The Six Months That Short-Circuited the Electric-Vehicle Revolution
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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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The Six Months That Short-Circuited the Electric-Vehicle Revolution

By MIKE COLIAS
Thu, Feb 15, 2024 8:41amGrey Clock 7 min

The Michigan plant where the F-150 Lightning electric truck is built used to vibrate with excitement.

President Biden visited in 2021 and test drove the blazing-fast pickup. Before the first ones even started rolling off the assembly line in the spring of 2022, Ford said it would expand the factory to quadruple the number it could build.

That energy is rapidly fading. Ford is cutting the plant’s output by half, and workers are relocating to other facilities, mostly those making gas-powered pickups and SUVs.

The sudden change “was a little bit of a shocker,” said Matthew Schulte, who inspects trucks at the factory in suburban Detroit. “Reality has set in.”

As recently as a year ago, automakers were struggling to meet the hot demand for electric vehicles. In a span of months, though, the dynamic flipped, leaving them hitting the brakes on what for many had been an all-out push toward an electric transformation.

A confluence of factors had led many auto executives to see the potential for a dramatic societal shift to electric cars: government regulations, corporate climate goals, the rise of Chinese EV makers , and Tesla ’s stock valuation , which, at roughly $600 billion, still towers over the legacy car companies.

But the push overlooked an important constituency: the consumer.

Last summer, dealers began warning of unsold electric vehicles clogging their lots. Ford, General Motors , Volkswagen and others shifted from frenetic spending on EVs to delaying or downsizing some projects. Dealers who had been begging automakers to ship more EVs faster are now turning them down .

Even Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk warned of “notably lower” growth in vehicle deliveries for the company in 2024.

“This has been a seismic change in the last six months of last year that will rapidly sort out winners and losers in our industry,” said Ford Chief Executive Jim Farley on an earnings call in early February.

EV sales continue to grow, and auto executives say they remain committed to the technology. But many are recalibrating their plans.

Ford has pulled back on EV investment and could delay some vehicle launches, while increasing production of hybrids , which run on both gasoline and electricity. It lost a staggering $4.7 billion last year on its battery-powered car business and projects an even bigger loss this year, in the range of $5 billion to $5.5 billion.

Some auto executives acknowledge they got ahead of the market with overzealous demand projections. Pandemic-era supply-chain shocks and a resulting car shortage created long waiting lists and early buzz for EVs, making the industry overly optimistic.

Only later, as a barrage of new EVs hit the market, did executives realise that car buyers were more discerning than they expected. Many were hesitant to pay a premium for a vehicle that came with compromises.

Farley and other industry CEOs are still confident that EVs will eventually take off, albeit at a slower pace than initially envisioned. But for now, the massive miscalculation has left the industry in a bind, facing a potential glut of EVs and half-empty factories while still having to meet stricter environmental regulations globally.

“Ultimately, we will follow the customer,” GM Chief Executive Mary Barra told analysts this month.

In 2020, as the car market unexpectedly heated up during pandemic lockdowns, traditional automakers shifted from dabbling in electric cars to launching an all-out blitz. They outlined plans to build dozens of battery factories, EV assembly plants and vehicle models, pledging more than a half-trillion dollars of investment in the technology through 2026, according to consulting firm AlixPartners.

The rapid rise of Elon Musk’s Tesla added to the urgency. Over just a few years, its market value rocketed past those of legacy car companies. Wall Street cheered strategic moves toward electrics and bid up shares of EV startups.

Tougher auto-emissions restrictions in Europe and China gave car companies little choice but to add more EVs or risk penalties. The Biden administration steered the industry toward more environmentally friendly cars, earmarking hundreds of billions in subsidies for battery production, consumer tax breaks and EV chargers.

At the start of 2023, car executives were expecting to cash in on their EV bets.

GM’s Barra had been among the earliest and most vocal industry advocates of shifting to EVs. The Detroit automaker set a goal of phasing out nearly all gas-engine vehicles by 2035.

“This is a breakout year,” Barra said on GM’s January 2023 earnings call . GM was finally making its own batteries and said it was ready to start cranking out EVs to satisfy pent-up demand for a new electric Cadillac SUV and Hummer pickup truck.

Ford, emboldened by swelling orders for the F-150 Lightning, increased prices for the pickups by as much as $20,000 over the original sticker. Elsewhere, car executives were talking up their plans to accelerate EV factory work.

Trouble ahead

Then warning signs began to appear. In mid-January of last year, Tesla slashed prices on some models by more than 20%, triggering a chain reaction.

Used-car dealers who had Tesla Model 3s and Model Ys in stock saw their values plummet by thousands of dollars. Customers who had bought Teslas at higher prices were furious.

“Why cut EV prices when demand is greater than supply?” Bank of America analyst John Murphy wondered.

Musk insisted that there was no demand problem. The company was trying to broaden appeal by making its cars more affordable, he told analysts.

Inside Ford, staffers analyzed what Tesla’s cuts might mean for its own EV sales. About two weeks later , Ford reduced prices on some versions of its Mustang Mach-E SUVs by nearly 9%.

Speaking to analysts in May, Farley largely shrugged off the pricing pressures, saying they weren’t reflective of broader interest in EVs. He remained upbeat about Ford’s outlook, reiterating plans to expand Lightning output.

Around that time, car dealer Mickey Anderson began noticing that EVs were accumulating on his lots in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado.

At first, Anderson and other retailers thought the slower sales were a fluke. At meetings with manufacturers in the late spring and summer, the dealers compared notes.

“We were worried,” Anderson recalled. “We went from wait lists to six months of supply, seemingly in a matter of weeks.”

As car companies entered the summer-selling season, there were other worrying signs. U.S. EV sales for the first half of 2023 rose 50% from a year earlier, down from a 71% increase in the first half of 2022.

The wave of early EV adopters willing to splurge had receded, and the next round of potential customers was proving more hesitant. They had more questions about how far a car could go on a single charge , and the life expectancy of batteries. They worried about charging times, repair costs, and not having enough places to plug in, according to dealers and surveys.

Interest rates were rising, pushing up monthly payments on EVs, which already were selling, on average, for about $14,000 more per vehicle than gas-engine models, according to research firm J.D. Power.

Lyndsey Grover, a Dallas-based pediatric anesthesiologist, said her husband was pushing her last year to replace her hybrid Volvo with an all-electric version, for environmental reasons.

She looked at a Rivian SUV, Tesla Model Y and an electric Mercedes, but ended up with another Volvo—a plug-in hybrid that could travel some distance on battery power before switching to traditional hybrid mode.

Her husband already had a Tesla Model S. She said it often requires a full night of charging at home, and even then, its range on a single charge often fell below estimates displayed by the vehicle. She felt the family needed at least one gas-powered vehicle.

GM was having trouble processing battery cells , a bottleneck that was preventing it from getting EVs to showrooms. Manufacturing delays left buyers waiting for delivery of models such as the Cadillac SUV and Hummer pickup truck.

Late last July, GM’s Barra told analysts plenty of consumers still wanted the company’s EVs. “These vehicles are getting to the dealers’ lots, and if they’re not already sold, they’ve got a list of people who are waiting for them,” she said.

Two days later, Ford’s Farley struck a different tone . “The paradigm has shifted,” he told analysts. Although consumers were still buying EVs, Ford’s pricing power was deteriorating compared with gas-engine models, he said, and the market for EVs would remain volatile.

Jefferies analyst Philippe Houchois asked Farley what had changed. “A few weeks ago when we saw you in Detroit…it’s like you had religion” on EVs, he told the CEO.

Farley replied that Ford was responding to market realities.

A Ford spokesman said that producing significant numbers of electric pickups before its rivals enabled the company to become an EV truck leader and to attract customers from other brands. Learning about the habits of EV buyers, he said, would benefit future vehicle development.

Late last summer, Ford dealer Ed Jolliffe saw on his store’s computer system that the factory planned to ship him about a dozen Lightnings. That worried him.

Earlier, his Detroit-area dealership had been receiving one or two Lightnings at a time, and his salespeople had had no trouble finding buyers. More recently, prospective customers seemed more hung up on the monthly payment of nearly $1,000.

Jolliffe had spent a half-million dollars installing EV fast chargers. He was getting ready to rent a billboard along the nearby interstate declaring: “Fastest Chargers Downriver!”

“We were all-in,” he said. So he swallowed hard and agreed to take the trucks.

Changing plans

The unraveling came swiftly. In a single month last fall, the average interest rate on an electric-car purchase jumped from 4.9% to 7%, making monthly payments even less affordable for some shoppers, said Tyson Jominy, vice president of data and analytics for J.D. Power.

Suddenly, once-long waiting lists for EVs shrank and buyers dropped reservations.

Over a 10-day span in October, the tone of automakers in Detroit and beyond turned gloomier. GM said it would delay by one year a $4 billion overhaul of a suburban Detroit factory to build new electric pickup trucks, citing “evolving EV demand.”

The next day, Elon Musk said that not as many people could afford a Tesla given higher interest rates and tougher economic conditions. Affordability was keeping a lid on demand, he said during a call to discuss third-quarter results.

A week later, on GM’s quarterly call , Barra described the transition to EVs as “bumpy,” and said the company wouldn’t meet a self-imposed goal of producing 400,000 EVs over a two-year period through mid-2024.

Two days later, Ford said it would defer $12 billion in electric-vehicle investments and focus on increasing hybrid production, citing the need to better match demand.

By late last year, it was becoming clear that sales of hybrids—once dismissed by some automakers as an unnecessary half-measure—were taking off and would outsell EVs in 2023.

“People are finally seeing reality,” said Toyota Motor   Chairman Akio Toyoda . For years, Toyota and other EV-cautious carmakers had been touting hybrids as a consumer-friendly way to reduce carbon emissions.

In November, thousands of U.S. dealers signed a letter urging Biden to ease proposed regulations that would push the industry to sell more battery-powered cars. “Last year, there was a lot of hope and hype about EVs,” the dealers wrote. “But that enthusiasm has stalled.”

Some auto retailers say that they are now selling EVs at a loss to clear unwanted inventory.

Jolliffe, whose car dealership is a 25-minute drive from the Lightning plant, is struggling to understand what happened. On a recent weekday, he peeked out his window at eight Lightnings and four Mach-Es.

“Nobody’s opening the door” to check them out, he said. “There just seems to be this hesitancy that is hitting hard.”



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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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