The Eclipse of the Public Corporation

Saturday, December 10th, 2016

Back in 1989 Michael Jensen, a subsequent Nobel Laureate, wrote a piece predicting the eclipse of the public corporation:

Quoted companies, he wrote, have a grave flaw: “an absence of effective monitoring of managers”. Shareholders are too dispersed and too ill-informed to exercise proper control of chief executives. This causes several nasty problems.

One, said Professor Jensen, is that bosses will want to build up cash piles to give themselves freedom from capital markets. If companies held no cash, they’d need to raise funds in the market every time they wanted to invest. This would give investors control over the company’s plans. If, however, companies can invest internal funds, this control is lacking and so bosses are freer. Events have vindicated Professor Jensen; in both the UK and US, corporate cash holdings have soared in recent years.

Secondly, he said, when companies do invest the job is likely to be badly done. Bosses will prefer grand schemes that gratify their ego rather than humdrum projects that maximize shareholder value. Perhaps the worst economic decision of our lifetime was RBS’s takeover of ABN Amro – a move that was due to shareholders’ failure to control Fred Goodwin’s megalomania.

To these failings we can add that bosses plunder directly from shareholders by extracting big wages for themselves. The High Pay Centre estimates that CEOs are now paid 150 times the salary of the average worker, a ratio that has tripled since the 1990s – an increase which, it says, can’t be justified by increased management efficiency. “No countervailing forces have been deployed to stop this,” it says.

Failures such as these, said Professor Jensen, would cause quoted companies to be supplanted by private equity, as this permits a few well-informed investors to properly oversee managers. This is what has happened.

The Scrum Princess

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

If you’ve been wondering what ever happened to Aretae, he’s been busy — with many things, including writing a book. What kind of book? A children’s book. About agile software (and business) practices, of course:

Once upon a time in a land far, far away lived a princess who had lots of gold. One day she decided, “I am going to use my gold to make my kingdom the most beautiful place in the world.” But as she went, she discovered that she needed to learn some new tools to help her succeed.

Aretae may have to change hats to match his fictional counterpart:

Scrum Princess and Master Scrum

How the University of Alabama Became a National Player

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

How did the University of Alabama became a national player?

The university is spending $100.6 million in merit aid, up from $8.3 million a decade ago and more than twice what it allocates to students with financial need. It also has hired an army of recruiters to put Bama on college lists of full-paying students who, a few years ago, might not have looked its way.

The University of Alabama is the fastest-growing flagship in the country. Enrollment hit 37,665 this fall, nearly a 58 percent increase over 2006. As critical as the student body jump: the kind of student the university is attracting. The average G.P.A. of entering freshmen is 3.66, up from 3.4 a decade ago, and the top quarter scored at least a 31 on the ACT, up from 27.

Each year, about 18 percent of freshmen leave their home state for college in another. They tend to be the best prepared academically and most able to pay, said Thomas G. Mortenson, senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, who tracks this data. Achieving students are likely to be bound for successful lives, enhancing their alma mater’s status and, the hope is, filling its coffers with donations. Schools want them.

Merit aid given to achievers has a magnetic effect. “If we recruit five students from a high school, we will get 10 students the next year and they may not all be scholarship students,” said Stuart R. Bell, president of the University of Alabama.

Instead of layoffs and cuts, some public universities facing budget challenges are following this blueprint for survival: higher charges to students, and more of them. Nowadays, the real money comes from tuition and fees. The average for four-year public colleges rose 81 percent in constant dollars between 2000 and 2014. At Alabama, tuition and fees have about doubled in the last decade, to $10,470 for residents and to $26,950 for nonresidents.

Even when it awards full-tuition scholarships, the university makes money — on dorm rooms and meal plans, books, football tickets, hoodies and school spirit items like the giant Bama banner Ms. Zavilowitz and her roommates bought for the blank wall in the suite’s common area. All told, these extras and essentials brought in $173 million last year — on top of $633 million in tuition and fees, up from $135 million in 2005.

“I hate very much to use this analogy, but it’s like running a business,” Dr. Whitaker said.

Raining In High-Frequency Traders

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

What is the relationship between high-frequency traders and liquidity?

Ever since high-frequency trading rose to prominence, a debate has raged over whether the ensuing arms race between super-fast traders helped or hindered markets. One side argues that it helps because the massive number of transactions the fastest traders engage in lower costs by reducing the spreads between bids and offers. Critics counter that, in reality, spreads widen since slower traders need to charge higher spreads as insurance against getting caught flatfooted by a fast-moving event.

[...]

Starting in 2010, high-frequency traders began using ultrafast microwave links to relay prices and other information between Chicago and New York. To begin with, only some traders had access to microwave networks. Until 2013, others had to rely on less speedy fiber-optic cable.

But microwave transmissions are disrupted by water droplets and snowflakes, so during heavy storms traders using the networks switch to fiber. Messrs. Shkilko and Sokolov used weather-station data from along the microwaves’ paths to determine when storms occurred and then looked at what happened to bid-ask spreads in a variety of securities during those periods.

They narrowed, suggesting that the slowing down of the fastest high-frequency traders improved market liquidity.

Maybe Companies Aren’t Too Focused on the Short Term

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

There are plenty of stories of how U.S. corporations live for the short-term, obsessing over the next quarterly earnings statement to the neglect of their longer-run prospects:

Still, it’s not been established that American corporations are on average more short-term in their thinking than they ought to be.

Perhaps most importantly, it is often easier and better to plan for the shorter term. In information technology, the average life of a corporate asset is about six years, in health care it is about 11 years, and for consumer products it runs about 12 to 15. Very often it is hard for a company to plan its operations beyond those time periods, as the U.S. economy is no longer based on durable manufacturing machines. Production has shifted toward service sectors with relatively short asset lives, and that may call for a shorter-term orientation in response.

Companies often see their short-term problems staring them in the face — think of the need to fire an incompetent manager or lease more office space. It is harder to predict the market 20 years hence, especially when information technology is involved, and thus planning so far out can involve a lot of expense and risk.

Plenty of companies have made big mistakes from thinking too big and too long-term; for instance, a lot of mergers were based on notions of long-run synergies that never materialized. In reality, short-term improvements are often the best way to get to a good long-run plan.

[...]

Equity markets do not seem to neglect the longer run. Amazon has a high share price even though its earnings reports have usually failed to show a profit. Possibly the market judgment is wrong, but it’s hardly the case that investors are ignoring the long-run prospects of the company.

Many tech startups have high valuations even though revenue is zero or low. Again, those judgments may or may not be correct, but clearly investors are trying to estimate longer-run prospects. During the dot-com bubble of the 1990s, there was too much long-run, pie-in-the-sky thinking and not enough focus on the concrete present.

Economics Nobel Laureate Eugene Fama once said, “In hindsight, every price is wrong.” With electric and driverless cars, investors are thinking long and hard about what the future might look like and investing in equities accordingly, with share prices to be revised as events develop. If the long-run thinking of the market were systematically defective, it would be possible to profit simply through superior patience. But it is not an easy matter to see further than others.

Marc Andreessen’s Library

Saturday, October 8th, 2016

The lobby at Andreessen Horowitz is also Marc Andreessen’s library, and it’s full of books about Hollywood:

In 1908, the country’s nine largest filmmakers formed the Movie Picture Patents Company, insisting that no one else could make movies because they controlled the patents on the original movie camera, co-created by Thomas Edison at his lab in New Jersey. The patents belonged to Edison, and he backed the Patents Company. So a new wave of filmmakers moved to the West Coast, where the courts were less friendly to Edison. Hollywood became a place to make movies in part because it was so sunny — you could film outdoors more often and with fewer lights — but also because it was so far away from New Jersey.

Who the Devil Made It — an oral history of Hollywood collected by the director and film historian Peter Bogdanovich — begins in the days of the Patents Company. Allan Dwan, who started making movies in the 1910s, tells Bogdanovich that as independent filmmakers moved west, the Patents Company hired strongmen to enforce its patents. Dwan remembers snipers climbing trees overlooking movie sets and taking shots at the cameras they deemed illegal. He would film as far as he could from the railroad stops, so he and his crew were harder to find.

The story of early Hollywood is very much the story of Silicon Valley, full of innovators fleeing the old rules in search of the new. It only makes sense that the lobby of Andreessen Horowitz is stocked with books on early Hollywood, including Who The Devil Made It. Bogdanovich and Dwan tell a story not unlike the one told in What the Dormouse Said, where a group of freethinkers rise up in the 1960s and create the personal computer, pushing against entrenched giants like IBM.

Andreessen Horowitz Bookshelf

As The New Yorker explains, Andreessen and Horowitz are pals with [Michael] Ovitz, the guy behind CAA, one of Hollywood’s biggest talent agencies. When they started their firm, they went to Ovitz for advice.

“Call everyone a partner, offer services the others don’t, and help people who aren’t your clients,” he said. “Disrupt to differentiate by becoming a dream-execution machine.” They did all that. And, in contrast to typical Silicon Valley VCs, they hired a whole team of publicists who guided Andreessen Horowitz stories into Fortune and Forbes. They hung some Rauschenbergs around the office — just like CAA. And when people pitched them, they drank from glassware rather than plastic. The books complement the Rauschenbergs and the glassware. They, too, lend authority.

Rainbow Modeling Compound

Monday, September 12th, 2016

Play-Doh is composed of flour, water, and salt — that much you probably already knew — but also boric acid and mineral oil:

The non-toxic, non-staining, reusable modeling compound that came to be known as “Play-Doh” was a pliable, putty-like substance concocted by Noah McVicker of Cincinnati-based soap manufacturer Kutol Products. It was devised at the request of Kroger Grocery, which wanted a product that could clean coal residue from wallpaper. Following World War II, with the transition from coal-based home heating to natural gas and the resulting decrease in internal soot, and the introduction of washable vinyl-based wallpaper, the market for wallpaper cleaning putty decreased substantially. McVicker’s nephew, Joe McVicker, joined Kutol with the remit to save the company from bankruptcy. Joe McVicker was the brother-in-law of nursery school teacher Kay Zufall, and Zufall had seen a newspaper article about making art projects with the wallpaper cleaning putty. Her students enjoyed it, and she persuaded Bill Rhodenbaugh (who also sold the putty) and Joe McVicker to manufacture it as a child’s toy. Zufall and her husband came up with the name Play-Doh; Joe McVicker and Rhodenbaugh had wanted to call it “Rainbow Modeling Compound”. Joe McVicker took Play-Doh to an educational convention for manufacturers of school supplies, and Woodward & Lothrop, a department store in Washington, DC began selling the compound. In 1956, the McVickers formed the Rainbow Crafts Company to make and sell Play-Doh. Also in 1956, a three-pack of 7-ounce cans was added to the product line, and, after in-store demonstrations, Macy’s of New York and Marshall Field’s of Chicago opened retail accounts. In 1957, chemist Dr. Tien Liu reduced Play Doh’s salt content (thus allowing models to dry without losing their color), and Play-Doh ads were telecast on Captain Kangaroo, Ding Dong School, and Romper Room. In 1958, Play-Doh’s sales reached nearly $3 million.

Five Audiobooks Generating Buzz

Monday, July 25th, 2016

The Wall Street Journal discusses five audiobooks generating buzz, starting with A Game of Thrones:

The first book in Mr. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, read by British actor Roy Dotrice, has sold more than 100,000 audiobook copies this year, bringing total audio sales to more than 700,000 since its 2003 release, according to Penguin Random House Audio.

Amy Poehler’s Yes Please was among the five best-selling audiobooks of 2015 on both Audible and iBooks.

Celebrity memoirs — particularly ones by comedians — are audiobook gold, when narrated by the author.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina also made the list:

Audible and other audiobook producers have found success hiring A-list actors to narrate classics. The latest is “Anna Karenina,” read by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Released on July 12, it immediately hit Audible’s best-seller list. “I feel like performing this novel is one of the major accomplishments of my work life — it was so challenging and so deep,” Ms. Gyllenhaal said, according to a description on Audible. Other pairings include Charles Dickens’s “The Chimes,” read by Richard Armitage, and Helen Mirren’s telling of “The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots,” a rediscovered Beatrix Potter story to be released in September.

Oddly, those “other pairings” took some work to find in Amazon’s listings.

I wasn’t learning toward Anna Karenina but rather War and Peace, but I don’t know if I’m up for 61 hours of audio.

Rory Sutherland

Sunday, July 24th, 2016

Rory Sutherland is an ad man and entertaining raconteur:

7 Things Learned in Architecture School

Saturday, July 23rd, 2016

Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things Things I Learned in Architecture School includes these 7 nuggets of wisdom:

Be specific. “The more specific a design idea is, the greater its appeal is likely to be. Being nonspecific in an effort to appeal to everyone usually results in reaching no one. But drawing upon a specific observation, poignant statement, ironic point, witty reflection, intellectual connection, political argument, or idiosyncratic belief in creative work can help you create environments others will identify with in their own way.”

Ideas can take away from or add to the essential idea. “When designing a stair, window, column, roof, lobby, elevator core, or any other aspect of a building, always consider how its design can express and reinforce the essential idea of the building.”

Throw away your best loved ideas. “A good designer isn’t afraid to throw away a good idea.”

The most important skill for a designer to develop. “Being process-oriented, not product-driven, is the most important and difficult skill for a designer to develop.”

Think about how you think. “The most effective, most creative problem solvers engage in a process of meta-thinking, or “thinking about the thinking.” This means you’re aware of how you’re structuring your thoughts while you’re thinking. You want to test ideas, challenge yourself, see if you understand the other side of the argument, criticizing, and redirecting your thought process.

Don’t make it too complex. “Create architectural richness through informed simplicity or an interaction of simples rather than through unnecessarily busy agglomerations.”

Consistent and repeatable results come from a process. “True style does not come from a conscious effort to create a particular look. It results obliquely—even accidentally—out of a holistic process.”

Waterstones is thriving

Friday, July 22nd, 2016

Waterstones, the biggest bookstore chain in Britain, is thriving:

The company was £170 million (about $260 million) in debt and about to file for bankruptcy when, miraculously, it was rescued by the billionaire Alexander Mamut, a complicated, influential figure in Putin’s Russia who one British broadsheet dubbed “the most powerful oligarch you have never heard of.” Mamut had been talking to Daunt before the sale and immediately brought him aboard to right the ship. “He wanted to make a mark in the United Kingdom, where he had a house, educated his son, and this seemed a positive, beneficial thing worth saving,” Daunt said of Waterstones’ benefactor. “Other people buy football clubs, fund art galleries — this was his thing.”

Once at Waterstones, Daunt tore up the business plan. His first target was the so-called planogram, a kind of map that tells chain booksellers which new books go where, ensuring that each store assigns exactly the same prominence to exactly the same titles. The very best locations in the store are actually sold to publishers. This includes the so-called best-seller list, whose rankings are determined not by the popularity of a given book but by how much a publisher is willing to invest to promote it. (A similar policy of “bookstore baksheesh,” as one editor dubbed it, seems to exist at B&N.) In 2011, Waterstones earned around £30 million just for this kind of advertising, Daunt said. Considering that the company was hemorrhaging money when Daunt took it over, forfeiting this revenue stream seemed crazy, and it also offended many publishers. “By giving control back to the booksellers, we were telling the publishers, ‘We know what sells better than you.’ That’s never a pleasant message,” said Daunt. “There was extreme nervousness. But we had the advantage of being bankrupt. Crucially for us, Penguin said, ‘Sounds mad. But what are the options? So we’ll support you.’ ”

By freeing up the placement of books, Daunt was able to optimize the selection for each store based on the type of customers coming in. What sold in working-class Gateshead wasn’t the same thing that sold in affluent Kensington. In some stores, he would discount. In others, he wouldn’t. “This is sort of difficult for booksellers to get their heads around, but some of the customers actually don’t want a discount. There is a fair price for a book, I think,” he says, picking up a doorstop history by the likes of Ian Kershaw. “You’re investing a lot more than 25 quid in this. For most readers, that will probably take a good month of your life. Almost the least important thing is how much it costs.”

I remember Art DeVany making that same point years ago.

Next came the staff. Daunt shrunk Waterstones’ central office and fired half of the store managers. He gave those booksellers who remained almost complete autonomy over how to arrange their stores — from the windows to the signage to the display tables — but controlled the stock with a dictatorial zeal. Out went books you wouldn’t want to browse: reference, technical guides, legal textbooks. That — along with the real estate freed up by eliminating publisher-sponsored placements — allowed Daunt to grow the total number of titles in stores by about a quarter. With more books to browse, sales increased. The number of unsold books that were returned to publishers fell from about 20 percent before Daunt took over to just 4 percent today.

A leaner staff and more autonomy resulted in everyone working harder, but Daunt says the staff is curiously happier as a result. “You love being in a shop where people are busy,” he says. “It’s much better than being out the back, filling up boxes of returns and thinking your life is a drudgery of doing pointless administrative tasks for some nameless bureaucracy of a head office who you despise because they just dump innumerable amounts of crap books on you.” As is probably clear, Daunt still has an indie bookseller’s contempt for the big chains, even though he now runs one of them. Of Barnes & Noble, which appears more and more like a cross between an airport gift shop and a toy store, he said, “My faculties just shut down when I go in there.”

For a CEO, Daunt is refreshingly impolitic. He has called Amazon a “ruthless money-making devil” and has relished the recent resurgence of print and the plateauing of e-books. He stocked Kindles in his store up until earlier this year, when he pulled them, gleefully, citing “pitiful” sales. The revival of print, and of Waterstones, confirms in a way Daunt’s worldview. “Do not underestimate the pleasures of reading,” he said last year. “The satisfactions of the book, in the age of social media and proliferating cultural choices, are very singular.”

Cerium-141

Saturday, June 25th, 2016

In 1945, Eastman Kodak suddenly received a flood of complaints from business customers who had recently purchased sensitive X-ray film:

Black exposed spots on the film, or “fogging,” had rendered it unusable. This perplexed many Kodak scientists, who had gone to great lengths to prevent contaminations like this.

Julian H. Webb, a physicist in Kodak’s research department, took it upon himself to dig deeper and test the destroyed film.

[...]

According to an article Webb would write in 1949 for the American Physical Society, the paper and cardboard used for packaging in the ’40s were often salvaged from wartime manufacturing plants where radium-based instruments were also produced. Radium is a naturally occurring radioactive element that can cause flecks of spots or fogging when “in intimate contact with (sensitive film) for a period several weeks.” During wartime, Kodak took precautions to avoid radium contamination. It moved packaging manufacturing to mills where Kodak had full control over the raw materials.

One of these mills was located along the Wabash River in Vincennes, Indiana; it specialized in producing strawboard, used as a stiffener board between sheets of film. When Webb investigated the mysterious fogging in 1945, he found that it originated not from the X-ray film itself but the packaging, which he tracked to this particular mill, and specifically, the production run of strawboard from August 6, 1945. After testing the radioactive material on the strawboard, he discovered — rather alarmingly — that the spots on the film were not caused by radium nor any other naturally occurring radioactive material, but “a new type radioactive containment not hitherto encountered.” What was this unknown radioactive material, he must have wondered, and what was it doing in southwest Indiana?

[...]

While he was studying the Indiana samples, Webb got word that a particular production run of strawboard from a plant in Tama, Iowa was also contaminated and fogging the Kodak film it carried. While Tama was 450 miles from Vincennes, there were striking similarities. The two production runs of strawboard had been completed within a month of each other. Tama’s radioactive spots also failed the radium test, meaning the cause was something else. Most telling, however, was that both mills sat next to rivers, with Vincennes on the Wabash River and the Iowa River cutting through Tama.

Webb found that the strawboard from both mills had a significant concentration of beta-particle radiation activity but little to no alpha-activity. (Beta-particle radiation can penetrate paper, human skin and are sometimes considered dangerous. Alpha-particle radiation is stopped by paper, easily absorbed and generally considered safe if not ingested). Additionally, photographic evidence allowed Webb to estimate the half-life of the artificial radioactive material he was seeking at approximately 30 days. The results corresponded to the presence of an artificial radioactive material he would later identify as Cerium-141, which is “one of the more prolific fission products of the atom bomb.”

Furthermore, Webb concluded there was no possible way the straw could be the carrier of the containment, since it was stored in warehouses (and not outside) for a considerable amount of time prior to being used. Had the Cerium-141 gotten directly into the straw, it would have decayed by the time the straw was processed, rendering the radiation hardly detectable. This brought Webb to a frightening explanation: The contamination came from the river water. Additional evidence would fall in the rain. According to Webb, “stronger activity occurred in the strawboard” after periods of heavy precipitation, establishing that the radioactive material was being deposited via precipitation and came from a far-flung place.

While it is unclear whether Webb knew about the Trinity test when he was conducting his research in 1945, his report from 1949 is unabashedly clear: “The most likely explanation of the source of this radioactive contaminant appears to be that it consisted of wind-borne radioactive fission products derived from the atom-bomb detonation in New Mexico on July 16, 1945.”

The problem came up again later:

On January 27, 1951, the first atomic detonation at the new Nevada Proving Ground took place. Days later and 2,500 miles away, a Geiger counter at Kodak’s headquarters in New York state measured radioactive readings 25 times above normal after a snowstorm. Declassified 1952 documents obtained by Popular Mechanics reveals that Kodak alerted the Atomic Energy Commission about this out of concern this testing would wreck its film just as had happened in 1945. The AEC responded that it would look into it, but assured Kodak there was little reason to worry, even allowing the company to issue a press release to the Associated Press stating that snow “that fell in Rochester was measurably radioactive…” but “there is no possibility of harm to humans and animals.”

In March 1951, a frustrated Kodak threatened to sue the U.S. government for the “considerable amount of damage to our products resulting from the Nevada tests or from any further atomic energy tests…” Finally the company and the government came to an agreement. The AEC would provide Webb, by now the head of Kodak’s physics division, with schedules and maps of future tests so that Kodak could take the necessary precautions to protect its product. In return, the people of Kodak were to keep everything they knew about the government’s Nevada nuclear testing a secret.

America’s Dying Shopping Malls Have Billions in Debt Coming Due

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

America’s dying shopping malls have billions in debt coming due:

About $47.5 billion of loans backed by retail properties are set to mature over the next 18 months, data from Bank of America Merrill Lynch show.

[...]

Green Street estimates that several hundred malls could shut down over the next decade, with properties reliant on Macy’s, JC Penney and Sears at the most risk. Sales at department stores, once the engines that powered shopping centers across the U.S., have declined almost 20 percent since 2006, according to the firm. About 800 department stores would need to shut down to restore balance between sales and profitability, Green Street said in an April report.

Larry Page’s Secret Flying Car Factories

Thursday, June 9th, 2016

We were promised flying cars, and Larry Page is funding two companies to make that promise come true:

The Zee.Aero headquarters, located at 2700?Broderick Way, is a 30,000-square-foot, two-story white building with an ugly, blocky design and an industrial feel. Page initially restricted the Zee.Aero crew to the first floor, retaining the second floor for a man cave worthy of a multibillionaire: bedroom, bathroom, expensive paintings, a treadmill-like climbing wall, and one of SpaceX’s first rocket engines—a gift from his pal Musk. As part of the secrecy, Zee.Aero employees didn’t refer to Page by name; he was known as GUS, the guy upstairs. Soon enough, they needed the upstairs space, too, and engineers looked on in awe as GUS’s paintings, exercise gear, and rocket engine were hauled away.

Zee.Aero now employs close to 150 people. Its operations have expanded to an airport hangar in Hollister, about a 70-minute drive south from Mountain View, where a pair of prototype aircraft takes regular test flights. The company also has a manufacturing facility on NASA’s Ames Research Center campus at the edge of Mountain View. Page has spent more than $100 million on Zee.Aero, say two of the people familiar with the company, and he’s not done yet. Last year a second Page-backed flying-car startup, Kitty Hawk, began operations and registered its headquarters to a two-story office building on the end of a tree-lined cul-de-sac about a half-mile away from Zee’s offices. Kitty Hawk’s staffers, sequestered from the Zee.Aero team, are working on a competing design. Its president, according to 2015 business filings, was Sebastian Thrun, th­e godfather of Google’s self-driving car program and the founder of research division Google?X. Page and Google declined to speak about Zee.Aero or Kitty Hawk, as did Thrun.

AmazonBasics

Monday, June 6th, 2016

Amazon is using insights from its store to build a private-label juggernaut that now includes more than 3,000 products — from apparel to laptop stands:

At first, AmazonBasics — launched in 2009 — focused on batteries, recordable DVDs and such. Then for several years, the house brand “slept quietly as it retained data about other sellers’ successes,” according to the report. But in the past couple of years, AmazonBasics has stepped up the pace, rolling out a range of products that seem perfectly tailored to customer demand.

“When we saw AmazonBasics products as bestsellers in several categories, our stomachs dropped and [we] started thinking, ‘we need to learn from them,”’ the report’s authors said. AmazonBasics now has more than 900 products, including 284 launched last year alone, according to Skubana.

[...]

Initially, Amazon partnered with traditional chains such as Gap, Nordstrom and Eddie Bauer but retailers decided to pursue their own Web stores. Now, a shopper searching Amazon for a “women’s v-neck sweater” will find a black cashmere number from Lark & Ro, which also sells dresses and swimwear.

Lark & Ro is one of seven apparel brands trademarked by Amazon. Besides women’s clothes, the company also sells men’s dress shoes from Franklin & Freeman and suits from Franklin Tailored. Scout + Ro makes kids’ clothes. Altogether, Amazon’s apparel brands sell 1,800-plus products, according to Edward Yruma, a retail analyst at KeyBanc Capital Markets.

While Amazon’s apparel brands remain relatively obscure, the online behemoth has a huge advantage over better-known labels. Shoppers increasingly start on Amazon.com to search for products, bypassing Google and traditional chains’ websites. In a survey of 2,000 U.S. consumers conducted by digital marketing firm BloomReach, 44 percent said they go directly to Amazon.

So not only can Amazon track what shoppers are buying; it can also tell what merchandise they’re searching for but can’t find, says Rachel Greer, who worked on the private label team until 2014. Then, she says, “Amazon can just make it themselves.”