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Amazon Will Answer These Two Big Questions This Week

(Plus four more questions we hope its executives answer.)

Amazon Prime Air

[Photos: courtesy of Amazon]

Amazon will report its fourth-quarter earnings this Thursday, which will answer two burning questions for investors:

1. How did Amazon’s strong holiday season translate into profits?

Amazon reported that it had its best holiday season ever—selling twice as many Amazon devices and delivering 200 million more items to Amazon Prime customers than last year. On Thursday, investors will see what those increased sales meant for the online retail behemoth’s bottom line.

2. Are Amazon Web Services holding strong?

Though it has captured a huge portion of American retail sales, Amazon has never been a profit powerhouse like some of its peers in Silicon Valley. But it posted a small profit for its second quarter. Its third-quarter earnings, reported in October, also showed a tiny profit—$79 million on $24.5 billion in total revenue for the quarter—that was largely driven by its cloud services products, which provide infrastructure for digital products such as Netflix. But as the price of cloud computing tanks, Amazon’s cloud services business could prove less profitable, making it more difficult for the company to continue its two-quarter streak.

A few other questions we have won't necessarily be answered by the numbers, but Amazon executives may address them in their statements or during the Q&A with analysts.

1. Drones: Really, anything about drones.

In November, Amazon published a video showing a prototype of a delivery drone for its Amazon Prime service. In addition to fulfilling sci-fi fantasies, the realization of drone delivery could be crucial for monetizing Amazon’s infrastructure. The company has bundled its services in its Prime subscription, promising free one-day shipping—as well as perks like access to movies—to customers who pay an annual $99 fee. As Prime grows—Amazon said that it signed up three million members in the week before Christmas alone—drones could make all of those free shipping promises cheaper for the company to deliver.

2. How many people have signed up for Prime subscriptions?

One estimate suggests Amazon Prime has 54 million subscribers, about 35% more than it had one year earlier.

3. Is anyone using Dash buttons?

Amazon made its plastic one-click product-ordering buttons available to consumers in July. In October, it said that the buttons had been met with "overwhelmingly positive customer response" but did not say how many people had used the buttons or how many times those people had placed orders using them. When Fast Company writer Mark Wilson installed the buttons in his home for a month, he had a less-than-overwhelming customer experience.

4. What is Amazon doing with its new shipping business?

Amazon’s China subsidiary earlier this month received approval from the United States to ship ocean freight for other companies. Some have speculated that Amazon could reduce labor costs associated with shipping by automating some jobs.