When Jeff Bezos was launching Amazon.com a decade ago, conventional wisdom held that 300,000 titles would be plenty; the largest physical bookstores couldn’t sell enough volumes to justify half that inventory. Bezos took what he calls “the bold, stupid path” and stocked his shelves with a million titles.

Smart move: It turned out that early word of mouth came from people looking for more obscure volumes. These days, the site sells more than 20 million products, including all 29 colors of the KitchenAid 5-quart mixer. And it’s a $6 billion business, thanks to its focus on niche markets and customer service. Wired caught up with Bezos at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y.



WIRED: Does Amazon actually create demand for hard-to-find products?

BEZOS: Absolutely. We not only help readers find books, we also help books find readers, with personalized recommendations based on the patterns we see. I remember one of the first times this struck me. The main book on the page was on Zen. There were other suggestions for Zen books, and in the middle of those was a book on how to have a clutter-free desk. That’s not something that a human editor would have ever picked. But statistically, the people who were interested in the Zen books also wanted clutter-free desks. The computer is blind to the fact that these things are dissimilar in some way that’s important to humans. It looks right through that and says yes, try this. And it works.



WIRED: How does this compare with the approach taken by other retailers?

BEZOS: If you think about the marketing of products, it’s easy to see polar extremes. At one end you have Super Bowl ads selling Coca-Cola or Budweiser; at the other, you have a sales force pushing an expensive product to 500 companies. What’s difficult to sell is the “hard middle” – marketing an inexpensive product, where the gross profit per sale is low, to a small group. A very successful, profitable, midlist book might sell 15,000 copies. In the old world, finding the right 15,000 people to buy that book was ridiculously expensive. This is something that Amazon.com and the Internet in general have really helped with.



WIRED: Does Amazon sell mostly hits, or are sales distributed more evenly between hits and obscure titles?

BEZOS: Relative to the industry as a whole, we’re disproportionately weighted toward harder-to-find titles. People sometimes confuse obscurity with bad quality.



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