Has Amazon Lost the Luxury Goods Market?

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The market for luxury goods depends, indeed thrives, on exclusivity, the key to keeping prices high. That may be the primary reason that luxury goods makers protect their brand so tenaciously and why they are not beating down the door at Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) to make their products available through Amazon’s e-commerce site.

If anything, luxury goods makers are rejecting Amazon’s blandishments and those of other big e-commerce sites like Alibaba and JD.com. The Wall Street Journal noted over the weekend that negotiations with Swatch to offer brands like Omega and Blancpain on Amazon’s site went exactly nowhere.

The deal evaporated when Swatch “demanded a commitment” from Amazon to comb the site in search of counterfeit goods and unauthorized third-party retailers. Amazon refused.

In July the House of Chanel won a judgment against Amazon in a lawsuit alleging that around 30 Amazon sellers were peddling fake Chanel-branded goods on the Amazon Marketplace. Chanel had sought $2 million from each defendant for every fake item each seller peddled, but the court instead ordered a default judgment of $100,000 per item, or a total from all sellers of about $3 million.

Amazon has created some tools for luxury goods sellers to give them more control over their brands and products, but the e-commerce giant is unwilling to police the massive site for fakes. Amazon does react to complaints, but that is not enough to satisfy the luxury brands.

This hard-nosed approach may derail Amazon’s effort to gain a foothold in the luxury market and lose a significant growth opportunity. According to a report out Monday morning from Fung Global Retail & Tech (FGRT), e-commerce is the fastest growing distribution channel globally for luxury goods.

Although a relatively small fraction of the global luxury market now, online sales of luxury goods account for about 8% of total luxury sales. A forecast from Bain lifts the online share to 25% of sales by 2025. Several pure-play luxury e-commerce websites offer the exclusivity that luxury brands want and are currently reaping the rewards.

Yoox Net-a-Porter, according to FGRT, posted record revenues of $1.19 billion in the first half of this year, up more than 15% year over year. Website users rose by 15% to 394 million and orders also rose by more than 15% to 4.5 million in the first half.

In China, where luxury e-commerce site Secoo Holding Ltd. (NASDAQ: SECO) just came public, competition for the luxury market remains fierce. But both Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. (NYSE: BABA) and JD.Com (NASDAQ: JD) are investing in separate portals to promote and sell luxury goods.

Amazon has several options. First, of course, it can try to bend the luxury goods makers to its will. That hasn’t happened yet, but Amazon is a determined competitor and if it can make one or two luxury goods sellers an offer they can’t refuse, that may open the gates.

Alternatively, Amazon could follow the lead of Alibaba and open a separate luxury portal that would give the luxury goods makers the exclusivity and protection from counterfeiters that they want. The main consideration here would be profit — for Amazon this may not be worth doing unless it promises to boost the bottom line.

Another possibility is that Amazon could buy a company like Yoox Net-a-Porter. With a market cap of around $4.5 billion, the firm would probably cost less than Whole Foods did — which, by the way, is the first example of Amazon going after the high end of a market.

The luxury goods makers need to decide whether to open their own e-commerce sites, as have LVMH and, later this month, Hermès or to strike a deal with an aggregator like Yoox Net-a-Porter or others that have sprung up. Even LVMH, with some 70 brands of its own, offers other luxury brands on its 24sevres.com site.

Balancing exclusivity and availability is the luxury market’s problem. Unless Amazon is willing to guarantee the former, luxury goods makers are not interested in the Amazon’s massive user base. We’re about to find out if luxury goods can do it better on their own.