Jewish World Review April 18, 2001 / 23 Nissan, 5761
It's a jungle out there for dot-com
THERE'S a lot of smirking being directed at Jeff
Bezos these days -- at him personally, and at the
company he founded, Amazon.com.
Amazon's stock, like the stock of so many
dot-coms (and non-dot-coms), is in the sewer
lately, and the company has yet to turn a profit.
Amazon was the shining example of how the online sales world was going to
bury traditional brick-and-mortar stores; most of what was written about
Amazon was glowing, Bezos was Time's man of the year, his company was
held up as an example of strategic brilliance.
So it's probably not surprising that Bezos and Amazon are taking their jabs
these days; how-the-mighty-have-fallen has always been an irresistible story,
and for those who lust for the comeuppance of the dot-coms, Amazon's
troubles are an intoxicant.
There's only one problem:
If Amazon doesn't make it -- if it eventually fails -- the chances are good no
dot-com retailer will ever succeed.
Because -- financial spreadsheets and employee layoffs aside -- even
Amazon's fiercest detractors ought to be straightforward enough to admit that
Amazon is great at what it does.
And the vexatious thing to consider -- especially in our current economy that
appears to be teetering and reeling -- is that if a company that does its job
this well can't make it, what are the chances that future knockoffs will
succeed -- or will even try? A lot of people jeered, "Get a horse!" when
Henry Ford put his first Model T's on America's roads. But what if Ford had
failed -- what if someone as visionary as Henry Ford had provided a good
product at a good price, something no one had ever dreamed of before --
and had had to fold his tent anyway?
That's what we're talking about here. Retailers who may wish Amazon ill --
book chains, independent booksellers, video outlets large and small -- have
the right to say a lot of unpleasant things about Bezos and his company, but
one thing they can't honestly say is that Amazon does a bad job. Amazon is
quick, it's almost frighteningly efficient, its selection is staggering, the
technology it uses to recommend other products to customers based on what
they have already purchased would be spookily "1984"ish if the customers
weren't so pleased with the prescience of the recommendations. . . .
The closest analogy to the way Amazon's old-style competitors feel about
Amazon is the way independent booksellers felt about the big Barnes &
Noble and Borders stores when those began showing up everywhere. It
would have been one thing for the independents, and their customers, to
loathe the superstores if the superstores were lousy, were shoddy and
The trouble was not that the superstores were bad -- the trouble, for their
competitors, was that they were so good. You could walk into one of those
big Borders or Barnes & Nobles and lose yourself for hours in the vast ,
deep selection of books (and, later, CDs). Hating a competitor is all the more
frustrating when the competitor, you have to admit, is doing a good job.
That's the case with Amazon -- its competitors may hope that it goes out of
business, but they, better than anyone else, know in their hearts what a
surprisingly fine job Amazon has done in identifying a new market (people
who will use their computers to shop), keeping those customers loyal (by
delivering what is promised), and coming up with ways to persuade the
customers to buy more (those computer-generated recommendations). Hate
your enemy if you will -- but give him credit.
So if Amazon eventually goes away (Newsweek, in a rhetorical headline this
month, asked: "Bedtime for Bezos?"), the hard question will be:
Who ever will be able to start an online store with national scope that has any
hope of succeeding? From its customers' point of view, Amazon is doing
things right. Yet even with that -- and with its initial good publicity -- it can't
seem to make any money. If its adversaries do get to dance on its grave,
what are the chances that someone else will ever figure out a way to do it
better? Things in the online world are getting desperate and weird enough as
it is, what with Yahoo's recent flirtation with selling hard-core pornography.
And if online shopping is doomed, what has all the excitement during the last
decade been about -- and are we really all headed back to Main
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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