Antitrust Lawyer Blog Commentary on Current Developments

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On August 23, 2017, the Federal Trade Commission cleared Amazon.com Inc.’s acquisition of Whole Foods Market Inc. without a second request investigation. As mega mergers go, this antitrust review was fast and furious.

When the deal was announced, consumer groups and politicians questioned whether the combination was anticompetitive. Even President Trump, during the campaign, had been quoted as saying “Amazon had a huge antitrust problem”.

Many others were outspoken that the deal should at the very least undergo a thorough investigation because as they saw it, Amazon was adding groceries to its mix in an effort to cement its position as the go to platform where most online commerce takes place. The argument goes that Amazon is a monopolist in online retailing (46% of online retail sales) and it was acquiring Whole Foods, an organic and premium food grocery brick & mortar retailer providing Amazon with additional infrastructure that would allow Amazon to sell and deliver groceries in more cities. Indeed, AmazonFresh is available only in a handful of cities, and doesn’t have the same range of offerings as Whole Foods. Whole Foods delivers through Instacart, but not in a number of of cities. Amazon Prime offers free delivery and Instacart’s delivery fees can add up. Therefore, the deal raised both vertical (online platform along with brick & mortar stores) and horizontal (both firms competed in the retail distribution of food) issues, but combined the merged firm was still a very small retail grocer and the addition of Whole Foods tiny share of the grocery business was trivial.

Andre P. Barlow
Few missions are as important to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division as preventing anti-competitive mergers or permitting them with adequate conditions to prevent competitive harm. After all, a merger is forever — fixing it after the fact is too messy.

The DOJ is currently investigating Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV’s (“ABI”) acquisition of SABMiller PLC, the largest beer merger in history, as well as its proposed divestiture of SABMiller’s interest in the MillerCoors LLC Joint Venture to Molson Coors Brewing Company. These proposed transactions lock in place the two largest beer competitors in the United States while fundamentally changing the dynamics in the beer industry for smaller brewers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers. While ABI maintains that the proposed transactions do not change the competitive landscape, the DOJ knows better.

Indeed, the DOJ’s recent approach in approving Charter Communications Inc.’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable Inc. (“TWC”) and its related acquisition of Bright House Networks LLC to create New Charter, the merged firm, is instructive. Despite no geographic overlap in any local market, the DOJ required comprehensive behavioral conditions to prevent New Charter from engaging in future anti-competitive conduct against its smaller rivals. The DOJ should take the same tough and sophisticated approach to protecting consumers from the much larger ABI/SABMiller merger and the new ownership by Molson Coors, which will create two beer giants that will dwarf its rivals.