Amazon's acquisition of Whole Foods is 'a threat to everyone,' even restaurants

Key Points
  • On Wednesday, Whole Foods shareholders approved Amazon's proposed $13.7 billion acquisition of the grocery chain.
  • Where Amazon really stands to threaten restaurants is in its consumer data collection abilities and its long-term drain on retail locations.
  • Most analysts and investors worry that the tech giant's deal with Whole Foods will largely upend the landscape for grocers, food delivery services and meal-kit companies.
Amazon's acquisition of Whole Foods is 'a threat to everyone,' even restaurants

Amazon said Thursday that its $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods would be complete on Monday. The news comes just a day after Whole Foods' shareholders gave the green light to the tech giant to acquire the grocer.

While much attention has been paid to how much retailers and grocery stores have to fear from the alliance between these two industry giants, restaurants won't see many aftershocks — at least in the near term.

"In the short term, there's probably not a major impact on restaurants," David Henkes, principal at Technomic, told CNBC via email. "Certainly Amazon is focused on building supply chain solutions for restaurants, including fresh items, grocery and nonfoods, but that's been going on for a while."

But over the long term, Amazon poses a bigger threat. The tech giant has expansive consumer data collection abilities and its online convenience has been a drain on retail locations, leading to a drag on restaurant sales.

In particular, Amazon's commitment to data gathering has helped the company learn more about its customers and at a faster pace. This has allowed it to adapt to changing customer shopping habits and provide its shoppers with a better online ordering experience.

Amazon "measures everything" and uses that information to optimize every aspect of its business, Eli Portnoy, CEO of Sense360 and a former Amazon employee, told CNBC.

"I think restaurants have been immune to this because they never had a competitor who could do this," Portnoy said. "Now they do. Now they have Amazon that is going to come in and measure every single transaction and measure the impact of it and really think holistically, the same way they do on and across their other businesses."

He said Amazon is "going to make very smart decisions because they are all going to be backed by data."

Restaurants have attempted to better collect data from customers by using loyalty programs. When customers use these apps or online delivery systems, restaurants can capture data about spending habits, but it's "not enough" because so many of the transactions occur offline or with cash, Portnoy said.

Loyalty program data also tend to be biased, he said. It only tells companies how to optimize for a very specific and very loyal base of customers — not customers who are new to the brand or not subscribed to its rewards program.

Restaurants also will have to worry about Amazon's impact on brick-and-mortar retailers, as many rely on customers heading out to shop to drive customers to their chains.

"We have hypothesized that one of the factors that explains the weaker-than-anticipated trends [in the restaurant industry] has been the changes in retail traffic patterns, with the shift to online retailing (i.e., "Amazon Effect") weighing on 'pop-in' restaurant occasions tied to brick-and-mortar retail activity," David Tarantino, analyst at Baird, wrote in a research note Wednesday.

In the most recent quarter, Starbucks blamed slowing mall traffic for its decision to close all of its Teavana stores. The coffee giant said during the first quarter that many of its Teavana mall stores were a drag on results, with as many as 350 of these stores hurt by reduced foot traffic.

While Amazon will have a long-term drag on restaurant chains, most analysts and investors worry that the tech giant's deal with Whole Foods will largely upend the landscape for grocers, food delivery services and meal-kit companies.

"Do I think it's competitive? Do I think restaurants need to think about it and care about it? Absolutely," Portnoy said. "It's just another competitive threat in a very long list, but at the same time I do not think it is nearly as existential as I would feel if I were a Target, a Best Buy, a Wal-Mart and, specifically, with Whole Foods, a Kroger or a Safeway."

Amazon has long been pushing to expand its online grocery business, seeing it as an emerging opportunity. With the planned acquisition of Whole Foods, Amazon quickly gains a network of physical stores, which can aid it in distributing products to customers. While few people buy their groceries online right now, more shoppers are switching to purchase goods that way.

"With supermarket food service accounting for more than $32 billion in consumer spending, there will be a big impact here," Henkes said. "Right now, most of these items are picked up by consumers in-store, but Amazon delivery of fresh-prepared meals can add a new level of convenience for consumers."

About 12 percent of U.S. grocery shoppers bought their groceries online at some point in 2016, according to Cowen and Co.

Younger generations have been adopting online shopping at a greater pace as they seek convenience over value. Millennials, in particular, are leaning toward ordering their groceries online. This generation is starting to get married and have children and will be spending more on groceries over the next decade.

"This deal also has a huge impact on the meal-kit business," Henkes said. "Companies like Blue Apron have relied heavily on couriers like FedEx to deliver meal kits and other at-home meal offerings to consumers over the last several years. This deal opens up doors for Whole Foods to compete against players in the direct-to-consumer delivery space."

Amazon is already testing food delivery through AmazonFresh and selling its own brand of meal kits in select metropolitan areas, but having the largest organic retailer in its pocket could help the tech company spread it footprint quicker.

Blue Apron's stock has been pummeled by investors worried about Amazon's impact on the meal kit industry. In June, the company lowered its expected IPO range to $10 to $11 a share, down from the $15 to $17 range it had initially forecast, a few weeks after Amazon said it would purchase Whole Foods.

Since its first day of trading, Blue Apron's stock has fallen more than 44 percent, a combination of growing fears about competition from companies like Amazon and a series of missteps centered around the meal-kit brand's new fulfillment center in Linden, New Jersey.

"Just because of how incredibly efficient, innovative and well-run [Amazon] is, it's a threat to everyone," Portnoy said.

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