As the Federal Trade Commission reportedly looks into claims that Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) misleads customers about the merchandise discounts they're getting, TheStreet found that it's not too hard to find instances where that appears to be the case.
Reuters reported on July 20 that the Federal Trade Commission is probing Amazon's pricing as part of its review of its planned purchase of Whole Foods Market Inc. (WFM) , following a complaint submitted by advocacy group Consumer Watchdog. The complaint looked at about 1,000 products on Amazon's website in June and found that of the 46% of those products for which the tech giant listed reference prices, more than 61% showed reference prices higher than what the items had sold for over the previous 90 days, suggesting the price-discounting model may be misleading.
Amazon strongly defended itself against the claims.
"The study issued by Consumer Watchdog is deeply flawed, based on incomplete data and improper assumptions," an Amazon representative said in an email. "The conclusions the Consumer Watchdog group reached are flat out wrong. We validate the reference prices provided by manufacturers, vendors and sellers against actual prices recently found across Amazon and other retailers."
But in its own research, TheStreet uncovered similar results. On Friday, July 21, TheStreet reviewed 30 "Today's Deals" products on Amazon and compared their reference prices to the highest price at which Amazon sold the product in the last 30 days, using the price-change tracking feature from Honey, a browser extension that automatically finds and applies online coupon codes.
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TheStreet found nine discounted products with reference prices that were greater than the highest price at which Amazon offered the product for the previous 30 days. The average difference was $18.52. Two of the items supposedly on sale actually had sale prices that were higher than their previous price.
An Amazon representative told TheStreet that Amazon strives to provide the lowest prices and be transparent in its pricing. The representative pointed out that the nine products come from Amazon's marketplace sellers, which are generally small, independent companies that can set their own prices and change them as they see fit. The representative added that Amazon offers millions of products and works to correct anomalies. A team is looking into how the prices of the nine products TheStreet identified were set, the representative said.
Kerry Rice, a Needham & Co. LLC senior analyst with a $1,150 price target buy for Amazon, told TheStreet that although the number of products Consumer Watchdog flagged is statistically relevant, he thinks it will be difficult for the FTC to scrutinize the e-commerce giant.
"I think financially, ultimately, it is immaterial," Rice said. "It's hard for the FTC to investigate, since pricing on Amazon is pretty dynamic. It's different from today to tomorrow."
Rice added that in comparisons with competitors such as Best Buy Co. Inc. (BBY) , Target Corp. (TGT) and Walmart Stores Inc. (WMT) among others, Amazon's prices are on the lower end. He noted that most consumers have a favorable impression of Amazon.
"I don't think it will have an impact on demand or traffic to Amazon," Rice said. "[A negative FTC review] might leave a bitter taste in people's mouths," but Rice said he thought, "largely, Amazon consumer sentiment is positive. It's not an Uber-like environment, where it's one kind of issue after another."
Here are the nine products TheStreet found with reference prices higher than the top price at which Amazon sold them over the past month.
Amazon had this this puppy pool as a deal-of-the-day discount for $34.49, a 38% decrease from a reference price of $55.99. For the past month, however, the price was set at $45.99, making the actual discount just 25%.
The e-commerce retailer set a deal price on Friday at $22.50 for this dog dish. That's a 30% discount on the referenced $32 price but a 25% decrease from $30, the price it had been 30 days before.
This Kamtron camera was listed as being 51% off a $109.99 reference price and going for $53.54. Its highest price in the past month on the website, however, was $69.99 on July 11, which would make the discount 24%. Amazon, however, does note that the gadget was on sale for $65.99 before the extra discount.
This dissection kit was listed as being 44% off $25.99, or $14.54. Amazon noted that the kit was on sale for $17.99, the highest price it has been for the past month. That makes the deal 19% off its previous price, however.
This cooling towel was listed as a deal of 61% off a $14.99 price at $5.92. But that was just 46% off its highest price in the past 30 days, which was $10.97, though Amazon notes the towels were on sale for $9.97 before the deal.
This anti-aging skin care product was noted as selling for 67% off a $40.99 reference price, or $13.59. The highest price of the moisturizer in the past 30 days, however, was $25.99, making the deal just a 48% change. Amazon did note the cream was on sale for $16.99 before the deal.
According to Amazon, the pens had a $39 regular price but were on sale for $11.99, a 69% discount. That sale price, however, was the most expensive the pens had been since June 29. Before the $11.99 sale price, they were actually priced 17% lower at $9.99.
Amazon said it discounted the essential oil 59% from $31.50 to $12.95. That $12.95 price tag, however, was the highest the product has been all month. Before that, the cost was $11.95 for the oil, 8% cheaper than the supposed sale tag.
Amazon's lightning deal for these salt and pepper grinders was $17.57, a 75% discount from $70. The highest price they were all month was $27.87, making the deal a 37% discount. Amazon did note the shakers were on sale for $25.87 before the temporary deal.
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Editors' pick: Originally published July 25.