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Amazon’s enduring influence on business, and Jeff Bezos’s legacy

Our A-to-Z guide tries to capture Amazon’s scope and scale.

Amazon’s enduring influence on business, and Jeff Bezos’s legacy
[Illustrations: James Graham]

It is hard to overstate Amazon’s influence on global business right now. When the company raises its U.S. average starting pay, as it did in September, it puts wage pressure on nearly every American business with hourly workers—from fast-food chains to manufacturers. Consumer packaged goods companies increasingly rely on “the everything store” for distribution, even as they also compete with Amazon’s cheaper house brands, such as Goodthreads and Wag. But wait! Amazon’s ubiquitous computing infrastructure arm can provide these frenemies—and just about any business—with analytics, forecasting, and other data tools.

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Amazon’s impact on corporate operations and culture is so sprawling that our editors felt it warranted an encyclopedic approach. Our A-to-Z guide seeks to capture this powerful company’s current scope, as well as its ambitions, from the bold (stitching together an end-to-end transportation network) to the whimsical (hair salons) to the unnerving (a project to form private mesh networks that piggyback onto customers’ Ring cameras and Echo devices).

I asked Brian Dumaine, author of Bezonomics: How Amazon Is Changing Our Lives and What the World’s Best Companies Are Learning from It, for a historical analogy. He thought Amazon in many ways resembled Ford Motor Company in its heyday, when it manufactured its own steel and windshield glass, and even had its own power plants. It extended credit to buy cars, supported an ecosystem of suppliers, and spawned thousands of small businesses through its dealerships.

Now imagine if Ford also leased out its assembly lines—and that became its most profitable business. And say its dealers could also sell bikes and mattresses and massage guns, which Ford could store and deliver. And it made movies. That would get you closer to the Amazon of today.

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All this influence has attracted the attention of regulators, most notably Federal Trade Commission chair Lina Khan, who has suggested that Amazon’s “structure and conduct” pose anticompetitive concerns. Sustainability experts fret about the company’s impact on the planet. And though Amazon has raised wages and offers robust retraining programs and free college tuition, former employees and unions say working conditions for drivers and warehouse staff are particularly punishing.

For all its tentacles, Amazon’s enduring contribution to business will be its role in accelerating the digitization of everything, Dumaine says. From retail and healthcare to transportation, Amazon is applying its tech prowess to dozens of projects, and other players in the industry need to follow suit. “That’s going to be Jeff Bezos’s legacy,” says Dumaine, referring to Amazon’s founder. “He’s digitizing the economy at a larger scale and faster than anyone could ever have imagined.”

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