Amazon released its Q4 and full year earnings on Feb. 3. North American revenue was up 18.4% in 2021 versus 2020, which is only a slightly faster growth than the overall retail industry growth of 17.9%, as measured by the US Department of Commerce. Amazon’s growth rate is slowing by historical standards, it has previously never been below 20% since Amazon started reporting North American sales in 2014.
For the first time, Amazon broke out the revenue it collects from advertisers on its platform. Previously this revenue had been lumped into a category Amazon labeled “other.” In 2021 Amazon collected $31.16 billion in advertising revenue from sellers on its platform, which was a 32% increase over 2020. This makes Amazon the third largest digital advertising platform in North America, behind Google and Facebook. For comparison, Amazon Web Services (AWS), long thought to be Amazon’s most lucrative business, generated $62.2 billion in revenue in 2021. AWS is one of Amazon’s most capital-intensive offerings, consuming more than half of their capital expenditure budget, and yielding only $18.5 billion in operating income. While Amazon did not disclose the operating income generated from their ad business, it is almost certainly bigger than the income generated by AWS, making the advertising business the most profitable segment of Amazons entire empire.
Retailers selling advertisements (retail media networks) is one of the fastest growing trends in all of retail. eMarketer estimates the market grew by 55% in 2021 and forecasts that it will grow another 30% in 2022. They also estimate that Amazon currently holds 77% of the total retail media network market. As traditional retail sales shift to lower margin e-commerce sales, retailers have been eager to augment those sales with high margin services like advertising. At the same time, changes to privacy policies at Apple and Google have made digital advertising on platforms which depend on third party data less effective and more difficult to measure. This has shifted more digital advertising dollars from platforms dependent on third party data, like Facebook, to platforms with first party sales data such as e-commerce retailers.
For this reason, we’re likely to see retail media networks continue to mature and grow rapidly over the next several years. The challenge for Amazon is to continue growing the advertising business, without degrading the experience for shoppers. It will become increasingly difficult to balance Amazon’s desire to show the consumers more ads, with the consumers expectation to see the most relevant results for their search.