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How Amazon’s Bottomless Appetite Became Corporate America’s Nightmare


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Amazon makes no sense. It’s the most befuddling, illogically sprawling, and—to a growing sea of competitors—flat-out terrifying company in the world.

 

It sells soap and produces televised soap operas. It sells complex computing horsepower to the U.S. government and will dispatch a courier to deliver cold medicine on Christmas Eve. It’s the third-most-valuable company on Earth, with smaller annual profits than Southwest Airlines Co., which as of this writing ranks 426th. Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos is the world’s richest person, his fortune built on labor conditions that critics say resemble a Dickens novel with robots, yet he has enough mainstream appeal to play himself in a Super Bowl commercial. Amazon was born in cyberspace, but it occupies warehouses, grocery stores, and other physical real estate equivalent to 90 Empire State Buildings, with a little left over.

 

Investors have grown to love Amazon.com Inc. despite, or perhaps because of, its contradictions. Shareholders pushed its value above Microsoft Corp.’s for the first time on Valentine’s Day and to an all-time high of $774 billion on March 12. Only Apple Inc. and Google parent Alphabet Inc. remain more valuable, and unlike them, Amazon breaks all the rules of the modern corporation. It’s also wielding its power against an unprecedented range of other businesses.

 

Bezos’ brainchild has been fast-growing, influential, and anomalous for most of its 24 years, but it’s entered a new phase. Its dominance can’t be contained to a few areas such as books, electronics, or even computer networks. Remember my colleague Brad Stone’s book The Everything Store? That title may have undersold Bezos’ ambitions. He seems to want to establish his place in every industry. Parcel delivery, supermarkets and packaged foods, apparel, trucking, auto parts, pharmaceuticals, real estate brokerages, makeup, concert ticketing, swimming pool supplies, and banking are just a sampling of the fields battered at various points in the past year because of Amazon’s encroachment or even rumors of its interest in entering them. Amazon declined to comment for this story.

 

The company has grown so large and difficult to comprehend that it’s worth taking stock of why and how it’s left corporate America so thoroughly freaked out. Executives at the biggest U.S. companies mentioned Amazon thousands of times during investor calls last year, according to transcripts—more than President Trump and almost as often as taxes. Other companies become verbs because of their products: to Google or to Xerox. Amazon became a verb because of the damage it can inflict on other companies. To be Amazoned means to have your business crushed because the company got into your industry. And fear of being Amazoned has become such a defining feature of commerce, it’s easy to forget the phenomenon has arisen mostly in about three years.

 

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