The counter clerks at Amelia Island's Flash Foods convenience store never saw it coming. Around Christmas 1997, a rented white Chevrolet Suburban pulled into the parking lot and disgorged three members of a commando squad on a mission. The team was disguised in the tourist garb common to the Florida resort island, and the only hint that it might be a military operation was the way the squad members whispered code words like "Whiskey, Bravo, Tango" into their Motorola walkie-talkies. While the driver sat in the car and timed the exercise, a second soldier stood guard at the door. Another quickly grabbed a spot in line for the cashier. The fourth rushed toward the dairy case in quest of the squad's ultimate goal: a quart of milk.
Within two minutes, the purchase was completed and the car was roaring back onto the streets.
One of these odd customers bore the code name Ffej Sozeb. If the clerks had heard this nom de guerre, they still might not have figured out that they'd been hit by a pioneering Internet entrepreneur who one year later would be worth north of $9 billion. The slightly built, 5' 8", brown-eyed faux Navy SEAL with thinning hair was, in reality, Jeff Bezos, founder, chair, and CEO of Amazon.com. His comrades on this mission of breakfast necessity were members of his immediate family: father Mike, brother Mark. Behind the wheel: his mother Jackie.
That Jeff Bezos is almost innately programmed to turn something as mundane as a milk run into a fantasy game should serve him well during the next few years, as he attempts to drive Amazon.com beyond its phenomenal, if so far unprofitable, early success as a book, music, and video seller. The 35-year-old Bezos must make Amazon.com, to this point little more than a convenient place to shop for a limited range of goods, the kind of environment that lures men, women, and children in from vast distances, then seduces them into acts of acquisition. As Internet commerce matures from the exotic to the everyday, as it becomes less about exploiting a position on the frontiers of technology and more about mastering the art of sales and merchandising, the challenges Bezos faces have become exactly those that confronted the great retailers who invented the mass market for consumer goods in the United States a century ago.
To reach historical heights—to become as important to 21st-century culture as Richard W. Sears, Macy's Isidor Straus, and John Wanamaker were to the culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when they fundamentally changed not only the experience of shopping but also the essential nature of American life—Bezos will need to deliver on the second promise in the oft-repeated goal he sets for his staff: "to build a valuable and lasting company."
"It's a question," says Stanley Marcus, chair emeritus of Neiman Marcus, with the simplicity of an expert in long distance seduction, "of how you get the merchandise you're infatuated with into the hands of the people you like."