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Inside Amazon—America's biggest online retailer

  • Inside Amazon—America's biggest online retailer

    Nearly 40 cents out of every retail dollar Americans spend online now go to Amazon—the company commands a full 4% of U.S. retail as a whole. Three-quarters of a million workers earn a living through Amazon, and more than 100 million Prime subscribers consider Amazon their online home base. Although they've long enjoyed free two-day shipping, Prime members now also get a massive library of entertainment, e-books, grocery services, cloud storage, and gaming. The early investors who bought into the company when it first went public rode a wave of nearly unprecedented growth—those who made an initial investment of just $1,000 are now millionaires.

    Amazon is ranked among the five biggest corporations in America, and its founder is the richest human being on Earth. It's responsible for starting a trend that cracked the foundations of traditional retail and changed the way things are bought and sold. Former giants like Sears and Toys "R" Us have crumbled under the pressure of e-commerce, a revolution that Amazon stoked more than any other single entity—but it wasn't always that way.

    When Jeff Bezos founded Amazon in his garage in 1994, the company he launched wouldn't be profitable for years to come. It was part of an avalanche of new tech startups riding a wave of new and uncertain technology—most of them would quickly go bust. It started with an idea to let people browse and buy books from their computers instead of going into physical bookstores and choosing from the limited selection they found inside. It was a revolutionary idea, and Amazon soon became the world's biggest bookstore. Then it became the "Everything Store." Later it became a wealth-generating machine, with tentacles reaching everywhere from electric vehicles and cloud computing to production studios and grocery stores. It's heavily scrutinized and controversial—plans to open new headquarters recently sparked both ferocious bidding wars and fierce political blowback at the same time.

    Stacker compiled a list of key moments in Amazon's history and its current business from a variety of sources. Here's a look at the events that turned an online bookstore into a global conglomerate and a self-made entrepreneur into the world's richest man.

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  • 1994: Bezos founds Amazon

    When Jeff Bezos founded Amazon out of his Seattle garage in 1994, he set himself on a path to become the richest man in the world—he's now worth $128 billion. It was the beginning of a company that would change the way people buy and sell things around the globe and spell doom for traditional retail stores in the coming decades.

  • 1997: Amazon IPOs on NASDAQ

    When Amazon went public in 1997, it had 256 employees and was still known as "Earth's Biggest Bookstore." Its stock price at the time of its initial public offering was $16 per share, and that the public could now buy into the company injected it with a massive influx of capital to grow and expand. Today, Amazon's stock is worth more than $2,000 a share, and original investors have earned over 113,000% when the stock's multiple splits are factored in.

  • 1998: Amazon buys IMDb and expands business beyond books

    Amazon's first significant acquisition was IMDb, which it bought for about $55 million. The move made Amazon more than just an online bookstore and positioned it for a run as a multimedia conglomerate. Today, IMDb is still one of Amazon's most popular subsidiaries, attracting over 190 million monthly users and holding the title of the most popular movie website on Earth.

  • 2001: Turns first profitable quarter

    Amazon lost money for its first few years as a public company, not turning a profit until the fourth quarter of 2001, when it booked a paltry $5 million in the black. It reflected Bezos' philosophy that investing in the future was more important than meeting quarterly earnings targets. It remains the company's foundational financial philosophy.

  • 2002: Amazon offers free shipping over $99 for the first time

    In 2000 and 2001, when Amazon first experimented with offering free shipping on large orders during the holiday season, the company realized that shipping costs were one of the main barriers to people buying things online. That year, Amazon introduced Free Super Saver Shipping, which offered free shipping on orders over $99—that would soon drop to $49, then $25. It was the genesis of Amazon Prime and the modern shipping wars.

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  • 2005: Amazon Prime with free two-day shipping launches

    By 2005, Amazon determined that the company that dominated online retail would be the one that not only shipped for free but shipped fast for free. To get customers to spend more, it launched Amazon Prime, which cost $79 a year and promised free two-day shipping on most items. Not only did Prime force all other retailers to compete on shipping, but it spawned legions of Amazon loyalists who, after already having subscribed to Prime, considered Amazon their home base for online shopping.

  • 2006: Amazon AWS is launched

    By 2006, broadband Internet was becoming a mainstream service, and Amazon entered the cloud infrastructure space with Amazon Web Services. AWS launched with little fanfare, but soon dominated the sector and became one of Amazon's most powerful limbs. AWS now does $10 billion a year in annual sales and owns over 30% of the market, more than its next three closest competitors—Google, Microsoft, and IBM—combined.

  • 2006: Amazon Kindle is launched

    Unlike tablets and smartphones, which do everything in one device, the Amazon Kindle was purpose built only to deliver a superior reading experience for digital books. In developing the Kindle e-reader, Amazon returned to its roots as an online bookstore and reasserted itself as the single-biggest name in reading in the modern era.

  • 2007: AmazonFresh is launched

    In 2007, Amazon attempted to do with grocery shopping what it did with retail and books—make the physical store an obsolete relic of the past. Grocery-delivery service AmazonFresh rolled out gradually at first—it's still not available everywhere—but it was the start of Amazon positioning itself as a giant in the grocery industry in the following decade.

  • 2010: Amazon Studios is launched

    By 2010, streaming media was clearly the wave of the future, with streaming companies producing original content to compete with major studios and networks like HBO—and Amazon would not let that future belong to Netflix or its competitors without a fight. That year, it launched Amazon Studios, which has since produced notable films such as "Manchester by the Sea" and "You Were Never Really Here." Its TV shows include titles such as "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel."

    [Pictured: The primary cast from the Amazon Original "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel."]

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