Amazon could be heading for a plateau—but here's what could help it get over the hump

Key Points
  • According to RBC’s latest online shopping survey, Amazon Prime membership growth is showing signs of slowing down.
  • Much of Amazon's growth has been in the U.S., with several key international markets still untapped.
Jeff Bezos
Rex Curry | Reuters

Amazon can seemingly do no wrong, with the company constantly disrupting major industries, and consumers increasingly integrating its offerings into every aspect of their daily lives.

Just this week, Amazon sent pharmacy stocks reeling after it announced it was buying online pharmacy PillPack. The market’s reaction underscored how Amazon’s entry into key sectors leaves the competition scrambling to adjust, and increased speculation that the retail giant is poised to upend yet another industry.

“This acquisition could be the launchpad for the long-feared broader entry of Amazon into retail pharmacy space, just months after news reports had brought some relief that Amazon was not ready yet to enter drug distribution,” Evercore ISI told its clients in a research note Thursday.

By all appearances, the Amazon juggernaut can’t be slowed. However, a recent report suggests Amazon's growth may actually be reaching a plateau — creating a potential opening for competitors trying to bring the behemoth down.

According to data from RBC’s latest online shopping survey, Amazon Prime membership growth is showing signs of slowing down. At 55 percent, just over half of the U.S. is subscribed to Prime, Amazon’s recurring subscription service, RBC said — a level consistent with 2017’s figures.

"This was the first year when Prime penetration didn't rise. A surprising result, which implies Prime expansion is likely mostly/totally driven by international markets," said Mark Mahaney, RBC's lead internet analyst.

To be sure, Amazon remains the retailer to beat, even though it hiked the Prime membership price by 20 percent in May to $119. Immediately after, the stock hit new highs as investors bet on Amazon maintaining its lead with consumers and the competition.

However, RBC’s data underscore how potentially slowing growth in the U.S. could undermine Amazon’s “flywheel” effect — a bet that lower prices and membership perks will draw in more customers — and lead to more Prime-eligible items and sellers. That virtuous cycle makes Prime more valuable, and attracts ever more subscribers.

Going abroad

The PillPack deal will give Amazon a toehold in pharmaceuticals, an area that’s proven resistant to low prices and disruption. Analysts speculate that Amazon may shoehorn the online pharmacy into a new offering for Prime subscriptions.

Currently, $119 buys Prime members access to Amazon Video, Amazon Music, discounts at Whole Foods, as well as faster shipping and delivery. However, RBC stated Amazon may need even more to lure in new Prime subscribers, and hold current members.

For that reason, some analysts suggest Prime may need to look abroad for more growth. For now, Amazon’s premier subscription is available in India, Southeast Asia, Latin America, Japan and Australia.

“International is the biggest Prime opportunity, and could over the next five years reach 25 to 35 million people from 8 million currently,” said Gene Munster, managing partner at venture capital firm Loup Ventures. He cited growing international brand awareness, along with new countries adding Prime, boosting his projections.

Amazon boxes are seen stacked for delivery in New York City.
Mike Segar | Reuters

Amazon has been adding to its Prime offerings across retail, delivery and video, but data suggest members may not be using all the offerings available with a subscription. A new survey by Morgan Stanley shows that only 1 out of 3 Prime members actually uses Amazon's streaming video service.

Nevertheless, Amazon’s customers appear deeply loyal to the retail giant. The company adds value by selling retail goods cheaply, and sometimes at aggressively steep discounts. It introduces new competing products, and offers private label options.

Guru Hariharan, CEO of Boomerang Commerce, a company that helps retailers like Target and Kohl's compete with Amazon, told CNBC that his firm noticed that few shoppers compare prices while shopping on Amazon — meaning they have complete trust that they can’t get goods more cheaply elsewhere.

It’s how Amazon has managed to gobble up 20 percent of the U.S. online retail market, according to RBC. Still, with its ease of use and rapid delivery, most analysts believe Amazon will continue gaining market share, despite fears of its growth topping out.

“First, more Prime items and Prime video will attract and retain members,” said Loup’s Munster. “Second, there are still about 15 million homes in the U.S. that don’t have internet. As they slowly get online, Prime members slowly grow.”