Miles of aisles

Amazon, whipping boy of the e-commerce downturn, can still teach us all a thing or two about online shopkeeping.

Published May 23, 2001 5:22PM (EDT)

As a young man I frequented book and record shops the way others hung out in bars or attended ballgames. A great bookstore like New York's Strand or London's Foyles could absorb full days of shelf combing; a great record shop could consume hours of LP browsing.

When Web sites began selling stuff the conventional wisdom was that they might be able to offer bargains, and even make money, but they'd never be able to offer as rich and seductive an experience as a bricks-and-concrete store.

Guess what? That wisdom was dead wrong. It's possible to make shopping for books and music online not just a task but a pastime and a devotion. proves it.

Can that be? Isn't e-commerce dead? For sure, that's what Wall Street says. In the Internet stock bubble's wake, no sector has been more roundly repudiated, more raucously ridiculed than online retailers. And no company has served more as the standard-bearer of online retailing -- and, today, its whipping boy -- than Amazon.

Amazon's balance sheet will continue to be pored over by industry analysts for signs of life or death. The company has a host of troubles: The choices it made as it grew, to expand into stuff like hardware and appliances, may have been misguided; the astronomic heights to which its stock price once climbed may have been unsupportable.

Today Amazon, which once enjoyed the enthusiasm of "early adopters," takes heat from the geek elite, who object to its potentially innovation-stifling "business methods" patents. And its once-proud "every worker is an owner" stock-option-buoyed employee relations strategy now faces the challenge of unionization drives.

But whether Amazon prospers or perishes, whether it rises from the NASDAQ bubble's debris or slinks off into pools of red ink, the company's Web site itself stands as an achievement that's too easy to take for granted today. Without it, the Web, and the world, would be a poorer place.

In the prehistoric era of Web stores, five years ago, entrepreneurs thought the way to duplicate the retail experience online was to build virtual replicas of physical stores: The theory was that you had to orient users spatially; the Holy Grail was the 3-D walk-through.

Amazon never went down that path. Its founder, Jeff Bezos, and his talented crew of site builders seemed to understand from Day 1 that information organized thoughtfully can create its own experience -- one entirely different from the familiar store geography of aisles and shelves. They started with a vast but bare database of books in print and kept adding new layers of valuable information to it: professional reviews, author comments, reader reviews, the world's lengthiest bestseller list that fluctuated in real time.

That depth of information made Amazon an instant Web resource, a site that served one's curiosity and research needs even if you weren't looking to spend a cent. From the start Amazon aggressively challenged our notion of what a store is and what its functions can be; as it built its site, it trespassed with carefree abandon on the turf of previously discrete institutions like libraries, magazines and community centers. And though it never hid its essentially commercial nature or its ultimate goal of selling you things, it never let those goals strangle the other kinds of services it offered.

Over time Amazon's software incorporated one new wrinkle after another, inventing or borrowing a slew of innovations to add layers of usefulness to its site. It greeted you by name; it kept a history of your purchases; it let you buy with one click. Its recommendation technology ("If you liked this, you might like that") isn't perfect, but over the years Amazon has kept refining it, giving you more info as to why you received a particular suggestion and letting you tweak your profile to improve the process.

Most recently Amazon has started pushing recommendation lists that its users compile and post, so that when you look up a particular book or record, you're presented with a set of "Top 10" lists on which it appears. When these first started appearing on Amazon's site I was dubious: Who were these obsessive refugees from "High Fidelity" and why was Amazon shoving the fruits of their list making in my face? But I've come to love exploring their not quite random but not at all pre-programmed choices.

The lists offer us the seductive possibility of wandering at will down the aisles of other customers' favorites, making new discoveries through a combination of the purposefulness of Web-browser clicking and the serendipity of shelf combing. While no Web-based store can offer the chance to flip through any volume's pages or duplicate the musty atmosphere of a used-book emporium, Amazon has found a way to substitute something of equal value. It's as though you could turn to total strangers in a store and quiz them on their passions -- without them looking at you like you're crazy.

I realize that displaying this kind of enthusiasm for a Web site that's, really, just a store could be seen as unseemly or uncool. I have no interest in shilling for Amazon, and you may well prefer to buy your books elsewhere online or at your local independent bookseller. (Yes, at one time recently and had a business relationship in which Salon linked to Amazon for readers to buy books we reviewed -- but that relationship no longer exists.) But right now, with the media determined to kick the Web while it's down, it can be useful, in a contrarian sort of way, to celebrate some of the achievements of the commercial Internet industry that we might tend to take for granted.

Amazon is surely one of them. As the first large-scale Web bookstore, it once served as prime evidence for the notion of the "first-mover advantage" -- the idea, now somewhat discredited, that whoever seized a market "space" on the Web first would build an insuperable lead over all potential rivals. But the real lesson Amazon has to offer is that while being first may be valuable, it doesn't get you very far unless you're also very smart.

It didn't take long for the commercial Web's pioneers to learn that the slogan "If you build it, they will come" was a hollow joke: You have to build it well, thoughtfully and ambitiously and inventively, and then you have to keep rethinking it and rebuilding it, if you have any hope of attracting a crowd. Whatever Amazon's ultimate fate in the marketplace, the company's achievement is undeniable: It has showed the rest of the Web how to build it right.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

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