Our peak Diwali sales more intense than US Christmas season: Jeff Wilke

Amazon’s CEO Worldwide Consumer Jeff Wilke
Seattle-based e-commerce major Amazon has started recording faster growth in India than in the US and wants to make investments here without being bound by a budget. Amazon’s CEO Worldwide Consumer Jeff Wilke tells Karan Choudhury and Alnoor Peermohamed in an interview that all the inventions the group is working on will make their way to India and the inventions made in India are being transferred to other markets. Edited excerpts:

What is the reason for your visit to India?

I came to congratulate the team and to celebrate the festive season. They had a terrific Diwali. I was delighted with the response of customers to the team’s work. We were the most visited site, we had the highest share of customers, the highest share of orders. I could not be happier.

India is growing faster, we grew 124 per cent last year, the first quarter this year was 82 per cent and the second quarter was 88 per cent, which is faster growth than the US. The peak during Diwali is higher and more intense than the Christmas season in the US.

What are your plans on introducing artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics in India?

All the inventions we work on eventually will make their way to India and all the inventions happening here will find their way to other countries. There are things we invented in India that we are deploying elsewhere, examples being Seller Flex and Easy Ship. These are the ideas we have transferred to other geographies.

We are constantly improving our algorithms across our ordering and buying and service systems, and some of the developments are happening in India. There are machine learning elements that are being developed in India. We are not focussed so much on robotics in India at this point. We have done some interesting things elsewhere and we are deploying them where it makes sense.

What is your offline retail strategy?

I am not focused on offline in India right now and I do not think the team is focused on it, either. We are working on building a great online experience. When we started four years ago, online shopping was really confined to cities. Now we have customers from all over India.

How is your drone programme coming up? The government is working on a policy. Do you think it will help you?

There is a primary team that is working on drones. It is not a stunt. Let me be clear about this, we are very serious about it. We have aeronautical engineers, control experts and people working on computer vision so that when the drone lands, in a garden or a rooftop, it is clear of any obstacles. 

We want to do this autonomously and when we are comfortable with the performance we will see them in action.

Any place with a positive regulatory environment will be more likely to get development work on the drone programme. I do not know when the first deliveries will be made in India by drones. We have to work to make them safe and we are working with regulatory agencies around the world to make sure that they are comfortable with the idea.

How has AI affected employment at Amazon globally? How are you balancing technological advancement and job creation?

I do not believe that technological change eliminates work. What it does is it changes work. If you look at the last 120 years, there have been enormous technological changes in a whole host of regimes. Every time there is a technological change, people worry that it will affect employment. But we employ more humans now than when the industrial age started. I am optimistic that AI is just going to increase the opportunity.

How long will you sustain the cash burn in your Indian operations? What is the money being spent on?

The way we think about investment is not based on some budget. We evaluate every time whether it makes sense. 

We do not worry about single quarterly performances, but we do want to make sure that over time our investments are profitable.

I am comfortable with the current level of investment because, in total, the company is profitable and generating cash. Infrastructure, technology and manpower take up most of our investments. We are investing substantially in India in these three areas.

Softbank founder Masayoshi Son recently said Flipkart and Paytm combined command around 60 per cent of the market share. After Alibaba, do you see SoftBank emerging as your new competitor?

Well, I actually do not spend much time obsessing over competitors. If we continue to invent and grow as the Indian team has so far we will build an experience in India that we are really proud of and that affects the Indian economy. We are on track so far. We have a much larger selection in India as compared to any of our competition. I have heard some of the numbers being quoted. I do not know if they are a reliable source of market share for India, so we are not focussed on that. I do not worry about the pecking order or the strategies of the competition.

Are you doubling your investment in India? What is the timeline for this investment?

In 2014 we committed (to invest) $2 billion, in 2016 we made a further commitment of $3 billion. We are on track to invest that money and we will keep doing it as the potential here is terrific. 

Can we expect a ‘Made in India’ Kindle or Echo?

I am optimistic about industry generally in India, but I do not know if it will translate to our hardware strategy anytime soon.

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