Like AOL-Time Warner deal, Amazon-Whole Foods may bring unforeseen change

SmallBiz-Small Talk-Amazon-Whole Foods
Groceries from Whole Foods Market sit in a cart. Like the AOL Time Warner merger before it, the Amazon-Whole Foods merger may well be transformative, but not necessarily in the ways we expect.

The recently announced merger of Amazon and Whole Foods is being viewed as a retail-sector earthquake. The unstoppable force, Amazon, is going to roll over the grocery industry and bring food delivery to the masses.

But for me, it was a reminder of another supposedly seismic merger: the union, in 2000, of then-internet giant AOL and entertainment titan Time Warner. Though that was a massive disaster, in many ways it was the forerunner of this deal and others.  Even if Amazon/Whole Foods does not dominate the food industry, the merger will create lasting economic changes.

Anybody remember the AOL/Time Warner deal? AOL was at its peak, especially its stock price. The online colossus’ tens of millions of subscribers represented a major source of potential sales for a firm that could tap those customers. Meanwhile, Time Warner was a major player in the entertainment and cable industries looking to expand its customer base.  Bringing together product and distribution seemed like a marriage made in heaven.

The merger announcement caused a huge amount of soul-searching on the part of competitors: How could they match the economic muscle of those two powerhouses?  Would they have to change dramatically? Would they survive?

The transaction should have created the major player in the internet, cable, and entertainment industries.  But timing is everything, and not long after the merger announcement, the dot-com bubble burst. A merger once called “transformative” turned out to be a huge failure.

But it did change the future. At the time, I wrote that the most important aspect of the merger was that it was an acknowledgement that product and content, not just platform or customer base, were crucial.  To survive, companies had to recognize that the internet’s most important purpose was to sell goods and services. AOL/Time Warner should have created the premier company to do just that.

The lesson was learned by none other than Comcast, which is recreating the model AOL and Time Warner attempted to develop more than 15 years ago. It’s a cable company that bought an entertainment colossus, NBCUniversal, and is trying to gain traction in the mobile-information sector. Sound familiar?

The internet is a means to an end, which is the more efficient working of the market. That reality may have been lost on technology-company investors whose stocks cratered when the bubble burst, but it’s a fact of life now resurrected with the Amazon/Whole Foods merger announcement.

Initial reaction to this deal was that it was all about delivering food to households. This is not a new concept; companies have been trying to grow this business for years.  But because it’s Amazon, with its warehouse and distribution network, its internet presence and vast financial resources, and Whole Foods, with its extensive physical presence, food-warehousing capacity and reputation as a purveyor of high-quality groceries, the assumption is that the combined companies will dominate the grocery industry.

Will this model succeed? Who knows? Issues of cost, consistent quality, product returns, and timing of delivery (food cannot sit at the front door very long) may or may not be overcome.  And it’s doubtful the strong grocery chains will simply roll over and play dead. Success is hardly guaranteed.

Regardless, this deal isn’t really about grocery deliveries. It’s about the operational structure of the retail sector. It’s a recognition that physical presence matters even in this internet-driven world. Brick-and-mortar stores, assumed to be dinosaurs, are once again coveted.

The Amazon/Whole Foods merger also reinforces the concept that information on consumers is the new content. Amazon has a massive data set on clients who buy a wide variety of products.  It can merge that with Whole Foods’ data on its grocery customers to more efficiently cross-sell goods.

If the tech bubble hadn’t burst and the economy hadn’t faltered, the AOL/Time Warner deal might have been the greatest thing since sliced bread. We will never know. But Comcast’s attempt to mirror the outlines of that deal shows it made sense.

Similarly, Amazon may not be able to sell vast amounts of groceries to the masses.  But that doesn’t mean the deal would be a failure (except, maybe, for the stockholders).  For the economy, it will change the way firms look at selling consumer products.

Since that’s what the internet is all about, it will likely be, in today’s vernacular, a truly disruptive deal.