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Amazon is 30. Here's how a book store gobbled up all of e-commerce

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos speaks at an event unveiling the Kindle 2.0 in 2009. Bezos founded the company in his Bellevue, Wash. garage 30 years ago on July 5, 1995.
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Amazon founder Jeff Bezos speaks at an event unveiling the Kindle 2.0 in 2009. Bezos founded the company in his Bellevue, Wash. garage 30 years ago on July 5, 1995.

[Editor’s note: Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters and pays to distribute NPR content.]

30 years ago today, Jeff Bezos founded an online bookstore in his garage.

What Bezos eventually named Amazon is now one of the largest companies on earth — one of a few to be worth $2 trillion.

Alina Selyukh covers the company on NPR’s Business Desk. She talked with NPR’s Andrew Mambo about how Amazon gobbled up much of the internet to become “the everything store.”

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

Andrew Mambo: So let's talk about the man who started it all, Jeff Bezos. What was he up to back in 1994?

Alina Selyukh: Bezos was an investment banker on Wall Street, and he really wanted to get in on the dot-com boom. Picture a guy with wispy hair, wearing khakis, driving a Honda. He was a very frugal guy, but he was very intense and focused. His other idea for the company name was actually relentless.com – if you type in relentless.com, that still sends you to Amazon.com.

Bezos wanted to build the everything store, and he did it.

Mambo: It's worth reminding people — Amazon got its start selling only books.

Selyukh: Yes. He started with books because they were relatively cheap, they don't spoil … pretty sturdy to ship. And there are just millions of them, so you could sell very many titles.

Mambo: So how did this go from a bookseller to a global e-commerce giant?

Selyukh: Well, Amazon bought a lot of other companies: software, robotics, grocery stores. It got a leg up on sales tax for a long time — as an online seller, Amazon didn’t collect sales tax for much of the country for about two decades. Also, Amazon pumped all its money back into Amazon. It famously delivered many unprofitable years without getting pressure from investors.

And then Amazon made transformative products — think like, the Kindle eBook reader, the smart speaker. It made pretty transformative business decisions like opening its marketplace to small businesses … now, these small businesses actually sell the majority of stuff you find on Amazon.

And Amazon put a laser focus on two-day and then same-day shipping, and then started charging shoppers a membership fee to access. Now, enough subscribers pay for Amazon Prime to populate the eighth-largest country on Earth.

Mambo: In recent years, we've also seen a lot of coverage about the tough working conditions at Amazon warehouses. What's the human cost of building a company like Amazon?

Selyukh: Amazon is now the second-largest private employer in the U.S., right behind Walmart. That's 1.5 million people making this company run. And most of them are folks in warehouses and the shipping hubs, packing and delivering your stuff, often for minimum wage or just above minimum wage. It is hard, physical work.

This has led to kind of a new chapter in Amazon's story, the union push. Amazon is fighting union campaigns really aggressively. So far, one warehouse has actually unionized in New York, but Amazon still refuses to recognize the union and it's been two years.

Mambo: So where is Amazon today? Now that they're a major player in so many different industries, what comes next?

Selyukh: Amazon is in its 30s. Its knees are creaking a little, and it's feeling a little bloated! It actually did grow a bit too much during the pandemic and is now scaling back some of its warehousing footprint.

I think there's one big tech challenge for Amazon, which is to catch up on the AI race. But really big-picture, Amazon does face a federal anti-monopoly lawsuit, which could — though very much in theory — try to break up the company. The suit accuses Amazon of suffocating rivals, of actually raising costs for both sellers and shoppers over time. But that case will take years.

You have some sellers pushing back on Amazon's fees and restrictions. You have some workers pushing back on speed and conditions.

But Amazon's key defense through it all has long been that customers trust the brand, love the brand. So it will be interesting to see how Amazon is able to keep that trust. Is it able to stave off the fake reviews, fake products, rising prices, frustrations with search, and stay ahead of competition?

Copyright 2024 NPR

Andrew Mambo
Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
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