Amazon has chopped off sales from German department stores and electronics retailers, but it's been a boom for the company responsible for delivering many of its products: Deutsche Post DHL.
That is, until now. Signs that Amazon plans to open its own parcel delivery depots near major cities in Germany, its second-biggest market after the U.S., would transform that relationship from symbiosis to competition -- and put a squeeze on Deutsche Post's margins.
Amazon has only one urban delivery site near Munich, which it has been testing since October in conjunction with local courier partners. (Deutsche Post isn't among them.) But an executive told Deutsche Verkehrs-Zeitung the online giant hopes to expand the model to other cities, which would give it more flexibility to offer same-day deliveries. No criticism of Deutsche Post is intended, at least in public.
As my Gadfly colleague Shira Ovide has pointed out, Amazon is seeking greater control over the delivery process and its shipping costs are creeping upward. That's a threat to Deutsche Post's profitable and growing e-commerce business, which owes much of its success to Amazon.
The online giant last year underscored its determination to push into delivery in the U.S. by starting Flex, which provides rapid delivery for Prime Now customers and employs freelance couriers in a similar way to the way Uber uses freelance drivers.
In Germany, 2.8 billion parcels are delivered every year, and that could jump by another billion by 2019, according to BIEK, a logistics trade association. Michael Lierow, partner at Oliver Wyman estimates Amazon is the source of as many as 700 million of those deliveries -- 23 percent of the total.
DHL says it has a 43 percent share of the German parcel market. Although it doesn't provide figures on individual customers, Deutsche Post is clearly benefiting from Amazon's success.
Sales at Deutsche Post's e-commerce and parcel operation rose 6.5 percent to 5.7 billion euros in 2014, accounting for a tenth of total revenue. Return on sales at the slightly wider post, e-commerce and parcel division (which includes regular mail delivery) was 8.3 percent, the second-highest of its four divisions, and in 2015 the unit is expected to account for 45 percent of an anticipated 2.4 billion euros of operating profit.
Deutsche Post has been investing heavily in the international expansion of its parcel business to better serve e-commerce customers, something that contributed to a decline in the operation's return on sales to 5.3 percent in the first nine months of 2015.
The worry is that Amazon could pull a similar trick in Germany as it did in the U.S. and snatch away an attractive part of DHL's business: delivering to wealthy customers in densely populated urban areas, who are willing to pay up for swift delivery - leaving Deutsche Post to serve the sprawling and less lucrative countryside.
While it's still early days, the German group should take the threat from Amazon seriously. But it's hard to see how Deutsche Post can respond other than by trying to add more e-commerce customers beyond Amazon.
The stock has climbed more than 164 percent since its low in 2011 and now trades at 13 times estimated earnings for the next 12 months. That's similar to Britain's Royal Mail. Amazon's intentions may only put those valuations at long-term risk.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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