Amazon’s New Panel Program Is An Anticompetitive Nightmare
After spending years promising Congress that the data it collected from third-party sellers wasn’t used to beef up its private-label products, today Amazon decided to roll out a product meant to do exactly that. The Amazon Shopper Panel, as it’s called, promises to pay Amazon customers that offer intel to the ecommerce giant about where they shop when they’re not shopping on Amazon dot com.
Here’s how the Shopper Panel works: After getting an IRL or e-receipt from any business that isn’t owned by Amazon (so Whole Foods or Four Star locations are not eligible), panelists can either submit a picture of that receipt through the app, or in the case of digital copies, forward their emailed details to a panel-specific email address. According to the Panel website, folks that upload “at least” 10 receipts per month can either cash that in for $10 in Amazon credit or $10 donated to their charity of choice. Along with that baseline payout, the app will also dole out additional earnings to panelists who answer the occasional survey about certain brands or products within the app.
Not every receipt counts toward this program. Per Amazon, receipts from grocery stores, drug stores, restaurants, and movie theaters—along with just about any other “retailer” or “entertainment outlet”—are fair game. Receipts from casinos, gun stores, transit fare, tuition or apartment rentals aren’t.
While the program is invite-only for now, any curious Amazon customer based in the U.S. can download the Panel app from the iOS App Store or the Google Play Store if they want to put their name on the waitlist.
Panels like these have literally been around since before Jeff Bezos was born, and there are dozens of apps that offer similar payouts to anyone willing to lend their opinion on everything from sugary cereals to certain sports cars. But Amazon’s own app is a bit…more unsettling, especially for folks that have followed the company’s business model.
Under the Amazon Panel site’s “Privacy” tab, the company notes that any receipts that you share will go toward “[helping] brands offer better products and [making] ads more relevant on Amazon.” The company also notes any data gleaned from these receipts or surveys might also be used to “ improve the product selection on Amazon.com and affiliate stores such as Whole Foods Market,” and to “improve the content offered through Amazon services such as Prime Video.”
That’s why this rollout is a particularly gutsy move for Amazon to take right now. Recent months have seen the company come under an increasing barrage of regulatory fire from authorities both in the U.S. and in Europe over a scandal that largely revolved around tracking consumers’ purchase data—not unlike the data pulled from the average receipt—on its platform. This past spring, an investigation from the Wall Street Journal revealed that Amazon had spent years surveilling the purchases earned by the platform’s third party sellers specifically to create its own competing products under the Amazon private label. This story came out barely a year after Amazon’s associate general council, Nate Sutton, told Congress that the company didn’t use “individual seller data” to do just that.
The Panel Program is a slightly less slimy take on the same idea. Because Amazon doesn’t have access to the same purchase-by-purchase data from the myriad brick-and-mortar “sellers” that Amazon competes with offline, paying people for their receipts from these sellers ensures Amazon will have a steady stream of data from its IRL competitors. Whenever we feel comfortable walking back into movie theaters, our AMC receipts can be used to fuel new exclusives on Amazon Prime. Our receipts from our occasional grocery runs can be used to tell Whole Foods which products it should ramp up or abandon.
In a message to advertisers about the official rollout of the Panel Program, the company noted that “customers routinely use Amazon to discover and learn about products before purchasing them elsewhere. In fact, Amazon only represents 4% of U.S. retail sales,” which is technically true—and a point that Bezos has mentioned in the past when grilled on antitrust issues on the Senate floor.
But it’s a point that ignores how more and more of our purchases are happening online overall, and how more and more of those purchases are happening through Amazon. One 2020 report of the major e-commerce companies found that close to 39% of all online sales happened under Amazon’s watch. Its biggest competitor was Walmart, which controlled a little more than 5%. And now that Amazon is dipping into in-person purchase data, that percentage may dwindle even further.