Amazon sales surge as COVID lockdown continues to provide a lift

Amazon posted record profits again in the first quarter of 2021.

James Martin/CNET

There was no announcement in Amazon’s earnings report Thursday that could touch the drama of the previous quarter’s news. In February, CEO Jeff Bezos announced he would step down at mid-year, Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy would take on his role. In the first quarter, Amazon got back to what has been a recurring theme: Making tons of money as more consumers embrace online shopping not as a luxury, but a way of life, in the midst of a pandemic.

Amazon reported net income rose to $8.1 billion, or $16.09 a share, up from $2.5 billion, or $5.09 a share a year ago. Net sales climbed 44% to $108.5 billion, from $75.5 billion last year. On average, analysts predicted earnings of $9.54 per share and about $104 billion in revenues, according to Yahoo Finance. Amazon had previously forecast net sales of between $100 billion and $106 billion.

Amazon is just the latest tech company to post blow-out numbers — Apple and Facebook turned heads with their results yesterday — having benefited from the coronavirus-fueled lockdown that’s only now starting to subside. Amazon in particular benefited as more people got comfortable getting everything from diapers to groceries delivered to them. 

While its North America business saw operating income nearly triple to $3.45 billion, its AWS cloud business continues to be the real money maker, pulling in $4.16 billion in operating income in the period. 

Over the last 12 months, the company has enjoyed a smooth run since overcoming logistical challenges that hit hardest at the end of the first quarter of 2020. Even though sales still grew that quarter, Bezos warned investors that the company might spend $4 billion on dealing with the pandemic in the following quarter, eating up its projected profits. That turned out not to be the case, as the company posted record second-quarter profit even after its big spend on coronavirus-related needs.

For the upcoming second quarter, Amazon projected sales to fall between $110 billion and $116 billion, with operating income to fall between $4.5 billion and $8 billion. The company said it assumes Prime Day will occur in the second quarter, moving back from its 2020 winter slot. 

The mountains of cash that Amazon generates, however, only draws attention, and regulators have their eyes on Amazon. The company faces possible federal antitrust action and a labor investigation. Amazon also avoided unionization in the first quarter of this year, as workers in a Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse voted to reject union representation. Organizing efforts continue, and Amazon is under continued scrutiny from regulators, but the company’s US workforce remains un-unionized.

On Wednesday, the company announced a wave of pay raises for its workers. Hourly wages will increase over May and June from between 50 cents and $3. The raises will cost the company about $1 billion, an Amazon spokesperson said.

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