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Amazon and Walmart are in an all-out price war that is terrifying America’s biggest brands

Grocery suppliers are feeling the squeeze — big-time.

Last month, Walmart gathered some of America's biggest household brands near its Arkansas headquarters for a tough talk. For years, Walmart had dominated the retail landscape on the back of its "Everyday Low Price" guarantee. But now, Walmart was too often getting beaten on price.

So company executives were there, in part, to reset expectations with Walmart's suppliers — the consumer brands whose chips, sodas and diapers line the shelves of its Supercenters and its website.

Walmart wants to have the lowest price on 80 percent of its sales, according to a presentation the company made at the summit, which Recode reviewed.

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To accomplish that, the brands that sell their goods through Walmart would have to cut their wholesale prices or make other cost adjustments to shave at least 15 percent off. In some cases, vendors say they would lose money on each sale if they met Walmart's demands.

Brands that agree to play ball with Walmart could expect better distribution and more strategic help from the giant retailer. And to those that didn't? Walmart said it would limit their distribution and create its own branded products to directly challenge its own suppliers.

"Once every three or four years, Walmart tells you to take the money you're spending on [marketing] initiatives and invest it in lower prices," said Jason Goldberg, the head of the commerce practice at SapientRazorfish, a digital agency that works with large brands and retailers. "They sweep all the chips off the table and drill you down on price."

But this time around, Walmart's renewed focus on its "Everyday Low Price" promise coincides with Amazon's increased aggressiveness in its own pricing of the packaged goods that are found on supermarket shelves and are core to Walmart's success, industry executives and consultants say.

The result in recent months has been a high-stakes race to the bottom between Walmart and Amazon that seems great for shoppers, but has consumer packaged goods brands feeling the pressure.

The pricing crackdown also comes in the wake of Walmart's $3 billion acquisition of Jet.com and its CEO Marc Lore. Lore now runs Walmart.com and has said one of his mandates is to create new ways for the retailer to beat everyone else on price, including Amazon.

The pricing pressure has ignited intense wargaming inside the largest CPG companies, according to people familiar with discussions at Procter & Gamble, Unilever, PepsiCo, Mondelez and Kimberly-Clark. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

"It's dominating the conversation every week," said an executive at one of these companies.

Representatives for these companies either declined to comment or failed to respond to requests for comment. Executives inside these companies would only speak on a condition of anonymity because negotiations with retailers are confidential.

An Amazon spokesperson said in an email: "At Amazon we protect low prices for our customers, every single day — nothing has changed in terms of our focus or how we operate."

Walmart did not provide a comment.

Amazon algorithm

One piece of the battle, executives say, is an Amazon algorithm that works to match or beat prices from other websites and stores. Former Amazon employees say it finds the lowest price per unit or per ounce for a given product — even if it's in a huge bulk-size pack at Costco — and applies it across the same type of good on Amazon, even when the pack size is much smaller.

So let's imagine Costco is selling a pack of 10 bags of Doritos for $10 — or $1 per bag. Amazon's algorithm notes that one bag is $1 at Costco and, in turn, lowers the price on Amazon of a single bag of Doritos to $1.

That is a great deal for customers — something that is likely driving the decision at Amazon, where an obsession with customer value dominates its strategy.

But now, Amazon is selling individual items at Costco prices while not getting the same wholesale price that Costco enjoys. In short, it's going to be really hard for Amazon to turn a profit on those goods.

When Walmart sees this, it freaks out on the supplier, industry executives say. And it doesn't matter to Walmart that Amazon may not be getting the same wholesale price that retailers like Costco or other membership clubs receive. In other words, even if Amazon isn't profiting from its extremely low prices, Walmart is still demanding the same bulk-rate discount applied to individual items.

"Walmart has had it explained to them by myself and others," said one industry insider who asked for anonymity talking about private discussions. "My conclusion has been that they beat all suppliers up regardless because they need it to be a problem at the senior levels of these companies."

In some instances, Amazon is willing to lose money for some period of time on a product it feels it has to have. Jeff Bezos's company knows, after all, that it has to continue to increase its selection in non-perishable grocery goods if it is going to really challenge Walmart in the $800 billion category.

But, more so than in the past, Amazon is ratcheting up the pressure on manufacturers of goods that the online retailer is unable to sell for a profit, executives say. Separate from the algorithm, brands are also facing the realization that their products that are sold profitably in stores may become unprofitable online when shipping costs are factored in.

Unprofitable items are known inside Amazon as CRaP products — the acronym stands for "Can't Realize a Profit." And Amazon is not afraid to kick off big and small brands alike.

Case in point: On a Friday afternoon last month, all Pampers diapers sold by Amazon were unavailable on the site. Industry speculation was that Amazon may have kicked Pampers off the site as part of a negotiation over prices.

Neither Amazon nor Pampers parent company Procter & Gamble would comment on whether this was the case. But the bigger point may be that senior industry executives thought such a move was even a legitimate possibility.

"I'm very concerned," one of them said. "Do all CPG goods get commoditized to 40 percent below where they're used to being? The long-term implication is you just don't know where the bottom is at."

Get the CRaP out

When Amazon warns suppliers that a product is pre-CRaP, meaning it's in jeopardy of being kicked off the site for profitability issues, it makes demands. Oftentimes, to lower wholesale prices. But that doesn't always work, especially if a brand has the leverage of also selling into Walmart, which is still the biggest retail customer for many manufacturers.

In these instances, Amazon may transfer the product to Amazon Pantry, a smaller catalogue of goods restricted to Prime Members. All Pantry orders come with a $5.99 shipping fee per box, which helps cover Amazon's costs, if fewer than five items are ordered at one time.

Another Amazon tactic is to prohibit some brands from buying ads within the site for a product that Amazon can't make profitable on a standalone basis. Like paying for prominent placement in a store, a brand can buy ads within Amazon to promote their products. Blocking these ads is another way of burying a product.

"They are playing Jekyll and Hyde," said an executive at a large grocery goods manufacturer. "At times, it's all about growth; at times, it's all about profitability. They keep switching back and forth."

"They are playing Jekyll and Hyde."

Another factor: As Amazon Prime becomes a bigger part of Amazon's business, Amazon ships more orders that consist of just one item. These orders can typically be tougher to make profitable than multi-item orders — a trend that could explain the renewed focus on profitability.

"Amazon realizes Walmart is serious," the executive said, "and is basically asking manufacturers to subsidize their unprofitable shipping costs for them."

No easy solution

What is a brand to do? There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Some do give in and offer Amazon a better price if they can afford it.

Some push Amazon to keep the unprofitable product, but give them a better deal on a more profitable item.

Another strategy is to stop selling to Amazon as a wholesaler and instead sell directly, or through resellers, on Amazon's marketplace. Amazon cannot control the price of an item sold by marketplace sellers, though it can make it harder to find items that aren't priced aggressively.

The longest-term solution, however, is perhaps the most difficult: Reimagining how a product should be designed and packaged from the ground up, specifically for e-commerce sales. That often means cutting the weight of low-price goods since shipping costs tend to eat into a product's profitability. (Amazon, in fact, is trying to capitalize on this potential shift by asking brands to reformulate their packaging to make it easier to ship — all done via Amazon, of course.)

Big brands, however, have been doing more talk than action when it comes to pursuing this solution — a fact that you can be sure Amazon has noticed.

But Andrea Leigh, an ex-Amazon general manager who now runs her own brand consultancy, has come across a few examples of brands redesigning goods for e-commerce. One of them, from the brand Celsius, is an energy drink that has been transformed into powdered packets that the customer mixes with water at home.

Then there's the brand Green Works, which has sold household cleaners in concentrate form, along with an empty spray container.

"If competitors go away and you can live it out, it presents you with an opportunity where you can steal share in a relatively easy way," she said. "Figuring out how to do online better and not getting CRaP-ed out, that's a huge opportunity."

The rise of direct to consumer?

Perhaps the toughest part of being a traditional consumer packaged goods brand today is that you don't know who your customer is because you sell to them via a middleman: Retailers like Amazon and Walmart. And if you try to sell direct through your own website — which requires a different set of skills — retailers often raise hell. Yes, the same retail partners that are putting the squeeze on wholesale prices.

So some of these multinational companies are dabbling with diversifying their sales channels through acquisition. Unilever, the owner of brands like Dove and Hellmann's, last year purchased the subscription razor startup Dollar Shave Club for $1 billion. The vast majority of Dollar Shave Club's sales come through its own website.

Venture capitalists are betting that that deal will be the first of many acquisitions of digital-first brands that would traditionally sell their goods on supermarket shelves — though no major ones have yet followed. If they're right long-term, however, this pricing pressure from Amazon and Walmart may be partly to blame — or thank.

By Jason Del Rey, Recode.net.

CNBC's parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode's parent Vox, and the companies have a content-sharing arrangement.

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