How Amazon Consumed All of Commerce

How Amazon Consumed All of Commerce
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Gizmodo is 20 years old! To celebrate the anniversary, we’re looking back at some of the most significant ways our lives have been thrown for a loop by our digital tools.

If you’ve ever tried to research how the Big Bad Tech Monopolies of our time got so big and bad, you’ll find that these stories are typically pretty straightforward. Google, for example, started as a search engine company in the mid-90’s, and spent decades buying and bullying competitors until it swallowed just about all of the search engine market. Facebook started as a social network, and then copied or bought out the competition until it became the most popular social network on the planet. But Amazon… well, Amazon’s a bit different.

When a younger (and less bald) Jeff Bezos opened the platform to the public in 1995, he promoted it as “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore”; it was an e-alternative to the Barnes & Nobles and Waldenbooks people knew and loved. In 2022, it moved on from bookstore to “everything store,” but even that doesn’t fully describe the scope of what Amazon is.

The same company also controls a third of the world’s cloud computing tech while also being a market leader in home security systems. It develops vaccines and drones and is equally cosy with law enforcement and luxury clothing brands, and owns the leading platforms for gamers, movie buffs, and deeply dehumanising on-demand labour. In 2019, the company’s sprawling worldwide warehouse presence took up more than 38 Pentagons-worth of physical space. Over the past two years, that footprint’s nearly doubled.

In other words, this company is big — arguably too big — in a way that makes keeping tabs on all of Amazon’s brands and businesses a near-impossible ask. So we did it for you.

Using public records, we’ve done our best to catalogue the brands, businesses and subsidiaries that Amazon’s bought and built up as part of its relentless quest to take over anything and everything it can.

A quick disclaimer: in order to keep things from sprawling into something as long as a textbook (and just as boring), we’re only including the company’s many, many businesses here in the U.S. This blog won’t go into the company’s international footprint, which — at least from our research — seems to stretch into at least thirteen other countries. In 2017, for example, Amazon bought one of the biggest e-commerce platforms in the Middle East before also gobbling up one of the regions premiere delivery startups soon after. Amazon also owns a payment processor in India, a solar energy station in Japan, and an ocean freight operation in China. But just getting your head around Amazon’s U.S. acquisitions is an overwhelming feat. OK, take a deep breath and let’s dive in.

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Amazon’s Book Businesses

It’s not a coincidence that Bezos picked books as the basis for what would eventually become a hulking e-commerce empire. As he succinctly put it in one 1997 interview, there were (and are) simply Too Many Books for any given brick-and-mortar store to reasonably carry — but not too many that a newfangled online storefront like Amazon could handle. That same year, the company boasted a whopping 2.5 million book titles available for purchase on its platform, netting $US148 ($205) million in profits for the soon-to-be public company.

Even at the time, those numbers were downright quaint. But they still dwarfed online sales from rivals like Barnes and Noble, who tried getting a leg up on Amazon in 1998 by partnering with Bertelsmann, a major German publisher, in a multi-million dollar deal that put a raft of European titles up for sale on Barnes and Noble’s website.

Just a week after those two announced their team-up, Amazon announced its first-ever acquisitions: a trio of internet upstarts that were bought for a collective $US55 ($76) million in cash. One of these companies was the Internet Movie Database (more on that later). The other two — Bookpages and Telebook — were some of the leading online bookstores in the UK and Germany, respectively. By the time Amazon later rebranded the two companies as Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.de, the Barnes and Noble site was bringing in about a fourth of Amazon’s online earnings, and Bertelsmann didn’t have a website at all.

Around this time, Barnes and Noble was also striking up partnerships with digital marketplaces selling used books that were rare, or out-of-print. So naturally, this meant Amazon would end up buying one of the biggest players in this space. For an estimated $US200 ($278) million in stock, Amazon announced in 1999 that it was taking over Exchange.com, an e-tailer that, itself, owned two platforms specializing in hard-to-find media: MusicFile specialised in rare records and CD’s, while Bibliofind specialised in rare books.

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In 2008, Amazon further cemented itself in the indie book world by acquiring AbeBooks, another one of these marketplaces that boasted 110 million rare, used, and out-of-print titles for sale. In 2011, AbeBooks bought out its biggest European competitor, ZVAB, bringing thousands of booksellers and tens of millions more rare titles under its (and Amazon’s) wing in the process. Pretty soon after, Amazon acquired another European rare bookseller, The Book Depository. Next it bought the hugely popular online comic store Comixology which has proven to be one of its most controversial purchases as increasingly vocal fans have melted down over changes to its app.

Each of these buys paved the way for a future where buying a book online typically means buying it from an Amazon property. But that wasn’t enough. In 2005, it acquired BookSurge, a small-ish print-on-demand supplier catering to small-ish independent publishers. Not long after, Amazon told these same indie outfits that it wouldn’t sell their wares unless BookSurge was the one printing them out; when these publishers revolted, the company straight up yeeted the buy button from these bookseller’s Amazon pages.

By 2009, the BookSurge brand would be yeeted, too. Amazon would fold the company in with another one of its recent acquisitions, CreateSpace (formerly CustomFlix), a self-publishing conglomerate that didn’t only print books, but DVD’s, VHS tapes and CD’s as well. Another Amazon subsidiary, Kindle Direct Publishing, initially debuted to handle self-publishing services for the company’s titular e-readers, before completely taking over CreateSpace’s role in 2018. The disc-on-demand service, meanwhile, ended up shuttering three years later.

That same year that Amazon created its self-publishing monolith, it also launched its first-ever book imprint, AmazonEncore, which simply redistributed well-rated self-published titles that were already available on its site. In 2010, Amazon debuted a second imprint, AmazonCrossing, to handle translated works.

Both of these companies fell under the newly created Amazon Publishing subsidiary, as did the three imprints Amazon spun up in 2011: Montlake Romance, which (naturally) focused on romance literature, Thomas & Mercer, which published true crime novellas and mysteries, and 47North, for horror- and fantasy-focused lit. It soon had imprints for self-help books, children’s books, books for teens, nonfiction, short-fiction and “book club fiction,” whatever that might mean. Amazon also has publishing imprints for Catholic readers, queer readers, and readers who prefer comics. Even the obscure imprint Avalon books, with a self-described focus on “wholesome” romance and western literature found itself being poached in 2012.

It’s a mixed bag of genres, to say the least. But Amazon is a company that knows what readers want, arguably more than anyone else — at this point, it didn’t just have the intel from billions of dollars worth of spending from book nerds, but it also owned Goodreads and Shelfari, the premiere social networks where those nerds were hanging out and discussing the latest trends.

Then, of course, there’s the audiobooks; Amazon bought its first audiobook retailer, Brilliance Audio in 2007 before acquiring the audiobook giant Audible less than a year later for a hefty $US300 ($416) million. In 2011, Audible got its own self-publishing platform, ACX, tacked on. Suddenly, Amazon’s many, many (many) booksellers weren’t only self-publishing their work, but they were narrating the audio editions, too.

Amazon seemed set on systematically gutting neighbourhood bookstores since its inception, and it’s a bit ironic that the company tried opening its own chain of brick-and-mortar bookstores under a new subsidiary, Amazon Books, in 2015. It didn’t last.

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Amazon’s Movie Business

If you zoom out a bit, Amazon’s moves in the media space look pretty similar to the tactics it used to devour the entire online book market.

Like books, Bezos knew that his company could easily out-stock any physical storefront that had CD’s or DVD’s for sale. When the company announced the launch of its online music store in 1998, a spokesperson bragged that the platform offered nearly 100,000 titles while the typical retailer (*cough* Barnes and Noble *cough*) only carried 40,000, at best. Also like books, there’s a galaxy of third parties responsible for producing, packaging, and putting out a given piece of media — and Amazon wanted to displace as many as it could.

On the cinema front, Amazon kicked things off with its 1998 IMDb acquisition. Like the GoodReads buyout it would happen more than a decade later, buying IMDb gave Amazon a front-row seat into the wants/needs/turn-offs of the die-hard fans it was courting for its customer base. It also gained access to the details IMDb had amassed on millions of TV shows and movies — which also meant millions of opportunities to cross-promote and up-sell Amazon’s growing video inventory IMDB’s massive customer base.

A decade later, IMDb would beef up its data even more by acquiring rival movie-trivia haven Box Office Mojo in 2008. Amazon (through IMDb) also tried to get a foothold in the film distribution game around this time by acquiring Withoutabox, a then-popular portal that indie filmmakers could use to submit their work to major film festivals and — if that didn’t pan out — share them with the masses as free-to-watch content on IMDb.com. (That platform would end up shuttering in late 2019).

It was pretty obvious that a platform like IMDb — or even a massive movie marketplace — wouldn’t be enough to give Amazon the upper hand against hot new gadgets like Microsoft’s Zune or Apple’s iPod, which both rolled out video-on-demand products around 2006. That fall, Amazon debuted its own competitor, Amazon Unbox, a platform that let Amazon customers buy episodes of, say, Pimp My Ride or Star Trek for about $US2 ($3) a pop.

If reviews from that era are to be believed, Unbox wasn’t just unoriginal; it was a buggy, expensive mess that only worked on your Windows computer (and even that seemed to be a bit of a tossup). Amazon gave it another whirl by rebranding Unbox as “Amazon Video on Demand” and rereleasing the product in 2008. Netflix, which had been eating every competitors lunch before this release, kept doing more of the same afterwards.

In a move that sounds, from employee’s accounts at the time, like it was born out of blind desperation, Amazon bundled its video subscription service as a freebie that came with people’s purchase of an annual prime membership. The new service was dubbed “Amazon Instant Video,” when it first rolled out in 2011, but that wouldn’t stick either. It became “Amazon Video” in 2015, then the “Prime Video” we know and love in 2018.

Prime Video is, by most accounts just okay as far as streaming platforms go, but Amazon didn’t let that mediocrity keep it from rolling out another streaming service at the start of 2019: IMDb Freedive, which was an ad-supported, free-to-stream channel housed under the trivia site. It soon became “IMDb TV,” and when that turned out to be too tough for viewers to pronounce, it landed on an arguably more ridiculous name — “Amazon Freevee” — instead. That’s the name we’ve been stuck with since this past April.

As part of Amazon’s ongoing effort to lure audiences off of Netflix and into an annual Prime subscription, Amazon decided to get into the business of original content. In 2010, it unveiled a new Hollywood wing dedicated exclusively to that. Amazon Studios was an online platform that crowdsourced spec scripts from literally anyone who was willing to pitch one in; the lucky few scripts that got turned into pilots were thrown to Amazon’s customer base. Based on the ratings these customers gave, the company would decide which pilots were worthy of becoming a Prime Original Series.

If you’ve ever watched a Prime Original, you know that they’re pretty bad. So bad, in fact, that Amazon Studios decided to fully abandoned the open-script submission process back in 2018, which was the year the company reportedly shifted its Studio’s focus from indie films to more mainstream blockbusters. The company’s $US8.5 ($12) billion acquisition of the movie studio MGM earlier this year seems to be another step in that direction

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Amazon’s Music Business

Aside from the aforementioned Musicfile acquisition, Amazon didn’t make too many moves in the audio space initially. The company had an on-platform music store, literally called “Amazon Music Store,” that debuted in 1998 with a modest selection of about 100,000 CD’s — half the size of what its competitors were offering.

Next came Amazon’s foray into MP3’s, which arrived in the spring of 2007, just a few months after the company first rolled out Unbox, its first video on demand service. News reports from the time noted that Amazon MP3, as it was called, was pretty much an Amazon-ified iTunes, albeit selling its songs for just a bit cheaper. Four years later, the company would debut Amazon Cloud Drive and Amazon Cloud Player, which let people store their tunes and access them from any device that wasn’t an iPhone. Yes, really.

In 2014, Amazon MP3 and the Cloud Player would be merged into a new product, Amazon Music. This came bundled with the company’s latest scheme to get people to sign up for Prime: a product called Prime Music, that gave Prime customers free access to “more than 1 million songs,” though licensing scuffles meant it was also missing tracks from most major artists of the time. Two years later, it added another streaming service, Amazon Music Unlimited, which was disconnected from Prime, and, the company promised, had just as deep a catalogue as something like Spotify. Then in 2018, it began recording and releasing its own original music on the platform, too.

2020 was the year that Spotify saw a serious jump in subscribers coming to the platform for podcasts during lockdowns across the country, so, naturally, Amazon needed to step on that turf as well. In December of that year, it acquired the podcast network Wondery, and has since inked some pretty major deals with podcast providers to make their content exclusive to Amazon Music. Then in 2021, Amazon acquired the podcast monetisation firm Art19 as a way to woo podcast advertisers (and their budgets) into the Amazon Music fold as well.

At the end of the day, Amazon Music still trails pretty far behind Spotify in terms of market share, but it’s catching up quickly enough that the latter company, in retaliation, announced that it would soon try taking over the audiobook market.

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Amazon’s Payment (and Marketplace) Business

This is one of those rare categories where Amazon’s had way more misses than hits. This started in 1999, with the company’s very first attempt to win third-party sellers to its platform: Amazon Auctions, the company’s answer to eBay, and acquired fellow eBay competitor LiveBid about two weeks later. This all ended up being for naught though — the platform’s allegedly meh product selection and ongoing frustrations from sellers led to the company more or less scrapping the whole auctions thing two years after it launched. It’s unclear if any of the related data or tech from the acquisitions proved valuable in the long term.

A few months after it started its failed foray into auctions, Amazon traded close to 900,000 shares to buy Accept.com, a California startup that specialised in payment software for online stores. Accept would quickly turn into Amazon Payments (later just Amazon Pay), which the company debuted as part of its second grab at third-party sellers, Amazon zShops. For the low price of $US10 ($14) per month (plus a small percentage of sales fees), merchants could set themselves up in zShops and hawk their wares to the booming customer base already buying their books/music/movies on Amazon’s platform.

ZShops became Amazon Marketplace, a year later, and that platform more or less became the Amazon site we all know today. As Bezos explained to The Wall Street Journal back in 1999, the idea was to turn Amazon into “the place where people can find and discover anything they might want to buy on the Internet.” He succeeded.

Unfortunately (for Bezos), Marketplace would be its only real success in this space. Amazon tried to get into peer-to-peer payments, first with the acquisition of text-based based payment operator TextPayMe back in 2006, which was then rolled into a product called Amazon Webpay in 2011. Amazon unceremoniously shuttered that project years later. Then there’s Amazon Lending, which was also launched back in 2011 as a way to finance the small businesses selling their wares on Amazon. That product’s still around, but barely.

In 2013, Amazon bought out Gopago, a California startup that created point-of-sale software for retailers, similar to Square. Amazon debuted its own Square competitor, Amazon Register, barely one year after that, and then shuttered the project just as quickly. Next Amazon tried to target tween shoppers with Amazon Allowance, a program that let parents funnel cash into their kid’s Amazon account so they could shop on the platform, too. Somehow, this absolutely bonkers concept survived until July 2020, when Allowance shut down. Sadly Amazon One, the equally bonkers product that lets you use your handprint to pay in stores, is still very much alive.

Amazon’s most recent acquisition in the fintech space was the Shopify competitor Selz, which it quietly bought at the start of 2021 before — you guessed it — shutting it down roughly a year later.

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Amazon’s Fashion Business

Amazon first started coming for clothing retailers in 2002 with the rollout of the creatively named “Amazon Apparel & Accessories Store (later just Amazon Fashion), which saw brands like Gap, Nordstrom and Target start selling their inventory on Amazon’s site. Each of these brands would sign a three year contract with the tech giant where they’d pass back a small percentage off any sale they made.

Then in early 2006 — right around the time that these contracts ended — Amazon acquired Shopbop, a popular online hub for clothing and accessories. While the Shopbop brand has more or less stayed independent from Amazon since the acquisition, recent reports suggest that Amazon has been quietly pressuring the hundreds of brands selling on Shopbop to sell directly on Amazon as well. Three years later, Amazon acquired the online shoe seller Zappos for close to $US1 ($1) billion, making it the biggest purchase the company had made up until that point.

While it kept on selling these third-party brands through its online mall, Amazon introduced seven of its own private clothing labels in 2016, and begun manufacturing everything from kid’s overalls to men’s shoes. Amazon’s never disclosed the total number of private labels it has debuted since then, but one recent estimate puts the number at 146.

It’s worth noting that number doesn’t even take into account the many, many other private labels Amazon’s introduced in other verticals: it has at least two furniture brands (Rivet, Stone & Beam), another label for diapers and baby wipes (Mama Bear), and even a private line of pet products (Wag).

In 2021, analysts started saying Amazon had outpaced Walmart as America’s highest-selling fashion retailer. If that wasn’t enough, Amazon opened Amazon Style, the company’s first brick-and-mortar clothing stores earlier this year.

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Amazon’s Food Business

Considering how the grocery biz racks up over $US740 ($1,027) billion annually, it was only a matter of time before Amazon tried to corner that market, too. This started in 2003 with the rollout of a short-lived digital gourmet food store (literally just called Amazon Gourmet Food). Three years later, the company would take its first stab at grocery delivery when it started offering non-perishable grocery goods — think cereal and jell-o mix — alongside everything else you were already able to buy on the quickly sprawling e-tailer.

Amazon Fresh — a program that used a fleet of refrigerated trucks to deliver an even wider array of food to Amazon Prime customers — debuted in Amazon’s Seattle home turf in 2007. By 2021, that service would expand to over a dozen more cities across the country.

Despite its name though, Fresh quickly earned a reputation for being, well, less than fresh: shoppers complained that their deliveries included bruised produce, or food that was past its expiration date — if it ended up being delivered at all. Amazon deduced that maybe a brick-and-mortar grocery store would be a better way to go, and in 2016, that’s exactly what it gave us with Amazon Go.

First opening in Seattle for Amazon employees, Go was branded as “a new kind of store with no checkout required.” Instead, these stores used a combination of sensors lining their grocery shelves and cameras lining the ceiling to keep track of which items are being picked up and put back. Once those shoppers picked up that week’s groceries, they’d just walk out — and the company would charge their Amazon account for whatever was taken with them. Today, there’s two dozen Go stores operating across the U.S. This is on top of the 37 Amazon Fresh stores the company also operates, which are essentially identical to those Amazon Go’s, except they also offer a traditional checkout experience for customers that want one.

In 2017, Amazon stepped up its grocery footprint by acquiring Whole Foods for just under $US14 ($19) billion. Dollar for dollar, this is still the biggest buyout Amazon’s ever made.

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Amazon’s Cloud Business

Whole Foods might have been Amazon’s biggest purchase but the company’s biggest moneymaker is still Amazon Web Services, its cloud computing division that first debuted in 2002. Recent figures show AWS earnings as making up about 52% of the company’s total income.

What’s unique about AWS (at least compared to the rest of Amazon’s Empire) is that Amazon didn’t acquire any competitors to first get it off the ground. Instead, from 2006 onward, the company developed a dizzying array of cloud computing products in-house. The first of these was Amazon S3 Amazon’s storage option, which in 2021 held more than 100 trillion objects from all the customers it had amassed over the years.

Then came Amazon Simple Queue Service (SQS) and Amazon Elastic Compute (EC2) later that year. The following years brought a tidal wave of products — so many that there’s no way we can list them all here. Still, we can give you a sampler: there’s Amazon Cloudfront (a content distribution network), Amazon Simple DB (a distributed database), Amazon Redshift, which was software meant for running data warehouses. There’s also Amazon Appstream (a tool for remotely accessing your desktop apps in the cloud), Amazon Aurora (yet another cloud storage solution), Amazon Lambda (for serverless computing), Amazon Workdocs (file storage, but for businesses) and Amazon Workmail (cloud-based email, but for business). Again, this is all barely scratching the surface.

In 2011, Amazon started courting federal interest in its cloud products with the launch of Amazon GovCloud, which the company branded as a super-secure solution for federal agents looking to store their content in the cloud. In 2016, Amazon won a $US600 ($833) million government contract that the company used to develop AWS Secret Region, a cloud storage service geared specifically towards the CIA.

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Amazon’s Gaming Business

The same way Amazon swooped in to acquire book imprints and movie studios as a way to beef up its own offerings, the company started acquiring gaming development houses in 2009 with the acquisition of Reflexive Entertainment, a developer of casual Mac and PC games. In 2014, it would tack on another gaming studio, Helix Games, which was the same year Amazon also acquired perhaps the biggest social network for video gamers on the web, Twitch, for an estimated $US970 ($1,347) million in cash. Pretty soon after that, Twitch snapped up the eSports agency GoodGame as a way to woo big brands to drop their budgets on Amazon’s newest platform.

While Twitch has indeed raked in a fair amount of cash from its ad deals — about $US2 ($3).6 billion in the last year alone — Amazon’s track record for producing games (much like its track record for producing movies) has been… troubled, to say the least. The company first began producing games in-house with the debut of Amazon Game Studios back in 2012, and has struggled to find a hit since.

This might be why the company’s latest moves in the world of gaming are centered less on consumer-facing content and more on the company’s happy place: cloud computing. In 2017, Amazon confirmed that it had acquired the cloud development platform Gamesparks, which was pretty quickly shoved under Amazon’s many (many) AWS brands. Thanks to this acquisition, Amazon wasn’t only producing games in-house anymore — third-party game devs were now using Amazon’s tech for their cloud hosting needs. In 2020, it brought more of these devs on board by rolling out Amazon Gamelift, which offered low-cost servers for game developers of all shapes and sizes.

Amazon also acquired the 3D body-scanning startup Body Labs for about $US50 ($69) million in 2017. The tech from this company was quickly subsumed by another AWS product, Amazon Sumerian which was pitched as a way to let game developers (or, hell, any developers) create virtual reality experiences more easily. Amazon also open-sourced its own 3D game engine, Amazon Lumberyard, last summer.

And that’s it. That’s how Amazon consumed the world. If regulators want to break up the Everything Store, they have a lot of work ahead of them.