Person Of Our Time

Well, that ought to give the stock price another boost, don’t you think? Jeff Bezos is Time’s Person of the Year.

The fact is we’re all honored. Things like this don’t go out to one person who’s separate from the herd. They go to one person who represents an overwhelming trend, and e-commerce (that means you) is the overwhelming trend of 1999.

There is good news and bad news here.

The good news is that we’ve all built something undeniable. We’ve created jobs for hundreds of thousands of people (some of them actually good jobs). We’ve added hundreds of billions of dollars to the nation’s wealth (some of which will turn into very snazzy wallpaper). We’ve launched a revolution in retailing that won’t be turned back.

Now for the bad news, and there’s plenty of that as well. There will be no flying under anyone’s radar screen anymore. Our lovely e-commerce is going to lose its “e” and become just commerce. Welcome to the war of all against all, with Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Sears fighting us for their very lives.

In many ways this is as good as it gets. Most businesses still don’t have the formula for selling online – I doubt even Amazon has all of it. Yet everyone wants it, which means the knowledge in your head is a hot commodity.

Bezos’ award means, however, that this won’t remain the case. E-commerce is a hot topic in business schools. The classes all see this as the route to riches. Hotels are about to be filled with seminars for those too old for business school, or in too much of a hurry. Folks are going to get clued-in fast.

The state of the art is about to head into overdrive. By this time next year it will no longer be enough to have a personalized database and a “Willy Wonka warehouse.” You’ll need great ads, superior customer service, super-low pricing and (dare I say it) profits.

Yes, Bezos’ award contains bad news for him as well. With all his competitors becoming “e” as fast as possible (and there are a ton of them), Amazon’s days as the only good store stock in town are over. Rivals will put real cash into getting smart very fast, they’ll sacrifice short-term profits for market share against him, they’ll sign Amazon’s top staff like other NFL clubs sign Steeler linebackers, and they will succeed in driving his “price to sales” ratio down to reasonable levels. (It’s currently at 24.60, in contrast to Wal-Mart’s 1.86.)

Those who rise high also become targets, and we’ve just seen the tip of that iceberg. In the “Amazon economy” only a few people make big money – most jobs consist of answering the phone or pulling merchandise. Every element of Amazon’s formula – from procurement to keeping the stock price high – will now come under enormous scrutiny. (Expect more cheap shots than at a Detroit Red Wings-Colorado Avalanche hockey game.)

So bask in the warm glow of this award for, say, a weekend. Then get your butt back to work.

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