How expansive is the reach of the Amazon retail and marketing juggernaut?
While reading “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon” for this review, I twice received an email from Amazon suggesting I purchase the book through its site.
It’s a coincidence, to be sure, but also a display of Amazon’s omnipresence and its finely honed, data-driven sales touch.
Nearly two decades after Amazon.com was launched, the e-commerce titan has $61 billion in sales and soon could be the fastest retailer to reach $100 billion in revenue.
The company has seen its stock price soar, even as it continues to lose money, driven by a seemingly limitless inventory, a network of highly efficient fulfillment centers, swift delivery of those smile-adorned brown boxes, the Kindle family of e-readers and tablets and a cloud-computing service.
Amazon wouldn’t be Amazon if not for Bezos, its competitive, stubborn and demanding founder, now the owner of the Washington Post and one of the nation’s wealthiest people.
The story of how Bezos led the transformation of an online bookseller into “the everything store” is the basis of a highly readable book by Brad Stone, a senior writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.
Stone details Bezos’ visionary approach to online retailing, the zealous, customer-centric business model that left suppliers and employees battered and bruised and the bare-knuckled brawls with Barnes & Noble, Walmart, Apple and other corporate giants.
The book was written without extensive access to Bezos, though Stone has interviewed him previously and Bezos did encourage colleagues and family members to cooperate.
Stone introduces Bezos as a Captain Picard look-alike – a reference to Patrick Stewart’s “Star Trek” role – and unforgettably describes his laugh as “a guttural roar that sounds like a cross between a mating elephant seal and a power tool.”
The young Bezos won science fair awards, developed an interest in space exploration – later indulged on a grander scale – was named his high school’s valedictorian and worked for a woman who bred hamsters.
After college, Bezos went to work at a Wall Street hedge fund, where he first thought about creating an Internet business that would serve as intermediary between the manufacturer and customer.
Bezos thought an online bookstore, with potentially unlimited selection, could upend the book-selling industry.
He started his company in Seattle because it was a growing tech hub, with Microsoft and the University of Washington, and because a Supreme Court ruling on sales tax collection steered him away from population-rich states such as California and New York, where Bezos hoped to sell books tax-free.
Looking through the dictionary’s “A” section, Bezos selected the name of the world’s largest river, because he sought to build the world’s largest bookstore.
Fitting the standard origin story for a tech company, Amazon began in Bezos’ garage, and the initial desks fashioned from blond wood doors bought at Home Depot have remained a company fetish, Stone said.
The site went live on April 3, 1995, and a bell went off every time a sale was made – until it was turned off after a few weeks because it was ringing too often.
From humble beginnings when delivery took a week, or more, and the company didn’t maintain its own inventory, Amazon grew thanks to a stream of innovations: a virtual shopping basket, site search engine, customer product reviews, Free Super Saver Shipping and recommendations based on previous purchases.
Amazon soon expanded into other products, starting with CDs and DVDs and boldly riding the dot-com boom after its 1997 initial public offering.
The downturn that preceded, and followed, the 9/11 terror attacks sank many tech companies. Amazon avoided the fate of Pets.com, Stone writes, due to “a combination of conviction, improvisation and luck.”
When Bezos desired something – such as a promised delivery date for an order – he drove his engineers relentlessly until they did what he wanted. Stone writes Bezos rarely meets one-on-one with subordinates, bans PowerPoint presentations and unleashes “melodramatic temper tantrums” on occasion.
Stone’s reporting efforts are impressive. He tracked down an unpublished manuscript by an author who had met Bezos as a sixth-grader at a school for gifted children, and he managed to track down Bezos’ biological father, who never knew his son grew up to be a billionaire and had never heard of Amazon.
The compelling anecdotes included in “The Everything Store” include a desperate search for a missing box of Pokémon Jigglypuffs and the great personal lubricant “crisis” that drove Bezos apoplectic.
My few complaints with the book include Stone’s using “sphinxlike” and “enigma” in the same sentence – we get it; he’s hard to read – and the clichéd “fitted for the black hat of the bad guy” in another.
But those are minor quibbles with a book that illuminates the rise of a company “not bound by traditional rules of retail,” as Stone puts it, and one that soon may fill the skies with delivery drones if Bezos has his way.
Stephen T. Watson is a News business reporter who has covered technology culture.
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
By Brad Stone
Little, Brown and Company
372 pages, $28