In the first decade of this century, a start-up called Quidsi became something of a sensation on the US east coast. Through its website, diapers.com, it sold nappies and assorted baby products. Its keen prices and free delivery ensured that tens of thousands of new parents deserted bricks-and-mortar shops and did their baby shopping online. For a short time, it looked as though Quidsi was unstoppable.
It wasn't long before the biggest fish in the pond, Amazon, started to look at Quidsi with interest. It offered a price for diapers.com it assumed Quidsi couldn't refuse. It refused.
Amazon walked away and set up its own baby goods department, offering customers a 30pc discount if they took out monthly subscriptions. It rolled out an 'Amazon Mom' programme that included a year's free delivery of nappies, rash creams and so on. Quidsi's alarmed executives reckoned Amazon was taking a loss of $100m a quarter just to get in on the market.
Soon, Amazon's baby products business was soaring and Quidsi's hit a plateau. Investors started to lose interest in it and when Amazon expressed interest again, Quidsi sold up. Amazon paid $450m for the business. A few years later, it closed down diapers.com.
Such aggressive business practices and choice acquisitions has ensured that Amazon has become one of the biggest companies of all time. Its founder, Jeff Bezos, is the world's wealthiest individual. His wealth is estimated by Bloomberg to be $189bn.
The coronavirus pandemic has swelled his coffers even further as lockdowns and social distancing on the high street ensure yet more of us are shopping on Amazon. Bezos's earnings in the first three months of the pandemic are mind-boggling: it's thought that he added $25bn to his personal fortune in that 90-day period alone. In order to feed the frenzied upsurge in online shopping as various parts of the world went into lockdown, Amazon took on an extra 175,000 staff.
But the extraordinary growth it has experienced as a result of Covid-19 has not been without its controversies. Warehouse staff in Staten Island, New York came forward to talk about the pressure they felt under to fulfil orders and their fears of catching the virus that had closed virtually all the city.
One of those employees, Christian Smalls, was fired by Amazon. (The company said it was because he attended a demonstration while being in he midst of a paid quarantine). It came just weeks after Amazon had dismissed two workers, Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham, who circulated a petition in March on internal email lists, calling on Amazon to expand sick leave, hazard pay and childcare for warehouse workers.
The fates of Smalls, Costa and Cunningham led to the resignation of one of Amazon's vice-presidents, Tim Bray. In a damning blog post, he wrote that firing them was evidence of the "vein of toxicity running through the company culture... I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison."
Amazon has had to contend with damning allegations from its warehouse staff for years, but such reports have seemingly had little impact on the bottom line. The company that changed consumerism as we know it has vaulted every obstacle in its path. And a great deal of its global might is down to the vision of Bezos and his near-fanatical desire not to become complacent.
This week, Bezos testified before a US Congress antitrust committee. As with the head of other tech giants - including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Alphabet, Google's parent company - Bezos is having to answer questions about monopoly, competition and dominance. He seemed taken aback by the force of the questioning, not least when Democrat congresswoman Lucy McBath played him a video of a bookseller who sold through Amazon and claimed that her business had been throttled by the tech giant.
It was a significant week for Amazon in Ireland, too. On Monday, the company announced that it would create 1,000 jobs here over the next two years. Most of these, according to IDA Ireland, will be highly skilled roles.
Amazon has had a presence in Ireland since 2004 and employs 4,000 people here. It is planning a large campus at Charlemont Square in south inner-city Dublin to open in 2022 and it says there will be investment in its operations elsewhere in the capital and in Cork.
Most of its Irish business is centred on cloud computing, through its Amazon Web Services (AWS) division. Mike Beary, AWS's Ireland manager, says the group has invested €2bn in the Irish economy and says when Irish subcontractors and suppliers are factored in, that figure rises to €5bn.
The growth of Amazon has been relentless. In fact, Relentless was one of the names that Bezos originally planned to call his company. If you type relentless.com into a web browser, it take you straight to Amazon's homepage. He also considered Cadabra, but abandoned it when he was told that it sounded too similar to 'cadaver'.
Jeffrey Preston Bezos was among the first entrepreneurs to fully grasp the internet's money-making potential. Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico and raised in Miami, and later Houston, he was a super-smart student who, via Princeton University, wound up as a hedge fund manager.
At 30 years old and with a loan of $300,000 from his parents, he set up Amazon as an online book retailer. It began trading on July 16, 1995 - three years before Google came into being. To today's eyes, its first home looks comically crude - a dull row of sentences with no pictures to enliven it. The original logo looked like something a child might draw.
Bezos started with books because he saw a gap in the market. No bookshop could physically accommodate the three million titles then estimated to be in print, but a huge warehouse could. In its early days, staff would ring a bell every time an order came in, but soon abandoned this practice once the trickle became a deluge.
Appetite for work
His first office was in his Seattle garage and team meetings were often held in the local Barnes & Noble bookstore. Bezos expected his staff to work 60-hour weeks and it's still said that his appetite for work is ceaseless.
He always intended for books to be a gateway to what he called an "everything store". Today, Amazon sells virtually everything. It also acts as a gigantic online marketplace for countless third-party sellers from around the world, many of whom are based in Ireland.
For Damien McLoughlin, professor of Marketing at UCD's Smurfit Business School, Bezos is one of the great visionary entrepreneurs of his generation. "He has created an extraordinary brand and much of his success is down to an obsession with putting the customer first," he says. "And, if you think about it, using Amazon has long been really easy for the consumer. A lot of time and expense has gone into making the retail offering as seamless as possible."
McLoughlin is fascinated by Bezos's so-called 'Day One company' philosophy. "Every company that's set up on Day One has the intention of serving customers, and he reminds his people and his shareholders every year that 'We are here to serve customers.'" In Bezos-speak, a Day Two company is one that is not acting like a start-up and has become static.
"I'd say there are only two large companies where people don't actually have a complaint about them: one is Disney and the other is Amazon," says McLaughlin. "If [as a customer] you ever have a problem with Amazon - and that's most unusual - the problem is resolved immediately."
Edgar Morgenroth, professor of Economics at Dublin City University's Business School, says Amazon has fundamentally changed the retail landscape. "It makes it so much harder for a lot of retail businesses in an Irish town or city to compete - and a lot of them haven't worked out how to compete with them," he says. "What Amazon do, effectively, is take a lot of purchasing power out of small towns and that really impacts on Irish-based retail."
The advent of Amazon's smartphone app, with its one-click purchase technology, has been transformative, says Morgenroth. "You can buy something online in seconds, almost without thinking about it," he adds. "They've made it so easy and there's virtually no room any more to ask yourself 'Do I really want or need this?'. Previously, when you'd be typing out for address or payment details, you'd have time to ask yourself that question. Not any more."
The German-born economist says he tries to shop locally as much as he can, but sometimes finds that Amazon is the only option for certain items. "There is a lot of concern in places like Germany about how they treat staff in its warehouses, but sometimes Amazon is the only option when it comes to buying particular goods. And, often, due to economies of scale, they can sell stuff far cheaper than elsewhere." He says many want to support the high street, but savings sometimes speak louder than the 'shop local' mantras.
Tomás Kenny is more aware than most of the inexorable rise of Amazon. He is the third generation in his family to run Kenny's bookshop, one of Galway's best-known retailers. It celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. Remarkably, Kenny's got in before Amazon when it came to online retailing.
"We started selling books online in 1994 when nobody else was doing it," he says. "Unlike Amazon, you can phone us up looking for a recommendation or if you want to make a change after you've placed an order, we can do that. It costs us time and, sometimes, money but we're happy to do it because it's part of the customer service that we hope will have people shop with us rather than Amazon. And that's difficult to do because, for many, Amazon has become the default when it comes to shopping."
Kenny says the perception that Amazon is always cheaper for books is not correct. "Usually, they discount the really popular titles - a new David Walliams book, for instance - but when you go through the catalogue, our prices are just as competitive."
He has been heartened by the support for Kenny's online offering during the pandemic, but he says it is important that we buy local. "If we want to have shops and services in our localities, we have to support them," he says. "That was the mantra that my father instilled in me and it's the same now as it was then." It's a sentiment endorsed by McLoughlin. "I think people want to shop local and will do so, but the service really has to be there. Retailers who don't put the customers first really struggle in an age where so much shopping is done online. Sometimes, they put in 'click-and-collect' and fail to realise how difficult it is to operate that properly. The best retailers have excellent staff and they really look after them."
Morgenroth, meanwhile, says there are few signs that Amazon's wings will be clipped. "It would have to be an antitrust ruling around monopolies," he says. "Or a horrendous technical problem that they struggle to get a handle on. But when you see all the deliveries coming into households every day, it's a sign of how engrained in our lives Amazon has become."
Bezos, a youthful looking 56-year-old, seems to be as energised by his creation as he was quarter of a century ago. He survived the dotcom crash of the early 2000s and, unlike virtually all his peers, had an excellent 2020. He has expanded into media, buying the Washington Post in 2013, and founded Blue Origin, an aerospace company focused on space flight.
But there have been bumps in his personal life. Last year, he agreed to give his ex-wife MacKenzie Scott, a 4pc equity in Amazon - a stake valued at $35bn. It is, by a long distance, the most expensive divorce payout in history.
Intriguingly, on the eve of Bezos's appearance before Congress, Scott announced that, to date, she had donated $1.7bn of her fortune to charity.
Amazon Web Services may not be a familiar name to you, but if you've been on Zoom, swapped messages on Slack or watched Netflix, you have been using it.
Amazon may be best known for retail, but $10bn or 13pc of its $75.5bn first-quarter revenue this year came from its cloud-computing division, known as AWS for short. Its sprawling data centres around the world provide the pipes and plumbing for many internet services that people use every day. Its Irish customers include Bank of Ireland and Ryanair.
The 1,000 Amazon jobs to be created in Ireland over the next two years will include AWS roles. Mike Beary, AWS's Ireland manager, said that it has seen a "surge in demand for cloud services in Ireland and globally".
AWS opened its first operations outside the US in Ireland in 2007 and has several bases here. It received planning permission for another in Drogheda this year. Amazon is intentionally vague about exactly how many data centres it has and where they are, citing security reasons. But Ireland is just one cog in the AWS machine.
As more services have gone online, demand for cloud computing has swelled over the past 15 years. Google and Microsoft are Amazon's main rivals in this sector. AWS competes with Microsoft for US government cloud-computing contracts. It also recently established an aerospace and satellite division to supply cloud services to the space industry. This is of keen interest to Jeff Bezos, who runs his own aerospace firm, Blue Origin.
When AWS experiences an outage or glitch, it does not go unnoticed. One technical mishap at a facility in Virginia in 2017 led to services including Slack and the GIF-sharing site Giphy going down for a couple of hours. The centres have also sparked controversy over the amount of energy they consume and the quantity of water they need for cooling.
AWS may be an Amazon subsidiary, but it has become a force unto itself. This has led some analysts and investors to suggest that it be spun out as its own company. It is a notion that Amazon has repeatedly shrugged off. As tech giants face greater scrutiny over regulation and competition, however, such a move may become increasingly hard to avoid.
An independent cloud computing entity could become even bigger as companies that typically compete with Amazon's other business arms may no longer be as hesitant to use AWS.