The New Sarnoff?

  |  October 1, 1999   |  Comments

David Sarnoff didn't invent the radio, nor did he invent television. What his Radio Corp. of America did in the 1920s was demonstrate the true commercial potential of broadcast technology, bringing entertainment into peoples' homes for the first time, and fueling a stock bubble that collapsed 70 years ago this month. Well, Wall Street is bubbling again. And this time its cover boy is not Marc Andreessen, Steve Case or even Bill Gates. It's Jeff Bezos.

David Sarnoff didn't invent the radio, nor did he invent television. What his Radio Corp. of America did in the 1920s was demonstrate the true commercial potential of broadcast technology, bringing entertainment into peoples' homes for the first time, and fueling a stock bubble that collapsed 70 years ago this month.

Well, Wall Street is bubbling again. And this time its cover boy is not Marc Andreessen, Steve Case or even Bill Gates. It's Jeff Bezos.

Go to any conference of the digerati -- whether it's this week's Forrester New Media & Marketing Forum, the Jupiter Online Conference earlier this month, or next week's (www.iworld.com> Internet World show at the Javits Center - and all will hail Amazon.com.

That wonderful database, and what Amazon has done with it, has turned a simple bookstore into a potential Wal-Mart. In the hands of most entrepreneurs, you'd have the publishing equivalent of an eToys, an outfit that might change its category.

Instead, Jeff Bezos has plunged everything -- all the capital Wall Street gives and more (since he's still posting losses) -- into trying to remake all retailing in Amazon's image.

It is an audacious gamble. Bezos will either win all or (if stock prices fall, if competitors gang up, if he can't execute) lose all. In the last year, Amazon has entered the auction business, the electronics business, the gift business, and built a network of warehouses that may rival UPS. The company has also invested in a half-dozen other businesses, each with its own incentives, which could in time be reeled-in as acquisitions, and which will use all that infrastructure.

Its latest moves aim directly at the web strategy of Federated Department Stores, owners of Macys.com. (Federated is just one of the big outfits Sam Walton passed on his way into business legend.) Amazon is becoming a full-service Commerce Service Provider (CSP), a market Federated's Fingerhut unit targets, and its full line of products is a direct challenge to the Macys.com strategy.

While Macys.com President Kent Anderson was making a singularly unimpressive (to judge from the reaction I heard) impression at the Forrester conference, with his one-price clothing store and branded boutiques, Amazon was making three major announcements. Its zShops and Payments operations, plus its All Products Search capability, make it not just a complete online department store but a mall, one which (unlike most online malls) might actually work.

It might work because, unlike other mall operators, Amazon brings some strength and knowledge small storekeepers might find worth paying for. It's not just web space, but fulfillment, payment processing, and database access, all delivered by people with a proven record for knowing what they are doing.

Yes, Amazon is still a speculative stock. (The phrase "Internet blue chip" still sounds a bit like military intelligence.) A Wall Street crash could starve Amazon of capital. Boutiques like eToys and Barnes & Noble might, by concentrating on one market or one type of buyer, give Amazon the death of a thousand cuts. Wal-Mart might finally scale its operations to match Amazon, then grind it down with sheer physical presence.

But win or lose, these are the kinds of gambles that make for great business theater. And we've all got a front-row seat. Pass the popcorn and enjoy the show.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dana Blankenhorn

Dana Blankenhorn has been a business reporter for more than 20 years. He has written parts of five books and currently contributes to Advertising Age, Business Marketing, NetMarketing, the Chicago Tribune, Boardwatch, CLEC Magazine, and other publications. His own newsletter, A-Clue.Com, is published weekly.

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