Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods is notable for many reasons. Of course, there’s the magnitude $13.7B. The second is the shockwaves reverberating through the grocery industry. Costco fell 10% and Kroger almost 25% on the news. Third, the acquisition underscores the importance of physical retail even to the largest American ecommerce giant. Those are all remarkable in their own right.
However, the most interesting part of this acquisition is that it marks the current apotheosis of technology’s impact in the broader economy. In the last 18 months, non-traditional tech acquirers changed the M&A landscape for startups. Walmart, Unilever, GM, Ford spent billions of dollars collectively to acquire Jet, Bonobos, Dollar Shave Club, Cruise, and Chariot. That’s all fine and expected.
But, Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods is the reverse: a leading technology company buying a leader of a traditional industry. That might not seem like an important distinction, but it is.
Five of the top ten most valuable companies in America are technology companies: Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Facebook. Exxon, Berkshire Hathaway, GE, JPMC and Johnson & Johnson fill out the list. The more than $250B on their collective balance sheets implies very few acquisition targets are out of their reach. And if the ripples from the Amazon/Whole Foods merger are any indication, technology initiated M&A of traditional industries has the power to upend the status quo.
How would the world change if Apple bought Tesla to pursue the automotive industry? Or if Facebook bought Citibank to create the next generation mobile bank serving a billion people? Tack on a major global mobile phone carrier, and the social network might replicate M-Pesa’s or WeChat’s social success globally. Would Google acquire Salesforce, and in one fell swoop, add another $8B in annual revenue, add an enormous enterprise salesforce, and develop a global leading software business? Salesforce might be less of a traditional business, but the impact to the software world would be just as disruptive.
Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods could be the first of several major transactions in which leading technology companies redefine traditional industries by leveraging their near-infinite balance sheets and injecting rapidly advancing technologies or unique distribution that incumbents simply can’t match.
If the trend does continue, these major acquisitions will create quite a bit of volatility and uncertainty - great conditions for fast-moving startups to develop and seize the new opportunities that will inevitably crop up to compete with tech/traditional conglomerates.