Along the way, Amazon has exacted a heavy toll on its blue-collar workers, vendors and taxpayers — who’ve footed the bill via incentives for warehouses, corporate campuses and computing centers. Warehouse workers describe physically demanding and unforgiving jobs that include miles of walking daily and punishing turnover rates, amid increasing automation. And while undergoing a historic hiring spree — it’s now the country’s second-largest private employer — it quashed multiple union drives and pushed its hourly workers to the brink to achieve Mr. Bezos’s dream of near-instantaneous delivery.
Mr. Bezos’s disdain for taxes was a major reason he established the company in Washington State, which had a smaller population of buyers at the time who’d have to pay sales tax, giving it a price advantage over brick-and-mortar rivals. Armed with color-coded maps, company officials spent years evading state officials lest its customers be forced to pay sales tax.
Amazon’s yearlong pursuit of a second headquarters site sent local leaders prostrating themselves before Mr. Bezos for a shot at doling out taxpayer funds to underwrite an expansion the company could well afford on its own. But it got results — nearly $600 million in incentives from Virginia officials to build office towers in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
If such heavy-handed business practices are to be criticized, they are also the source of admiration and fear among business leaders, rivals and investors. Even a rumor that Amazon is entering a new sector can send competitors’ stock prices plunging. And Mr. Bezos’s disparate passions have grown weedlike to include Hollywood, banking, advertising and law enforcement.
Despite his sharp elbows, or more likely because of them, Mr. Bezos made Amazon into a household name and fast, reliable delivery a baseline for consumers. Many flat-footed legacy retailers are still trying to catch up, and many more will fall by the wayside. When people talk about the ease of online buying, they have Mr. Bezos to thank.
For better or worse, he remade Seattle, solidifying it as a tech hub and transforming a former warehouse district into a soaring campus, though critics would point out that Amazon has contributed to soaring housing prices and rising income inequities.
In recent years, Mr. Bezos’s eye has wandered to side projects, particularly space. His Blue Origin spacecraft project will launch him next month, not coincidentally miles away from a host of terrestrial troubles facing him and Amazon.