The complete A-to-Z guide to how Amazon is taking over everything

It doesn’t matter that Jeff Bezos has stepped down. No industry is safe from the company’s relentless ambition.

Pick an industry, any industry, and chances are, Amazon is having an impact on it right now. Retail —well, that’s been obvious for a long time. Other sectors might surprise you, though, such as medical care, ocean freight shipping, gaming, and…hair salons. When you consider Amazon’s collective influence across business and society, through subsidiaries such as Ring, Twitch, Whole Foods, MGM, Zappos, Zoox, and more, the result is staggering. And under new CEO Andy Jassy—who grew AWS into the revenue engine that powers the entire operation—it looks like it might only get bigger.

To understand Amazon’s reach, and the forces that could bring it down (or break it up), Fast Company’s editors and writers created an encyclopedic guide to Amazon’s colossal and ever-mutating domain, most of which you can’t even see.

Welcome to Amazon, unpacked.

A

Alpha

Andy Jassy, Amazon’s CEO, controls a company that touches our lives in infinite ways. It’s probably a good idea to know who he is.

How old is he?
Jassy is 53.

Where is he from?
He grew up in Scarsdale, an affluent suburb of New York City. His father was a corporate lawyer at Dewey Ballantine; his mother was a trustee for a youth theater program. His older sister, Kathy Savitt, once worked at Amazon, and is now the president and chief commercial officer of Boom Supersonic, an aviation startup.

B

Brands

Catherine Seifert just wanted to solve the problem of where to put her purse in her car. Before she knew it, she had a patented device and a multimillion-dollar business selling her mesh slings (designed to bridge the vertical space between seat backs) on Amazon. Seifert’s brand, Car Caché, isn’t a household name, but its signature product features professional photos, Amazon’s “#1 Best Seller” sticker, a reasonable price tag ($19.99), and 7,000 ratings—exactly the formula that persuades shoppers on the site to click “Buy now.”

Other shoppers began spotting the Car Caché product listing late last year and wanted to buy now, too—the whole business, that is, and its $18,000 per day in sales.

Climate Fund

At 60.64 million metric tons, Amazon’s carbon footprint in 2020 was larger than that of some countries. (And that’s not even taking into account the footprints of third-party vendors and manufacturers, which grow with every one-click order.) But the company’s size means that it can support climate solutions that might otherwise develop more slowly. When Amazon announced two years ago that it planned to reach net-zero carbon by 2040, much of the technology that it needed to hit that goal—such as zero-emission jets—hadn’t yet been invented. So the company launched the Climate Pledge Fund, a venture arm that aims to invest at least $2 billion in startups making products that Amazon can use. The fund backs electric vehicle manufacturer Rivian, for example, and Amazon placed an order. “What we do, that no other investor can do, is say, ‘Hey, we want to decarbonize our last-mile delivery. And to do that, we’re going to buy 100,000 of your trucks,’ ” says Matt Peterson, who leads the fund. Its growing portfolio (currently nine companies) includes CarbonCure, which injects CO2 into concrete to lower the carbon footprint of construction; ZeroAvia, which is developing zero-emissions airplane engines; and Pachama, which uses AI to verify carbon offsets in forests.

D

Department Stores

Shopping on Amazon.com is efficient, but as an overall experience, rather uninspiring. Now, Amazon is reportedly planning to open department-store-style locations in California and Ohio, where people can try on clothes (including Amazon’s private-label brands) and play with its electronic gadgets, such as Kindles and Echos—and maybe even discover something new from a third-party seller without the endless scrolling and awkwardly translated product descriptions. Physical locations could also help facilitate returns, which may be what Amazon shoppers crave most.

E

Employer

Amazon is the second largest private employer in the U.S. That’s a lot of power, over a lot of people. Here’s a closer look.

1,335,000: Number of full- and part-time Amazon employees globally, excluding contractors and temporary personnel

450,000: Number of new employees hired during the pandemic in the U.S.—making Amazon the country’s largest job creator

460%: Percent increase during the pandemic of employees who applied to the Amazon Technical Academy, an upskilling program that helps employees become software engineers in nine months

150%: Annual turnover rate of Amazon’s hourly associates, reportedly

$18: Amazon’s new average starting hourly wage for positions in fulfillment and transportation.

750,000: Number of U.S. hourly employees for whom Amazon is offering to pay college tuition, as an employment incentive

28: Current number of facilities that hire seasonal “CamperForce” employees, who live in their RVs nearby and must be able to work 10-to-12-hour daily shifts, be available for any shift or schedule, and lift up to 49 pounds

$37,930: Median annual wage made by an Amazon worker in 2020.

F

Fakes

As Amazon grows, so does its battle against fraudsters. Facing pressure from shoppers, brands, and Congress, and following instances in which customers died or were injured by products that didn’t meet government safety standards, the company destroyed more than 2 million counterfeit products in 2020 and blocked more than 10 billion suspect listings. Here’s how Amazon is fighting fakes.

1. Verified sellers
Amazon uses live video chat to verify sellers’ identities. Last year, the company blocked more than 6 million potentially fake applications.

2. Brand registration
The platform allows sellers to register their logos and IPs. Amazon plugs the registry into its AI tools to detect fakes.

3. Legal action
Alongside brand partners such as GoPro and Yeti, Amazon has been filing lawsuits against counterfeiters.

G

Gaming

You can’t call yourself a gamer today if you aren’t on the Amazon-owned Twitch. The 10-year-old platform, which features live feeds of hosts playing games for hours on end while enabling real-time chats with fans, has created a whole new class of talent: the streamer. Sixteen percent of all U.S. adults follow streamers on Twitch, according to Forrester. As Amazon notes, that’s 2.5 million people at any given moment. And the average expert streamer earns an estimated $3,000 to $6,000 per month in Twitch affiliate revenue alone, according to an analysis from the Business of Apps. With 8 million followers, Imane Anys—aka Pokimane—is the seventh most popular streamer on Twitch today. Bubbly yet voraciously competitive, the L.A.-based Anys says she earns seven figures per year playing League of Legends, Fortnite, and Valorant. But she also uses her massive platform to advocate for mental health—particularly when it comes to the unique challenges of streaming for hours on end daily. And she’s been outspoken about the harassment, often sexualized, that female streamers receive on both Twitch and the games they play. Recently, Anys has begun expanding beyond gaming: She has made sushi on Twitch and offers IRL diaries on YouTube. Fast Company spoke to her about the business of streaming.

H

Hair

In April, Amazon launched its most intriguing—and puzzling—brick-and-mortar operation: a two-story, 1,500-square-foot full-service hair salon in London’s tony Spitalfields Market. The Amazon Salon uses mirrors embedded with AR technology to let customers try on new colors and styles (pandemic bangs, anyone?), while allowing them to thumb through magazines on—what else?—a Fire tablet. Amazon launched an online wholesale storefront for beauty professionals in 2019, and sees the salon as, er, a natural extension.

I

Income

In 2005, a new Amazon recruit named Adam Selipsky joined a small team working on a project that was seemingly far afield from the company’s core business of selling products such as books, laptops, and baby supplies over the internet. Amazon Web Services, as it was known, would give any business pay-as-you-go access to the same robust, cost-efficient computing infrastructure Amazon had built for its own purposes. “In the very early days, we used to walk around inside of Amazon evangelizing that this could be the next billion-dollar business,” Selipsky recalls.

That turned out to be a rare instance of anyone at Amazon thinking too small. After a decade and a half of remarkable growth, AWS has a current run rate of $59 billion a year. In the second quarter of 2021, revenue increased by a booming 37%. When AWS CEO Andy Jassy became Amazon’s CEO, in July, Selipsky—who’d left Amazon in 2016 to run visualization software maker Tableau—took Jassy’s old job.

J

Just Walk Out

The company that upended retail by bringing it online is now poised to transform physical stores. Amazon’s cashierless Just Walk Out technology, which uses overhead cameras, weight sensors, and AI to detect what shoppers are selecting and automatically check them out, is currently deployed in at least 28 Amazon Go and Amazon Fresh stores, and will soon be used at two Whole Foods outposts. But Amazon now also licenses the tech to outside retailers. Six have currently signed on, including fashion boutique Fred Segal, which uses Just Walk Out in its new Las Vegas food market, and airport staple Hudson, which began rolling it out last spring.

K

Khan!

For most of the past half-century, antitrust enforcement tended to be narrowly focused—on your pocketbook. Companies could get as big and powerful as they wanted and still escape the hammer of regulators, as long as they didn’t raise prices for consumers. Amazon, however, has consistently delivered lower prices for consumers, and yet it still raises concerns among antitrust experts.

You see the paradox? Legal scholar Lina Khan did. In a 2017 Yale Law Journal article that went viral, she made a clear-eyed argument for why the current price-obsessed framework of antitrust law can’t adequately address the harms of today’s tech giants. She took Amazon to task on two fronts: “predatory pricing” (selling items at a loss to undercut competitors) and voraciously expanding into new areas of business (such as logistics or AWS, through which rivals come to rely on Amazon-owned infrastructure). “Companies may exploit their market power in a host of competition-distorting ways that do not directly lead to short-term price and output effects,” Khan wrote in the article, called, appropriately, “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox.”

L

Land

For a digital company, Amazon has an awfully large physical footprint.

454M: Total leased square footage in 2020. This equals 16 square miles, or a quarter of the size of Washington, D.C.

50%: Amount by which Amazon increased its fulfillment and logistics square footage in 2020

21M: Total owned square footage in 2020; roughly 450 acres, or 341 football fields

611: Number of physical Amazon stores in North America, including Whole Foods

M

Medical

Two years ago, Amazon introduced a primary care product for its Seattle-based workers called Amazon Care, which includes video appointments, prescription drug delivery, and even home visits. Last summer, it began rolling out Amazon Care’s telehealth services to employees in all 50 states—and outside companies as well. But that’s just the tip of Amazon’s medical ambitions. Amazon Web Services already supports the back end for hospital networks, including Children’s Health Orange County and the U.K.’s National Health Service. The next big opportunity, according to Moody’s senior retail analyst Charlie O’Shea, will be layering on products that help hospitals become more efficient and effective. Amazon currently offers an array of services, from medical transcription to algorithms for managing patient health outcomes. Now, it’s working with hospitals to build exactly what they want. The Pittsburgh Health Data Alliance, for example, uses Amazon’s machine learning to better understand tumor growth in breast cancer. These relationships could eventually blossom into an Amazon Care healthcare network. “It’s really early innings here,” says O’Shea.

N

New New Money

Since her 2019 divorce from Jeff Bezos, MacKenzie Scott has wasted no time in establishing herself as the most interesting and prolific philanthropist in a generation. Her 4% stake in Amazon is now estimated to be worth $60 billion, and she has written no-strings-attached checks worth over $8 billion to hundreds of nonprofits. She also signed the Giving Pledge, indicating that she has no intention of slowing the pace. Scott’s peers have largely funded sprawling eponymous institutions (Bill and Melinda Gates), mixed gifts and for-profit investments (Laurene Powell Jobs; Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan), and pursued literal moonshots (Elon Musk, and, of course, Scott’s ex). Scott has charted a different path, one that she calls “seeding by ceding.” As she wrote in a Medium post explaining her gifts, “I want to de-emphasize privileged voices and cede focus to others.” Her goal, she says, is to spotlight organizations that have been “historically underfunded and overlooked.” (Critics say more transparency would be nice.) Examples include a community college in the Bronx and a mentorship program for mothers with HIV. For the philanthropic world, Scott’s example is a wake-up call. Giving that reinforces existing power structures isn’t really giving at all.

O

Oscar de la Renta

In September 2020, when Amazon unveiled its latest attempt to crack into fashion—Luxury Stores, a separate “site within a site” for high-end brands—its first and only partner was Oscar de la Renta. Other labels have since joined, but none from conglomerates like LVMH or Kering, which remain wary of Amazon. The retailer also has to convince customers who turn to Amazon for inexpensive household items that it can be a place for browsing and discovering luxury goods as well.

P

Patents

Amazon knows how to lock in its IP. Over the past decade, its annual patent grants have grown more than 2,000%, topping 2,300 last year. Here, three intriguing new ones.

1. Automated detection and extraction of nutrition information for food products
A way to seamlessly digitize—and make searchable—the information that typically appears on food labels.

2. Ring wing aerial vehicle
A next-level delivery drone with circular wings that allow it to transfer from horizontal to vertical movement with ease. Typically, drones are built for either urgency or efficiency. This design would offer both.

3. Parcel theft deterrence for A/V recording and communication devices
Tech that uses your home security camera to recognize when a package is left on your doorstep—and alert you when it has been removed.

Q

Quit?

Sick of breaking down delivery boxes? Feeling queasy about the working conditions that Amazon employees endure? Want Amazon out of your life? Good luck! We’ve mapped out a few ways of going clear.

R

Ring

After Amazon acquired Ring, makers of the popular Ring Video Doorbell, in 2018, it began tapping into customers’ larger anxieties, assembling a formidable security and surveillance ecosystem. Today, the Ring doorbell camera is sold alongside indoor and outdoor cameras, sensors, and alarm systems. A Ring car camera and alarm are in the works, as is a drone that flies through your house to surveil the scene (and startle intruders); an upcoming subscription will offer professional monitoring for every outdoor motion alert. Ring also forms the backbone of Amazon Sidewalk, a project that’s weaving an entire neighborhood’s cameras into a wireless network. Even Amazon’s other hardware products are being pulled in. Echo speakers can send alerts when they hear the sounds of intruders, and play dog barks when an outdoor camera detects motion. A new Ring alarm system has Amazon’s Eero Wi-Fi router built in, and an Alexa-powered robot that patrols your home for danger is coming soon. This may be good for business, but it comes at a cost, say critics. “Amazon makes money when people feel less safe in their neighborhoods and their homes,” says Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “And that, in general, is bad for society.”

S

Satellites

Over the next several years, Amazon plans to send a constellation of 3,236 satellites into low Earth orbit. Its Project Kuiper is designed to bring better bandwidth to people in rural locations (read: potential Amazon shoppers). Amazon intends to offer faster downloads—up to 400 Mbps—but has yet to specify costs and any data caps. Also unclear: whether this project will employ Jeff Bezos’s forthcoming Blue Origin reusable rockets to deliver the satellites, as it competes with SpaceX’s comparable Starlink constellation.

T

Transportation

Amazon’s quest to knit together the most comprehensive fulfillment network on the planet has led to investments in autonomous and electric cars and trucks (see “Z is for Zoox”), the creation of Amazon Air and its fleet of cargo jets, and the development of customized, three-wheeled cargo e-bikes for last-mile delivery. It’s also taking more control of the ocean routes that are used to carry freight between China and the rest of the world—which could make Amazon the shipping network of choice for both its own merchants and outside companies.

Union

When the 100,000-member Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union filed to hold an election at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, in November 2020, it was a potentially epochal moment. The labor movement was eager to capitalize on the rise of worker activism during the pandemic and establish a beachhead within the country’s second-largest private employer. Labor leaders rallied to the cause. President Biden offered a message of support. And Amazon pulled out all the stops to squash the campaign. The result: Workers voted against unionizing, 1,798 to 738.

V

Valuation

$1.8 trillion: Jeff Bezos famously took the long view, telling investors in 1997 that the company would “make investment decisions in light of long-term market leadership considerations rather than short-term profitability.”

W

Wizards

With its Lord of the Rings prequel series, due in September 2022, Amazon Studios is making its intentions clear: It’s no longer in the art-house business when it comes to making original movies and TV shows, as it was when Manchester by the Sea won two Oscars, in 2017. It intends to generate blockbuster events, and spend handsomely to do so. (LOTR’s first season cost an eye-popping $465 million.) This year, the company acquired MGM Studios for $8.5 billion, and nearly doubled its spending on content to $11 billion in 2020, closing the gap with Netflix (which spent $17 billion). But it’s making more calculated, higher-profile bets. Remakes of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and I Know What You Did Last Summer are in the works, along with another epic, wizard-centric fantasy series, The Wheel of Time.

X

eXpectations

“Amazon is not really a retailer. It’s a technology company with a relentless dissatisfaction with the status quo. That’s what enabled them to get where they are today,” says Natalie Berg, founder of NBK Retail consultancy and coauthor of Amazon: How the World’s Most Relentless Retailer Will Continue to Revolutionize Commerce. Here, she explains how Amazon continues to reset consumer expectations, and disrupt retail in the process.

Y

“You guys paid for all this.”

—Jeff Bezos, thanking “every Amazon employee” and “every Amazon customer” after returning from his Blue Origin space flight, in July. The four-minute trip reportedly cost $5.5 billion

Zoox

While most other autonomous vehicle companies insert their technology into existing cars, Zoox is reimagining what the car is from the ground up. Last December, six months after it was acquired by Amazon for $1.2 billion, the company unveiled its futuristic robotaxi: a boxy, four-wheeled electric vehicle with sliding doors and two rows of seats facing each other, like a ski gondola on wheels. The compact taxi, which has no designated front or back and can move in either direction at up to 75 mph, was designed to maneuver through dense urban environments. Zoox is Amazon’s third-largest acquisition (behind Whole Foods and MGM), and signals the company’s interest in building its own fleet of autonomous and electric vehicles. Though Zoox’s car is currently being developed for ride-hailing services, one can easily imagine it motoring through city streets, dropping off cardboard boxes to Amazon Prime members.

Contributors: Alice Alves, Jill Bernstein, Morgan Clendaniel, Amy Farley, Yasmin Gagne, Ainsley Harris, Elizabeth Johnson, Daisy Korpics, Nicole LaPorte, Harry McCracken, Jared Newman, Rob Pegoraro, Adele Peters, Ruth Reader, Erin Schulte, Mark Wilson, Jay Woodruff, Christopher Zara
Photographs by Elizabeth Renstrom
Portrait illustrations by Mallory Heyer
Spot illustrations by Chris Van Rooyen
Sources: The New York Times (turnover rate, Employer); Amazon (all other information, Employer); Amazon (Land); *Reportedly (Quit?); Amazon (Valuation)

advertisement
advertisement