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Amazon’s U.S. distribution centres currently employ about 20,000 workers who pack and ship customer orders. (TIM SHAFFER/REUTERS)
Amazon’s U.S. distribution centres currently employ about 20,000 workers who pack and ship customer orders. (TIM SHAFFER/REUTERS)

Six ways Amazon expanded its online retail empire Add to ...

Online retailing giant Amazon is branching out into groceries and automotive products, the latest in a series of expansions that have dramatically increased its range of selections.

Once feared only as a threat to bricks-and-mortar bookstores, Amazon has systematically broadened the items it carries to the point where you can use the site to buy art for your walls, food for your kitchen, toys for your children, parts for your car, products for your bathroom, music for your ears and books for your mind.

1. In the beginning was the book

According to a paper published by the University of Washington, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos drew up a short-list of products that could be sold online. “He quickly narrowed his prospects to music and books. Both shared a potential advantage for online sale: far too many titles for a single store to stock. He chose books.” In a much-hyped offering, the company went public in 1997, the same year the site had its one millionth unique visitor.

2. Years in the wilderness

A business strategy that predicted not turning a profit for at least four years turned off some investors and an early attempt to set up an online auction feature couldn’t compete with eBay. But Time magazine called Mr. Bezos its person of the year in 1999 for his role in building the online shopping model.

3. Broadening the shelves

The company reached profitability in 2001 and offerings expanded through the ensuing decade, during which the company launched an initial stab at selling groceries, an effort restricted to parts of Washington state. It also started an online music store and developed the Kindle e-book reader. By July of 2010, the company said, e-books were outselling hardcovers for the first time in its history.

4. Comic book confidential

In 2011 Amazon signed a deal with DC Comics for exclusive digital rights to popular comic series including Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, the Sandman and Watchmen. According to a New York Times article published at the time, Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million responded by removing the physical copies of these products from their shelves, saying they would not sell them if they couldn’t offer the digital versions as well.

5. Toys are them

In June of 2013 Amazon launched a toys and games e-commerce site. The Globe and Mail reported that this came as rivals expanded their toy businesses and amid signs of softening sales in the North American segment. "Amazon is a big competitor," Liz MacDonald, vice-president of marketing and store planning at Toys "R" Us Canada, said then. "Their entry into the market is something we have to take very seriously."

6. Art of the deal

Also this year the company launched Amazon Art as a place for original works and limited-edition prints. The offerings include works for the deep-pocketed, such as a Norman Rockwell priced at around $5-million.

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