Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He is a senior correspondent at Vox.
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For years, it seemed as though nothing could stop Amazon’s explosive growth and success. Even a pandemic couldn’t slow it down: In fact, in early 2021, the tech and retail giant reported its largest quarterly profit ever.
But a lot can change in just two years: Since then, founder Jeff Bezos stepped down and named a new CEO, the online shopping boom slowed, and Amazon had to dig itself out of a costly and overly aggressive warehouse and staffing expansion. The past two months have been a strange, even frightening, time inside the company, current and former employees told Recode: Amazon announced unprecedented layoffs of more than 18,000 corporate employees and began culling areas of the business, like its Alexa voice assistant division, that Bezos had long championed.
As Amazon faces one of the most crucial crossroads in its nearly 29-year history, it’s dogged by a pressing question: Are the recent layoffs and cost cuts simply the sign of a company entering a new, unavoidable phase of maturity, or are they a warning flare that Amazon has plateaued and will soon start experiencing an eventual and irreversible decline?
“That’s what we are all asking ourselves,” a former Amazon marketing leader, who left the company in 2021, told Recode.
Only adding to the uncertainty are open questions about whether current Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, Bezos’s hand-picked successor, can lead the company through these trials without abandoning an internal culture that led to breakthrough innovations like Amazon Prime and Amazon Web Services that helped make the company successful in the first place.
The stakes of Amazon’s battle for its future are high — and it’s fighting at least partly against itself. The eventual answers to these questions matter not only to the millions of people across the globe who work for Amazon and its many partners in varied industries, but also to the hundreds of millions who rely every day on the company’s shopping, delivery, entertainment, and cloud computing services
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Andy Jassy, Chief Cost-Cutter
For Amazon and its employees, 2022 served as a harsh wake-up call. And in 2023, the company and its employees will need to adapt to this new reality.
Even before Amazon’s stock began falling in April 2022 when the company revealed it had overexpanded and overstaffed its retail warehouse network, Jassy had started his new role as CEO in 2021 “laser-focused on profits” and with a plan to kick off in-depth profitability reviews.
The first significant cuts came to Amazon’s brick-and-mortar retail business in March 2022, when the company announced it would shut down dozens of bookstores across the US and UK, as well as a handful of stores called 4-Star that sold an array of best-selling merchandise from Amazon’s online store. The shops were not expensive to operate compared to the company’s high-tech convenience stores called Amazon Go, but they never created enough differentiation from competitor shops to justify their existence.
Then came a news report in November, saying Amazon would soon lay off more than 10,000 corporate employees — a shocking number for a company that hadn’t had any corporate layoffs of more than 1,000 people since 2001. In the fall, the company also began rescinding some job offers, sometimes just a couple of weeks from would-be employees’ scheduled start dates. And at the start of 2023, Jassy clarified that employee cuts would go even deeper: More than 18,000 roles would be axed — around 5 percent of the company’s corporate staff, but by far the largest total number of job cuts in its history. To put the abruptness of these changes in context: As recently as June 2022, Amazon’s career site had listed more than 30,000 job openings — that’s not a misprint — in software development positions alone. But by mid-January, it only had fewer than 300.
The prolonged layoff cycle caused panic and low morale inside the divisions of Amazon corporate targeted in the cuts. Some workers told Recode in November that they were questioning whether they wanted to stay at the company even if they weren’t axed. They also are questioning what the future of Amazon will be: Will it learn how to innovate again and continue to delight customers, or will it slide into maintenance mode?
In the past, after all, Amazon leaders would bristle at the idea of Amazon being pigeonholed with labels such as “retailer”; to them, Amazon has always been an innovation company with inventions like the Kindle e-reader, Amazon Prime, Amazon Web Services, and Alexa as proof. But it’s been a long time since Amazon has blown the public away with a new product or service. Alexa debuted all the way back in 2014, and that division was hit with some of the deepest cuts in the fall.
Jassy has tried to reassure employees that innovation is still a main focus for Amazon: “We often talk about our leadership principle Invent and Simplify in the context of creating new products and features,” he wrote in a company blog post in early January. “There will continue to be plenty of this across all of the businesses we’re pursuing.”
But he also made a point to reframe the definition of innovation to include more mundane business changes: “[W]e sometimes overlook the importance of the critical invention, problem-solving, and simplification that go into figuring out what matters most to customers (and the business), adjusting where we spend our resources and time, and finding a way to do more for customers at a lower cost,” Jassy wrote.
Such a change is perfectly natural for a massive company in a transitional stage like Amazon is, according to Mark Cohen, the director of retail studies at Columbia University who was previously the CEO of multiple department store chains in the US and Canada.
“It’s completely unrealistic for the company to continue to invest in innovation at a breakneck pace while it rightsizes its house,” he told Recode. He also called the cost-cutting exercise “a perfectly reasonable thing to do for a company that is doing several hundred billion dollars in revenue and that has grown meteorically.”
What happened to frugality?
Indeed, Amazon’s current predicament has been startling to many because of the financial results the company was posting in recent years. Before the pandemic, in 2019, Amazon’s revenue grew more than 20 percent year over year to more than $280 billion – an impressive rate of growth for a company of that massive size. In 2020, revenue growth skyrocketed to more than 38 percent, fueled by the e-commerce boom during the early months of the pandemic. Total revenue surpassed $386 billion.
With numbers of that size, it’s easy to lose sight of the sheer absurdity of that kind of growth. Amazon added $106 billion in new revenue to its business in a single year, 2020. For comparison’s sake, the giant discount retailer Target generated just over $92 billion in revenue during that same timeframe. Amazon added an entire Target worth of business, plus a Dick’s Sporting Goods for good measure.
In 2021, as people began returning to their pre-pandemic shopping habits, Amazon’s revenue growth decelerated to 22 percent with nearly $470 billion in revenue. And in the first nine months of 2022 (Amazon reports results for the final quarter of 2022 the first week in February), year-over-year revenue growth decelerated all the way to 10 percent. To make matters worse, Amazon’s core retail business lost more than $8 billion during that time frame, compared to an $8 billion profit during the same period the previous year. Jassy decided Amazon’s layoffs and cuts had to follow.
In conversations with 10 current and former Amazon senior managers and executives, the latter of which all left in either 2021 or 2022, there was a general consensus that a greater focus on managing costs should have come sooner for Amazon, even before the challenges that Covid-19 and a turbulent economy created for the company. The current employees were granted anonymity because they are not permitted to speak to the press without Amazon’s permission, and the former company leaders requested it so they could talk candidly. In recent years, many of these sources told Recode, ideas for new products and services were not being evaluated with the same rigor and frugality that Amazon was known for. Some blamed an influx of external middle-management hires over the last five or so years, whom they say Amazon leadership didn’t work hard enough to mold. Others argued that a corporate culture sometimes criticized as soulless and too harsh had over time moved too far in the opposite direction.
“I’ve seen the transition to where you had to sugarcoat feedback,” one longtime senior manager told Recode.
Amazon’s launch of a live radio app called Amp was one of the more questionable new product forays. At the time the app launched in early 2022, the most recent top innovator in the live audio space, an app called Clubhouse, was already in decline. While the two apps are not identical, some employees believed Amazon should have foreseen the slowdown in the overall live audio space. Not surprisingly, Amazon reportedly laid off half of Amp’s staff in October.
Other longtime execs told Recode that besides greenlighting and overfunding too many ideas, Amazon no longer pulls the plug on bad ideas as quickly and regularly as it once did.
“There used to be discipline around failing fast, going back to examples like the Fire Phone,” said a former Amazon executive of more than 15 years who left the company in 2022. “Have we done the same with other devices? No. Have we built devices or experiences where we built it because it was cool tech but it didn’t really solve customer needs? Absolutely. There was less rigor and discipline around actually solving customer problems.”
Another issue, according to a different manager who left in 2022, is that Amazon had begun attempting to invent new things just for the sake of it.
“We grew and expanded for so long that we were driven by the idea that we must innovate, but we didn’t always ask if customers really want that,” the former manager said. “We convinced ourselves they did, but now Jassy is asking, ‘What is the real motivation, and for whom?’”
It’s a delicate balance for Jassy and the company to maintain: Even with these criticisms, some of those who spoke to Recode worried that Jassy’s focus on cost-cutting may cause Amazon to miss out on the next breakthrough idea that could become a future pillar of the company.
“You go up to leadership with a big, maybe wacky, idea, and there was just a very heavy reticence to even consider it,” the longtime exec of more than 15 years told Recode of the time following Jassy’s appointment to the CEO role in July of 2021.
On the other hand, it’s quite possible that the approach that worked for Amazon for the last 10 years may just not be the approach that will work for the next 10. If Amazon was burning more money in recent years but big ideas were still fewer and further between than a decade ago, perhaps something was bound to give.
That’s how Columbia’s Cohen sees it: “The new CEO is willfully steering the ship toward the future with a more methodical and careful approach,” he told Recode. “There is a transition here that is necessary and appropriate. Amazon can’t be all things to all and can’t chase every rainbow.”
For some, the combination of Jassy’s deep operational experience at the company coupled with greater emotional intelligence — “I think Jassy cares and gives a damn about employees more than Bezos ever did,” one former manager said — is fostering some confidence.
“I’m as bullish on Amazon as I’ve ever been,” an employee of more than 10 years who works in a division not impacted by the layoffs told Recode.
For others, especially those whose departments experienced deep cuts, they worry about what a lack of accountability for the mistakes that preceded the cuts means for how Amazon will be run in the future. Even if Jassy wasn’t CEO when Amazon invested in giant warehouse and staffing expansions that would prove misguided, he’s now the one in charge of the fallout.
“If our leaders will not acknowledge that they made some miscalculations, and moved away from what was core to how we operate, how does anybody have faith that we’re not going to go through this again in the future?” a senior manager of more than 10 years said.
But the reality may be that it’s still too early to tell.
“The next 12 months are really when we get to see how Andy Jassy can perform as CEO,” a longtime former senior manager who left in 2022 said.