FedEx Corp. may finally be waking up to the threat Amazon.com Inc. poses to its business model.
The logistics company is offering big discounts to help fill the planes in its Express delivery network with more e-commerce shipments, according to the Wall Street Journal, which cited people familiar with the matter. The deals are being used to woo customers away from rival United Parcel Service Inc., or to convince them to switch from FedEx’s cheaper ground offerings, the newspaper said, citing people familiar with the matter. For some customers, shipping goods via FedEx’s two-day air service may now cost about the same as shipping them through the ground division.(1)
A FedEx spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal that the company hasn’t changed its pricing strategy, adding that the two-day Express service “has been very successful and continues to deliver tremendous value to small and medium businesses competing in the e-commerce market.” Reports of the discounts come just weeks after FedEx said its domestic Express air-delivery unit was dropping Amazon as a customer to focus on “serving the broader e-commerce market.” FedEx dropped Amazon as a customer for its Express air-delivery unit to focus on “serving the broader e-commerce market.” The charitable interpretation of that move is that FedEx had found a bit of backbone and was holding a firmer line on pricing with Amazon in an effort to bolster its profit margins. The other possibility is that FedEx recognized that Amazon’s efforts to bring more of its logistics operations in house were real, and that it may want to start the process of breaking up with Amazon before Amazon decides to break up with it. While FedEx CEO Fred Smith has repeatedly painted any notion of Amazon disrupting the logistics industry as “fantastical,” his actions increasingly suggest otherwise.
The share of capacity devoted to the time-sensitive legal documents and medical supplies that the FedEx Express network was originally built for will likely continue to shrink. But it’s uneconomical for the division’s fleet – which numbered 670 leased and owned planes at the end of 2018 – to fly partially full or not at all. Meanwhile, FedEx expects U.S. e-commerce demand to grow to 100 million packages per day by 2026. It’s been adamant that Amazon only directly accounts for a small percentage of its overall sales. But Amazon has forever changed the world’s expectations around shopping and delivery. So whether or not its own sales are in the mix, FedEx will be forced to drink more deeply from the firehose of e-commerce shipments to keep its network humming along. And that will come at a cost to margins.
FedEx’s decision to prioritize shipments from the likes of Walmart Inc., Target Corp. and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. gave some analysts hope that it would deliver a greater share of packages to higher-paying business customers and add more density to its delivery routes. But there’s some debate as to whether the Express air-delivery unit as currently constituted still makes sense. Amazon relies on a network of fulfillment and sorting centers close to metropolitan areas to rapidly complete and ship orders, a model that many rival retailers are mimicking in some shape or form as they try to stay competitive. If you’re only going to deliver a package 25 or 50 miles, you’re not going to use a plane to do that. Indeed, when FedEx’s decision to drop Amazon as a U.S. Express customer was first announced, Seaport Global Holdings analyst Kevin Sterling wondered to Bloomberg News whether it was a precursor to the Express unit eventually fading out.
Planes still have a role to play: Amazon last week announced an agreement to lease 15 additional Boeing Co. 737-800 converted freighters from General Electric Co.’s jet-lessor arm, adding to an existing agreement for five planes. But FedEx’s reported need to offer discounts to keep the planes it has full calls into question the company’s decision to devote a significant amount of its capital expenditure budget to refreshing its airplane fleet. Management has been clear it’s not expanding capacity at the Express unit, but rather replacing its planes with more efficient options to improve productivity and costs. Downsizing the fleet and reallocating those resources could be a smarter move.
The reported pricing cuts – coupled with FedEx’s recently announced plan to offer delivery seven days a week by 2020 and add a fleet of flexible, part-time drivers – reinforce a point both I and my colleague Shira Ovide have long argued: Amazon doesn’t need to steal customers away from FedEx and UPS en masse to be a threat. It’s already forcing both companies to rethink the way they operate. The revenue lost from removing Amazon as an Express customer is relatively minor, but the world the e-commerce giant has created isn’t a hospitable one for the package-delivery incumbents’ profit margins and capital-spending budgets.
(1) News of the discounts weighed on shares Monday, as did a separate shipping issue: FedExhad to issue a second apology to Huawei Technologies over the misrouting of packages, and some reports indicate China is contemplating black-listing it.
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Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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