Amazon was founded on July 5, 1994, and launched its online store in 1995, letting people buy books from the comfort of their homes. Twenty-five years after its inception, Amazon now sells everything from taco holders shaped like dinosaurs to tongue brushes that humans can use to lick their cats. And you’d have to be living under a rock to not know about Amazon.
But what did people think of Amazon in its early days—the days before the tongue brushes? Today we’ve got a sample from the mid-90s before founder Jeff Bezos was a billionaire.
In November of 1995, Knight-Ridder distributed an article that was published in newspapers around the country explaining that you can find almost any book at this “Internet store” called Amazon.
There’s a big, new bookstore in town, and there’s a catch—you won’t find it on any Seattle street map. So if you want to wander down its aisles and peruse the selection, you’ll have to hook up to the Internet.
Of course, hooking up to the internet was a much more novel experience in 1995. But if you had a connection, and millions of Americans were getting online in the mid-90s, you had access to over 1 million titles.
The Knight-Ridder article noted a few things that might be weird to people in the year 2019. First, you could pay by credit card or you could call a toll-free number and give your credit card number over the phone. You could even fax the credit card info if that was your thing. Secondly, shipping was $3 per order plus $0.95 per book. Today, Amazon has free shipping for all orders over $25 and for anyone who subscribes to the company’s Prime membership.
But what did people think of this new service on the so-called Information Superhighway? The first thing almost everyone mentioned was the impressively wide selection of books.
From the October 22, 1995 issue of the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper:
In a test of the company’s abilities, a search was made for a little-known John Steinbeck book, “The Sea of Cortez.” Within seconds, the Amazon.com search capabilities popped up the title as available.
It may seem ridiculously mundane these days, but being able to find a rare book took quite a bit more effort in the era before Amazon’s arrival. The best you could do was ask your local bookstore to order it for you, but if it was out of print, you might be out of luck. One of the truly revolutionary things about Amazon, at least from this nerd’s perspective, was the ability to find used books on the site.
The Wall Street Journal published an article about Amazon on May 16, 1996, describing “Jeffrey Bezos” as a “whiz-kid programmer on Wall Street” before opening up the online retailer. The people quoted in the article described the convenience of being able to order from anywhere and customers were incredibly loyal.
From the WSJ:
Mr. Bezos says 60% of his orders come from repeat customers. “It’s not in my nature to be hip, but Amazon is the finest bookstore I’ve ever been to,” says Don K. Pierstorff, a 60-year-old college professor in Costa Mesa, Calif., who says he has placed 12 orders during the past several months.
In the early days of Amazon Bezos was also constantly noting that he wasn’t going to put traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores out of business.
“We are not really competing with physical bookstores,” Bezos told the Christian Science Monitor in September of 1996. “The key is that people like to get out of their houses. I still go to physical bookstores, and I’m not going to stop. I even buy books there. I like the tactile experience.”
People like to get out of their homes? Speak for yourself, Jeff. Sorry, speak for yourself Jeffrey.
By 1997, there were plenty of skeptics who thought that Amazon wouldn’t be able to stick around. The company went public on May 15, 1997, and the naysayers were quick to point out any perceived weakness in the company. George Colony from Forrester Research referred to the company as “Amazon.toast.” The Wall Street Journal ran with the headline “Amazon.bomb” in 1999 after the company’s stock tanked.
And Slate went with the headline “Amazon.Con” for an article on January 5, 1997 that was meant to ridicule how difficult Amazon was compared with your neighborhood bookstore. The byline for that Slate piece was shared by two writers, Jonathan Chait and Stephen Glass. Yes, the same Jonathan Chait who supported the “liberal case” for invading Iraq, and Stephen Glass, one of the most famous journalist hoaxers of all time—so famous, in fact, they even made a movie about him in 2003 called Shattered Glass.
What did these two great minds produce? Some zingers that would be considered lame by even elementary schoolyard standards:
In fact, Amazon’s “megawarehouse” in downtown Seattle contains just 200 or so titles. Any other book must be obtained from a wholesale distributor or the publisher. This is exactly what any traditional bookstore does when it doesn’t have a book in stock. The difference is that traditional bookstores start out with a lot more than 200 titles in stock. “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore”? More like “Earth’s Smallest.”
Another complaint from Chait and Glass was that ordering a book from Amazon took way too many steps:
After clicking your purchases into a “shopping cart,” you are directed to a “secure Netscape server” that will encrypt your credit-card information. After this is done, you are told: “Finalizing Your Order Is Easy.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Lower down in the verbiage, Amazon concedes, “Though we have tried hard to make this form easy to use, we know that it can be quite confusing the first time.” Amazon users have to page through screen after screen of details about shipping charges, refund rules, and disclaimers about availability and pricing. Then you are told to allow between three and seven days for delivery after your book leaves Amazon’s warehouse. “Upgrading to Next Day Air does NOT [their emphasis] mean you’ll get your order the next day.”
Total online time from when we accessed Amazon’s home page to when we completed the book order: 37 minutes and 12 seconds. It would be shorter once you got the hang of it.
You can’t please everyone, I suppose.
But Bezos has had the last laugh, it would seem. Not only is Bezos the wealthiest person in the world at over $155 billion, Amazon currently controls 42 percent of the dead-tree book market, 88.9 percent of the ebook market, and half of all online sales in the U.S. Amazon controls 7.7 percent of all retail, online and off, in the U.S. according to the latest numbers. And with its purchase of Whole Foods in 2017, it’s now the fifth largest seller of groceries in the country. And, as of last year, Amazon Web Services controlled 40 percent of the cloud market.
Amazon isn’t just for books anymore, to say the least. And whether you need an organic eggplant or, yes, a taco holder shaped like a dinosaur, Amazon has it.