27.2 (↓)     Adelaide 24.4 (↑)      Perth 37.1 (↑)      Hobart 28.9 (↑)        Darwin 42.7 (↓)     Canberra 30.5 (↑)      National 30.6 (↑)            
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Rich Countries Are Becoming Addicted to Cheap Labour

Businesses are relying more on migrant workers as labor shortages persist, but economists warn of long-term dangers

By TOM FAIRLESS
Mon, Mar 4, 2024 8:40amGrey Clock 7 min

As migration hits record levels worldwide, a debate is building among economists over whether some industries are becoming too dependent on foreign labor.

Many business owners say that bringing in low-skilled foreign workers has become essential, as local populations age and labor forces shrink. In rural Wisconsin, John Rosenow says it is impossible to find locals to work on his 1,000-acre dairy farm. He relies on 13 Mexican immigrants, up from eight to 10 a decade ago. That has enabled him to avoid making costly investments in robots that can help milk cows, as some other dairy farmers have.

“We get really good people,” Rosenow says. With immigrant labor, “I’m pretty sure if I wanted to double employment, I could get it done within a week.”

To some economists, however, dependence on imported workers is approaching unhealthy levels in some places, stifling productivity growth and helping businesses delay the search for more sustainable solutions to labour shortages.

Those solutions could include bigger investments in automation, or more radical restructurings such as business closures, which are painful but may be necessary long-term, these economists say.

“Once industry is organised in a certain way and the structure encourages employers to recruit migrants, it can be very hard to turn back,” said Martin Ruhs , a professor of migration studies in Florence, Italy. “In some cases, policymakers should ask, does it make sense?” said Ruhs, who is also a former member of the U.K. Migration Advisory Committee, which advises the British government on migration policy.

The debate is likely to heat up further as Western societies teeter closer to a demographic abyss . For the first time since World War II, the working-age population is shrinking across advanced economies. The European Union’s working-age population will shrink by one-fifth through 2050, according to a recent report by German insurer Allianz .

There are ways to offset that trend, such as encouraging older workers to delay retirement. But importing foreign labor is often the easiest option, given the supply of available workers in places such as Latin America or Africa.

Immigration also provides a rush of economic growth as migrants boost populations and spend money, even when it elicits blowback from conservative groups, as it has in the U.S. and Europe.

Immigration is now running two to three times above pre pandemic levels across major destination countries including Canada, Germany and the U.K. In the U.S., 3.3 million more migrants arrived than left last year, compared with a 2010s average of around 900,000.

Three-quarters of farmworkers and 30% of construction and mining workers in the U.S. today are migrants. Overall, immigrants made up 18% of the U.S. workforce in 2021, compared with 16% a decade earlier, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based club of mostly rich countries.

Despite promising for decades to curb immigration, the U.K. has seen a surge since its 2020 exit from the EU, as businesses scramble for employees. More than 27% of the National Health Service’s nurses are from abroad today, up from around 14% in 2013. In Germany, roughly 80% of slaughterhouse workers are migrants, unions estimate.

Downsides of over reliance

Increased reliance on low-skilled imported labor can lead to weaker productivity growth, which ultimately determines how fast economies can expand, some economic research suggests.

A 2022 study in Denmark found that firms with easy access to migrant workers invested less in robots. Research in Australia and Canada suggests that migrants could keep weak firms alive, weighing on overall productivity.

Labour productivity growth has been sluggish across advanced economies in recent years. In the U.S. and U.K. farming sectors, productivity has flatlined for a decade or longer. In Japan and Korea, which have more restrictive immigration policies, it increased by around 1.5% a year, OECD data show.

Finding the right balance between allowing some migration, which can help restore dynamism in ageing countries, and avoiding over dependence is hard. In many industries, there is no obvious alternative to foreign workers.

Going cold turkey would send prices for products made from migrant labour higher. It would also leave many people in poorer countries with fewer options to pursue better lives.

Anna Boucher , a global migration expert at the University of Sydney, says that some low-skilled migration is probably necessary in the short term due to skills shortages. Without it, some childcare services in Australia would shut down and vegetables would die in the fields.

Economic research suggests that an influx of high-skilled migrants, such as scientists and engineers, can actually lift firms’ productivity and boost local workers’ wages and employment opportunities.

Economists are more divided when it comes to lower-skilled migrants. Such workers are also more easily replaced, including in industries that seem unlikely candidates for automation.

In the Czech Republic, some farmers are using artificial-intelligence-driven robots to monitor and harvest strawberries. Israeli startup Tevel Aerobotics Technologies has developed fruit-picking drones. Fieldwork Robotics, a U.K. company, recently started selling raspberry-picking robots, which stand 6 feet tall with four plastic arms.

Yet for governments, pursuing reforms that boost productivity and allow weaker firms to die is a lot harder than increasing immigration, said Dan Andrews , a productivity expert at the OECD.

“Some countries may have taken the easy way out,” he said.

Pushback from businesses

Hoping to accelerate automation in agriculture, the U.K. government is pouring money into farm technology. It is also considering abolishing rules that allow companies to pay migrant workers 20% less than the going rate for jobs, prompting protests from farmers’ lobby groups. They say farmers adopt technology quickly if it is available, but that robots are no good at picking fruit and vegetables.

“The technology that we are aiming for is five years away…we were saying that five years ago,” said Martin Emmett , a farmer and official at the National Farmers’ Union, a trade group.

In Malaysia, the government last year announced a freeze on hiring of new foreign workers. Government ministers say that over dependence on cheap foreign labor has created a detrimental cycle that allows companies to resist innovation. Local companies say they need more time to invest in automation and upgrade workers’ skills.

Some industries, including manufacturing and plantations, have since been allowed to hire foreigners following appeals, but the broader freeze on foreign workers remains in place with no end date.

In Canada, economists say the government has cast aside a carefully managed immigration system that gave priority to highly skilled workers, and ramped up significantly the intake of foreign students and other low-skilled temporary workers. By flooding the market with cheap labor, Ottawa may be propping up uncompetitive businesses and ultimately damaging productivity, according to a December report co-written by former Canadian central-bank governor David Dodge .

Economic output per capita is lower than it was in 2018 following years of record immigration, notes Mikal Skuterud , an economist at Waterloo University in Ontario. Canada has been bringing in so many low-skilled workers that it lowers the country’s productivity overall, he says.

Germany’s butcher conundrum

The debates are also intensifying in Germany, where businesses including butcher shops in the foothills of the Black Forest are becoming more reliant on imported labor.

Young people don’t want to train as butchers anymore, local businesses say, because it is unglamorous work, with low pay. Labour shortages are one reason why the number of butcher shops has roughly halved over the past two decades.

Three years ago, Handirk von Ungern-Sternberg , an official at the local chamber of handicrafts, started a pilot project to recruit butchers’ apprentices in India, taking advantage of a change in German law that made it easier to hire low-skilled workers from outside the EU. The first batch of 13 young Indians arrived in September 2022.

Now, demand is exploding. Von Ungern-Sternberg plans to bring in roughly 140 Indian workers this year. That number could triple in future, he says.

From auto mechanics to construction, local businesses are clamouring for his young Indian recruits. Chambers of handicrafts across Germany, from the Alps to the North Sea, are seeking his help in starting similar projects.

Butcher shops in Germany’s Black Forest region are becoming more reliant on imported labor. PHOTO: DOMINIC NAHR FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“We ask ourselves, where’s the limit? Are we a job company? We don’t know where the ceiling is,” von Ungern-Sternberg said.

The program also benefits consumers by helping keep butchers’ costs low. Across the border in Switzerland, where Indian workers aren’t available, meat costs nearly four times as much.

However, Swiss business owners have also been experimenting with new technologies, including sausage vending machines known as Wurstautomaten, which could reduce the need for small-scale butcher’s shops and ultimately help bring prices down.

Meanwhile, opposition to immigration is rising in Germany, which suggests the butchers’ reliance on imported labor might not be sustainable. Support for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party recently hit an all-time high of 23%. Polls suggest it could emerge as the strongest political force in several German state elections later this year.

Dairy dilemma

In Wisconsin, Rosenow, the dairy farmer, says he’s skeptical of the automated milking machines that he says are advertised in farm magazines. Some neighbours experimented with robots but went back to human labor because the robots constantly needed repairs, he says.

Robots would also cost twice as much as immigrant workers and be costly to maintain, Rosenow says. With immigrants, “labor is no constraint.”

Onan Whitcomb , a dairy farmer in Vermont, disagrees. He says that when he wanted to increase production he decided not to hire immigrant workers. Instead, he spent $800,000 on four Dutch-made milking robots.

Milk production per cow has grown by 30% and the incidence of mastitis, an inflammatory disease, has declined by 80%, he says, meaning less spent on antibiotics. Whitcomb says he was able to cut 2.5 jobs, and the investment paid for itself in seven years.

“We were milking 300 cows and we went to 240, and we still made more” milk, Whitcomb said. “That’s hard to beat.”



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Inside Amazon’s Secret Operation to Gather Intel on Rivals

Staff went undercover on Walmart, eBay and other marketplaces as a third-party seller called ‘Big River.’ The mission: to scoop up information on pricing, logistics and other business practices.

By DANA MATTIOLI, SARAH NASSAUER
Sat, Apr 20, 2024 10 min

For nearly a decade, workers in a warehouse in Seattle’s Denny Triangle neighbourhood have shipped boxes of shoes, beach chairs, Marvel T-shirts and other items to online retail customers across the U.S.

The operation, called Big River Services International, sells around $1 million a year of goods through e-commerce marketplaces including eBay , Shopify , Walmart and Amazon .com under brand names such as Rapid Cascade and Svea Bliss. “We are entrepreneurs, thinkers, marketers and creators,” Big River says on its website. “We have a passion for customers and aren’t afraid to experiment.”

What the website doesn’t say is that Big River is an arm of Amazon that surreptitiously gathers intelligence on the tech giant’s competitors.

Born out of a 2015 plan code named “Project Curiosity,” Big River uses its sales across multiple countries to obtain pricing data, logistics information and other details about rival e-commerce marketplaces, logistics operations and payments services, according to people familiar with Big River and corporate documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal. The team then shared that information with Amazon to incorporate into decisions about its own business.

Amazon is the largest U.S. e-commerce company , accounting for nearly 40% of all online goods sold in the U.S., according to research firm eMarketer. It often says that it pays little attention to competitors , instead focusing all its energies on being “customer obsessed.” It is currently battling antitrust charges brought last year by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and 17 states, which accused Amazon of a range of behaviour that harms sellers on its marketplace, including using anti-discounting measures that punished merchants for offering lower prices elsewhere.

Workers filled orders at an Amazon fulfillment center in Garner, N.C., in 2021. PHOTO: JEREMY M. LANGE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The story of Big River offers new insight into Amazon’s elaborate efforts to stay ahead of rivals. Team members attended their rivals’ seller conferences and met with competitors identifying themselves only as employees of Big River Services, instead of disclosing that they worked for Amazon.

They were given non-Amazon email addresses to use externally—in emails with people at Amazon, they used Amazon email addresses—and took other extraordinary measures to keep the project secret. They disseminated their reports to Amazon executives using printed, numbered copies rather than email. Those who worked on the project weren’t even supposed to discuss the relationship internally with most teams at Amazon.

An internal crisis-management paper gave advice on what to say if discovered. The response to questions should be: “We make a variety of products available to customers through a number of subsidiaries and online channels.” In conversations, in the event of a leak they were told to focus on the group being formed to improve the seller experience on Amazon, and say that such research is normal, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Senior Amazon executives, including Doug Herrington , Amazon’s current CEO of Worldwide Amazon Stores, were regularly briefed on the Project Curiosity team’s work, according to one of the people familiar with Big River.

Some aspects were more Maxwell Smart than James Bond. The Big River website contains a glaring typo, and a so-called Japanese streetwear brand that the team concocted lists a Seattle address on its contacts page. Big River’s team members list Amazon as their employer on LinkedIn—potentially blowing their cover.

The LinkedIn page of Max Kless, a former eBay executive who led Big River in Germany before moving to a senior role on the team in the U.S., says that he “developed and led a research subsidiary for Amazon in Germany that prototyped and researched new experiences for Small Business sellers and developers.” Kless didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“Benchmarking is a common practice in business. Amazon, like many other retailers, has benchmarking and customer experience teams that conduct research into the experiences of customers, including our selling partners, in order to improve their experiences working with us,” an Amazon spokeswoman said. Amazon believes its rivals also carry out research on Amazon by selling on Amazon’s site, she said.

Focus on Walmart

Virtually all companies research their competitors, reading public documents for information, buying their products or shopping their stores. Lawyers say there is a difference between such corporate intelligence gathering of publicly available information, and what is known as corporate or industrial espionage.

Companies can get into legal trouble for actions such as hiring a rival’s former employee to obtain trade secrets or hacking a rival. Misrepresenting themselves to competitors to gain proprietary information can lead to suits on trade secret misappropriation, said Elizabeth Rowe, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law who specialises in trade secret law.

Amazon for years has had what it calls a benchmarking team that sizes up rivals to ensure the best experience for people who shop on its site. The team has placed orders on websites such as Walmart.com for delivery around the U.S. to test things such as how long it takes competitors to ship. Other companies also have teams to compare themselves to rivals.

In late 2015, Amazon’s benchmarking team proposed a different sort of project. The business of hosting other merchants to sell their products on Amazon’s platform was becoming increasingly important. So-called third-party sellers on Amazon’s Marketplace, which the company started in 2000, surpassed half of the company’s total merchandise sales that year, and rival retailers had started similar marketplaces.

Amazon wanted to better understand and improve the experiences of those outside vendors. The team decided to create some brands to sell on Amazon to see what the pain points were for sellers—and to sell items on rival marketplaces to compare the experiences, according to the people familiar with the effort.

The benchmarking team pitched “Project Curiosity” to senior management and got the approval to buy inventory, use a shell company and find warehouses in the U.S., Germany, England, India and Japan so they could pose as sellers on competitors’ websites.

The benchmarking team reported into the chief financial officer, Brian Olsavsky , for years, but this year changed to report to Herrington, the consumer chief. Olsavsky and Herrington didn’t respond to requests for comment made through Amazon.

Once launched, the focus of the project quickly started shifting to gathering information about rivals, the people said.

In the U.S., the Big River team started by scooping up merchandise from Seattle retailers holding “going out of business” sales. Some of its first products were Saucony sneakers from a local retailer that was closing. The company registered for a licensing agreement with the popular Marvel superhero franchise to sell Marvel-branded items, and bought items including Tommy Bahama beach chairs from Costco to resell.

In the pitch, Project Curiosity leaders identified online marketplaces that they wanted to sell on, including Best Buy and Overstock.

The top goal was Walmart, Amazon’s biggest rival. But Walmart had a high bar for sellers on its marketplace, accepting only vendors who sold large volumes on other marketplaces first. Big River initially couldn’t qualify to be a Walmart Marketplace seller, but it did sell on Jet.com, which Walmart acquired in 2016 and later closed in 2020. And in India, it sold on Flipkart, the giant Indian e-commerce marketplace in which Walmart owned a majority stake.

In order to meet Walmart’s revenue threshold, the Big River team focused on pumping products through Amazon.com to bolster its overall revenue, some of the people said. Big River’s goal wasn’t to do massive amounts of volume on the competing platforms, but to simply get on them and gain access, they said.

The Amazon spokeswoman said that in 2023, 69% of Big River revenue worldwide was on Amazon.com.

In 2019, Big River finally got onto Walmart’s website. This month, Big River had around 15 products listed on Walmart.com under the seller name Atlantic Lot, including Tommy Bahama beach chairs, cooking woks and industrial-size food containers. In 2023, Big River had more than $125,000 in revenue on Walmart.com alone, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Walmart wasn’t aware that Amazon ran the seller accounts on the Walmart and Flipkart sites before the Journal told it, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Rivals’ logistics services

Atlantic Lot is listed as a “Pro Seller”—a distinction Walmart says is for “top-performing Walmart Marketplace sellers.” Listings show that Walmart Logistics, another Amazon rival, handles storage and shipping for it.

Amazon at the time also was building up its logistics business to store and ship items for sellers for a fee to compete with FedEx and United Parcel Service . The business has boomed over the past decade. Amazon’s total revenue from what it calls third-party seller services has grown nearly twelvefold since 2014 to $140 billion last year, accounting for nearly a quarter of Amazon’s total.

To get information about rival logistics services, the Big River team stored inventory with companies including FedEx. Other targets, according to an internal document, included UPS, DHL, Deliverr and German logistics company Linther Spedition.

FedEx in 2017 launched FedEx Fulfillment, a competitor to Fulfillment by Amazon, for offering logistics to sellers. Big River was accepted into the FedEx Fulfillment program as an early customer, and the team received early details about pricing, rate cards and other terms as a result of the partnership, according to the people. FedEx had several phone calls and email exchanges with Big River team members who represented themselves as Big River employees and didn’t disclose their employment at Amazon, according to some of the people.

The team presented its findings from being part of the FedEx program to senior Amazon logistics leaders. They used the code name “OnTime Inc.” to refer to FedEx. Amazon made changes to its Fulfillment by Amazon service to make it more competitive with FedEx’s new product as a result of the information it learned from the partnership, according to one of the people.

For such meetings, the team avoided distributing presentations electronically to Amazon executives. Instead, they printed the presentations and numbered the documents. Executives could look at the reports and take notes, but at the end of the meeting, team members collected the papers to ensure that they had all copies, the people said.

Big River became a customer of FedEx’s fulfillment program, a competitor to Fulfillment by Amazon. Above, a FedEx facility in Queens, New York. PHOTO: GABBY JONES FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Amazon took other measures to hide the connection with Big River. Staffers were instructed to use their second, non-Amazon email address—which had the domain @bigriverintl.com—when emailing other platforms to avoid outing their Amazon employment.

“We were encouraged to work off the grid as much as possible,” said one of the former team members, about using the outside email.

Amazon’s internal lawyers reminded Big River team members not to disclose their connection to Amazon in their conversations with FedEx, according to an email viewed by the Journal.

Staffers, who worked in private areas of Amazon offices, were told not to discuss their work with other Amazon employees who weren’t cleared to know about the project. In the early days, some Big River team members had to take time away from their Amazon desk jobs to go to the warehouses to fulfill orders and pack them in boxes to send out.

When gaining access to rival seller systems, Big River members were instructed to take screenshots of competitor pricing, ad systems, cataloging and listing pages, according to the people. They weren’t allowed to email the screenshots to Amazon employees, but instead showed the screenshots to the Amazon employees on the Marketplace side of the business in person so they didn’t create a paper trail, some of the people said. Amazon then made changes it believed improved the seller experience on its site based on the information.

The Amazon spokeswoman said the team was secretive so that it wouldn’t get any special treatment as a seller on Amazon.com.

Still, there were telltales. Registration documents filed with the Washington Office of the Secretary of State for Big River Services, while not mentioning Amazon, list a management team made up of current and former Amazon employees, including lawyers. The management team lists its address as 410 Terry Ave. in Seattle, which is Amazon’s headquarters.

Corporate filings for Big River in the United Kingdom and other foreign countries also named officials who are senior Amazon employees and lawyers. In one U.K. disclosure, Amazon is named as owning more than 75% of the company.

Amazon officials felt confident that competitors wouldn’t look up filings to see who was behind the company, some of the people said.

A Las Vegas conference

Some team members were uncomfortable with the work they were doing, according to some of the people.

Among the anxiety-inducing activities was representing themselves as employees of Big River in person while attending conferences thrown by rivals. For instance, team members attended eBay’s Las Vegas conference for sellers, according to some of the people. EBay describes the event as a way for sellers to meet with eBay management and learn of planned big changes coming for sellers and “exclusive information.”

Benchmarking-team leadership ordered up what Amazon calls a PRFAQ that would outline what to do if competitors or the press discovered the project. In the event of a leak, leadership was to say that the group was formed to improve the seller experience on Amazon.com, and that Amazon pays attention to competition but doesn’t “obsess” over it. They were also told to act like this was normal business behavior in the event of a leak, according to one of the people.

In 2017, Amazon formally changed the name of Project Curiosity to the Small Business Insights team to make it sound less cryptic, some of the people said.

The Big River team invented its own brands to sell on the competing sites, including “Torque Challenge” and “Crimson Knot.”

Teams often changed the brand name once they sold out its inventory, creating new brands when they received new products.

In India, Amazon gained access to e-commerce giant Flipkart in March 2018 with the Crimson Knot brand, around the time rumors of a Walmart acquisition swirled in local media. Walmart bought a majority stake in Flipkart in May of that year.

Crimson Knot makes wooden home goods, with its website’s “About Us” page saying: “Based in a small wood workshop in Bangalore, our dedicated team of 8 skilled craftsmen work consistently to handcraft each piece from scratch, transforming them into stunning showstoppers.”

Crimson Knot still lists products on Flipkart and stores them with Flipkart’s logistics services.

The endeavour wasn’t designed to make money. In 2019, for instance, the Indian Big River team projected revenue of $165,000 while it expected costs of $463,000, according to an internal company document.

Each of the five countries operated a little differently to better test different programs. Globally, in total, Big River gained access to rival marketplaces including Alibaba, Etsy, Real.de, Wish and Rakuten, among many other platforms. In 2019, the team set a goal to get onto 13 additional new marketplaces, according to an internal company document.

The Amazon spokeswoman declined to comment on the number of rival websites Big River operates on.

The Japanese team went so far as to create a streetwear brand with its own website and custom-designed products. They called it Not So Ape, saying it was founded in Tokyo in 2017 and “inspired by the street style we see everyday.”

Not So Ape—which isn’t related to an upscale Japanese streetwear brand called A Bathing Ape—says on its website: “Our name stems from our belief that creative expression is what truly separates us from primates.” Not So Ape has Instagram and TikTok accounts, and its site continues to offer products such as $50 knit beanies and $95 hoodies.

Not So Ape is sold on Yahoo Japan’s marketplace, Zozotown, and uses rival payment services from Shopify, Google and Meta platforms. Its U.S. website is hosted by Shopify—which was the target of a previous effort by Amazon, code named “Project Santos,” to replicate parts of its business model, the Journal has reported.

Not So Ape’s English-language site’s terms of service says it is operated by Big River and lists a Seattle contact address of “2300 7th Ave, Ste B100, Back Entrance”—a building adjacent to a main Amazon campus.

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