Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Why Amazon Is Happy to Burn Money on the Kindle Fire

Yet another big-name Internet stock got punished for missing Wall Street’s expectations yesterday. This time it was Amazon, which reported lower operating margins for Q3 and — presumably more worrisome — the possibility of an operating loss in Q4.

But Amazon isn’t Netflix, which has to convince investors and consumers that its business isn’t fundamentally broken. Jeff Bezos and company have a much easier story to sell: Profits are down because they’re spending money on expansion.

A lot of the money is going into Amazon’s old business, CFO Thomas Szkutak explained on yesterday’s conference call — the company is building out dozens of new distribution centers to help it ship all the physical stuff its customers still order. And a lot of the money is going into its new digital business — in particular, the new Kindle Fire.

Amazon is ultracautious when providing any details about its business, and Szkutak didn’t break from that tradition yesterday. But he did go out of his way to play up the company’s investments in its new tablets.

And while he didn’t spell it out, he made it quite clear that the company was happy to lose money on the tablets in the short term because it could sell more stuff to Fire owners in the long run.

Here’s a partial transcript from Seeking Alpha; it’s a bit garbled, but much more useful than my chicken-scratch notes from the call. Note the repeated reference to the “lifetime value” of the gadgets [my emphasis added]:

We’re investing in our Kindle and Digital business [and] you’re seeing that reflected in our Q4 guidance as well … if you take a look at our Kindle business, for example, we’ve launched 4 new products at the end of September, and we’re very, very excited about those products. They’re at great prices, and they are certainly premium products … And [when] we think about the economics of the Kindle business, we think about the totality. We think of the lifetime value of those devices. So we’re not just thinking about the economics of the device and the accessories. We think about the content. We are selling quite a bit of Special Offers devices which includes ads. We’re thinking about the advertisements and those Special Offers and those lifetime value[s].

Szkutak hit the same points a few minutes later. Remember that Amazon is disciplined at saying very little on these calls. So when Szkutak hits these talking points repeatedly, it’s not an accident:

We have learned a lot over the past couple of years … since launching Kindle. … what we’re seeing certainly is that once customers purchase a Kindle and are carrying around this really massive selection at their fingertips, they’re buying more content. We’ve talked a lot about that on previous calls. But again as we think about the lifetime value … we look at the total economics which include the device, the accessories, the content, as well as any ad-based revenue and Special Offers. So those are the things that we’re looking at, as we think about the lifetime value of the device. And we like what we see. And so certainly as you think about Q4 and you think about the guidance that we’re giving, certainly we’re going to have a — we expect to have a record quarter in terms of device sales. And because of the back-end loading of it, you should assume that the content would, obviously, trail that device sale. The ad revenue would trail those device sales as well as the Special Offers.. But we’re extremely excited about both our electronic ink and fire devices … and we think that those will be great for share owners over time.

As long as we’re parsing the call, it’s worth noting that Szkutak repeatedly points out the value of advertising on its tablets. I’d previously assumed that the company thought of ads — several of the Kindle base models now come with “special offers” as the default option — as a way to defray the Kindle’s costs, so it could get more of them in customers’ hands. But it seems Amazon has bigger ambitions.

Again, it’s important to stress that Amazon’s gadget model is the opposite of Apple’s: Tim Cook sells media so he can sell iPads and iPhones; Bezos sells Kindles so he can sell books and videos and music and even advertising.

Apple has already established that its model works. Now we get to see Amazon’s theory really put to the test.

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There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had. But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.

— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle