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Most of the market is betting that Bezos wins and that Amazon emerges from what will surely be massive carnage among Internet retailers over the next few years. During the past two weeks, with holiday sales booming, Amazon's stock price has soared to $94. The stock has split three times. Sales are expected to crest $1 billion this year. "We firmly believe," says Salomon Smith Barney's Holly Becker, "that Wall Street will look back on these growing pains and realize management's foresight in developing one of the smartest strategies in business history."
Bezos & Co. conceived an entirely new way of thinking about the ancient art of retailing, from creating a "flow experience" that keeps customers coming back to Amazon's website to read product reviews or one another's "wish lists," to automating as much as possible a complex process that starts when you hit the patent-protected "1-Click" buy technology and ends when your purchase is delivered to your door. The Coffeyville center, for instance, is part of a nationwide distribution network specially designed to handle e-commerce. Half a dozen warehouses like it have been strategically placed in low- or no-sales-tax states around the U.S.--3 million sq. ft., at a cost of $200 million--and are built to do what traditional warehouses can't do: deliver items directly and efficiently to customers rather than by pallet to retail stores. It requires new ways of thinking about employees--and customers too.
You can see it in each of the distribution centers. Here in Coffeyville, the high walls are painted white, and the endless rows of stock shelves shine in fluorescent yellow--the better to see the billboard-size banners that festoon the aisles and walls. "Our vision," reads one, "is the world's most customer-centric company. The place where people come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online." Another banner floats above one of the aisles and lists the company's Six Core Values ("customer obsession, ownership, bias for action, frugality, high hiring bar and innovation"). It's like the Cultural Revolution meets Sam Walton. It's dotcommunism!
The Chairman himself has been on a Long March for the past five years, and shows no signs of tiring. Bezos is pathologically happy and infectiously enthusiastic. Today's whistle-stop is typical. As usual he's smiling, shaking hands and shocking new employees with his distinctive laugh, a rapid honk that sounds like a flock of Canadian geese on nitrous oxide. He's an average-size man with thinning hair, warm brown eyes and a face that suggests Kevin Spacey with more than a hint of Frank Perdue. His uniform tends to be white or blue button-down shirts with collars that efficiently snap rather than button down. Also khakis. You get the feeling that if he wore a tie (he doesn't), it would fly behind him like the parachute behind a dragster. Even now, as he's supposedly being led on a tour of the warehouse, he's at the front of the line, sailing down a narrow corridor that doglegs and decants into a huge room.
For a heartbeat, he's surprised. Seated there, eight to a row in folding chairs, are the latest recruits: 300 employees leap to their feet as a boss on a p.a. system yells, "Let's welcome Jeff Bezos!" They give him a standing O. "Thank you!" says Bezos. "Let me say, Thank you for working here!" And he laughs that startling laugh.