the everything store

from bookstore to global empire

Humble Beginnings

In 1994 Jeff Bezos, a former Wall Street hedge fund executive, incorporated Amazon.com, choosing the name primarily because it began with the first letter of the alphabet and because of its association with the vast South American river. On the basis of research he had conducted, Bezos concluded that books would be the most logical product initially to sell online. While Amazon.com famously started as a bookseller, Bezos contended from its start that the site was not merely a retailer of consumer products. He argued that Amazon.com was a technology company whose business was simplifying online transactions for consumers.

Start of an Empire

Bezos argued that to succeed as an online retailer, a company needed to “Get Big Fast,” a slogan he had printed on employee T-shirts. In fact, Amazon.com did grow fast, reaching 180,000 customer accounts by December 1996, after its first full year in operation, and less than a year later, in October 1997, it had 1,000,000 customer accounts. Its revenues jumped from $15.7 million in 1996 to $148 million in 1997, followed by $610 million in 1998. To sustain that growth, Amazon.com needed more than private investors to underwrite the expansion. As a result, in May 1997, less than two years after opening its virtual doors to consumers and without ever having made a profit, Amazon.com became a public company, raising $54 million on the NASDAQ market.

Early Failures

In 1999, Amazon began offering toys and
electronics and then divided its product offerings into individual stores on
its site to make it easier for customers to shop for certain items. During the
holiday season that year, the firm ordered 181 acres of holiday wrapping paper
and 2,494 miles of red ribbon, a sign that Bezos expected holiday shoppers to
flock to his site as they had in the two past years. Sure enough, sales climbed
to $1.6 billion proving that the founder’s efforts to create an online powerhouse had indeed paid off.  While Amazon’s growth story was remarkable, Bezos’ focus on market share over profits had made Wall Street uneasy and left analysts speculating whether the company would ever be able to turn a profit. Sales continued to grow as the company added new products to its site—including lawn and patio furniture and kitchen wares. The company however, continued to post net losses. Bezos remained optimistic, even as Amazon’s share price faltered. During 2001, the company focused on cutting costs. It laid off 1,300 employees and closed a distribution facility. The company also added price reduction to its business strategy, which had traditionally been centered on vast selection and convenience. Amazon inked lucrative third-party deals with such well-known retailers as Target Corporation and America Online, Inc. By now, products from Toysrus.com Inc., Circuit City Stores Inc., the Borders Group, and a host of other retailers were available on the Amazon.com site.

Rise to Power

Amazon’s strategy worked. In 2001, sales grew to $3.12 billion, an increase of 13 percent over the previous year. During the fourth quarter, Amazon reached a milestone that many had regarded as unlikely; it secured a net profit of $5 million. In 2002, the company launched its apparel store, which included clothing from retailers The Gap and Lands’ End. Overall, the company reported a net loss of $149 million for the year, an improvement from the $567 million loss reported in 2001. In the fourth quarter of 2002 however, the firm secured a quarterly net profit of $3 million—the second net profit in its history. While securing quarterly net profits was a major turning point for the young company, a July 2002 Business Week article warned, “after seven years and more than $1 billion in losses, Amazon is still a work in process.” Indeed, the company’s foray into providing the “Earth’s Biggest Selection” had yet to prove it could provide profits on a long-term basis. Nevertheless, Bezos and his Amazon team remained confident that the firm was on the right track. With $3.9 billion in annual sales, Amazon had certainly come a long way from its start as an online book seller.