The European Union, in stating preliminary objections to the merger in November, pronounced itself wary of what Amazon might do to boost sales for Roomba once it owned iRobot. It might stop listing Roomba’s rivals, the EU report said, or make those listings harder to find. It might decide not to list Roomba’s rivals under “Other products you may like” or “Amazon’s choice” or “Works with Alexa.” It might jack up advertising fees for rival robot vacuums, or fees to be a third-party seller. At least some of these strategies might cause Amazon to lose revenue from those rivals, the EU report conceded, but “the merged entity would likely gain more from additional sales … than it would lose from fewer sales of iRobot’s rivals and other related products.” Indeed, if Amazon didn’t plan to do one or more of these things, it was hard to see why Amazon would want to buy iRobot.
Such tactics, we have ample reason to believe, are standard operating procedure at Amazon. An antitrust lawsuit that the FTC filed in September said Amazon’s website had replaced “helpful organic search results with biased ‘widgets’ that direct shoppers to purchase Amazon’s private label products,” of which Roomba would of course be one after a merger. That this practice hasn’t caused Amazon to lose customers, the FTC filing said, “further demonstrates its monopoly power.” According to a 2020 ProPublica story by Renee Dudley, Amazon started reserving the top spot in product searches for its own private-label products during the Covid pandemic. When ProPublica confronted Amazon with this, a spokesperson replied that “Amazon’s private brand products have on average higher customer review ratings, lower return rates and higher repeat purchase rates than other comparable brands.” In effect, this person was asking us to believe that in addition to being the nation’s best online retailer—which (why quibble?) it is—Amazon was the nation’s best manufacturer of consumer products. Which seems doubtful.
Indeed, Dudley found that Amazon’s private-label products sell well because Amazon lists them first, and not the other way around. Dudley cited the example of two short-sleeve Oxford shirts Amazon makes that Amazon listed, in this case, not at the very top but on the first page of search results. Had these items been ranked according to sales over a 30-day period, Dudley wrote, the shirts would have been listed at the bottom of the second page of search results. Somebody was rigging the algorithm.