A Look Back At Online Shopping As Amazon Turns 15

It seems like only yesterday Amazon.com was a cute little online baby, shipping out books from a garage and saying the darndest things, and now it’s a 15-year-old teenager that sometimes sasses back and gets sent to its room. Time takes a look back at the online retail giant as it turned 15 on Friday, and the history of shopping the interwebs.

From the moment one of the first known web purchases was made (a pepperoni and mushroom pizza with extra cheese from Pizza Hut, who knew?) up until now, shopping on the Internet has come a long way. Amazon’s founder and CEO started the company in 1995 Bellevue, Wash., packing up books on a table made from an extra door. Adorable! Now the company sells almost anything, from computers to diapers, CDs to rare species of wildcats. That last one was a joke, but you get the point.

And despite financial setbacks for consumers across the globe, business is still booming. As Time notes:

Online retail in the U.S. grew 11% in 2009, according to a March 2010 report from Forrester Research. More than 150 million people — about two-thirds of all Internet users in the U.S. — bought something online last year. It’s a staggering leap for an industry used by 27% of the nation’s online population a decade ago.

So happy birthday, Amazon, and stop asking me if I want to save money on my order by signing up for your credit card. It’s not gonna happen.

Amazon’s 15th Anniversary: A History of Online Shopping [Time]

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  1. FiorellaMajumdar says:

    June 5, 1998, I bought a copy of Golf for Dummies from Amazon.com, my first of hundreds of purchases that would take place over the ensuing 12 years. I guess I wasn’t as much of an “early adopter” as I would have thought, but it’s amazing how little I buy in a physical store these days.

  2. LatherRinseRepeat says:

    I love Amazon. I’ve bought almost all of my electronics gadgets from there, since they’re usually lower than the big box stores. I even bought an LCD TV from them. No tax, free shipping, and they ate the cost of the e-waste recycling fee we have here in California. They’re slowly offering more computer parts in their inventory. So eventually I won’t have to go through Newegg anymore. I love Newegg too, but I still hate that they only offer free shipping on individual items, and not the entire order.

    I also love Amazon for the behind the scenes stuff they’ve been working on over the years. Their Amazon Web Services is pretty damn cool. I never would have thought that an online retailer would go into the realm of developing internet technology, and then offering that technology as a service for others to use. Good stuff.

    Happy Birthday Amazon!

    • ssnseawolf says:

      I’m not such a fan of Amazon. I think their web site is cluttered and hard to navigate.

      However, I’m all with you on AWS. They do a great job in that field and have become surprisingly innovative. Bravo to them there.

      • Jonbo298 says:

        Amazon’s site is definitely cluttered and hard to navigate if you are looking for something that you aren’t sure which to avoid before having to click through multiple links and see how the reviews are overall. But overall, the service/deal given once you find what you are going to get, is top notch.

      • Karita says:

        I’m a huge amazon fan, but I agree with you about the website. It’s so hard to search for anything. I typically just check the “prime only” box, because all the resellers clutter things up and make it almost impossible to search. And browsing is impossible because of it. I think after all these years, I’ve purchased from a reseller twice, and I buy almost everything except clothing from amazon. But despite those complaints, they are great – on pricet items, the lack of sales tax is a huge savings. Hopefully that lasts.

    • georgi55 says:

      Also Amazon doesn’t charge you return shipping for DOA or damaged items; newegg does, even if the item was shipped free to you

  3. Yankees368 says:

    I love you, Amazon

  4. Pax says:

    I am what is sometimes called a “gamer” — I play Role-Playing games like Dungeons and Dragons (and several others). And I managed to accumulate a massive collection of the sundry rulebooks and sourcebooks for those games, due to Amazon’s discounts, and waiting to buy two-at-once and get _free_ “super saver” shipping.

    I’ve been an Amazon customer for something around eleven years. And I don’t see that ending anytime soon.

    • Starfury says:

      A co worker plays a lot of RPG games and gets Amazon boxes all the time. I play boardgames and I buy from there at times; their prices match or beat other online resellers plus I don’t have to order over $100 in games for free shipping.

  5. Nick says:

    I remember buying my first book from Amazon in February of 98. They would mail them in custom “Earth’s Largest Bookstore” USPS packages. I also recall buying people Amazon gift certificates in the late 90s as a way of getting them “introduced” to shopping online.

    After hundreds of purchases (and probably tens of thousands of dollars), I have to say Amazon is by far my favorite online retailer. (Newegg is close, but only for electronics.)

    • Pax says:

      OH yes, NewEgg has taken over for me too, in terms of electronics and computer stuff in general. Mainly due to their return policy, and that their prices are comfortably competitive with anything Amazon would be willing to offer.

      • psm321 says:

        Huh? I love Newegg too, but they make you pay for shipping on returns while Amazon eats the cost. How is Newegg’s return policy better? (just wondering in case there’s something I’m missing)

        • Extractor says:

          Ever try asking newegg for a shipping label for a return? They do it for me whenever I need to return something which is rare.
          A 47″ LCD came with a $150 certificate that was all returned in the form of rebates. 850-150-100=600 in January with free shipping.

          • psm321 says:

            Ok, I guess I was mistaken about that. I thought I had read in their policies that they do not cover return shipping except in exceptional cases

    • tbax929 says:

      I had a horrible experience with Newegg and a laptop purchase that never managed to get sent to me. I went running back to Amazon and probably won’t try Newegg again. I know it was probably an anomaly, but it was a nightmare just getting a refund.

  6. toberead says:

    As a book lover, I love what Amazon has done for the book buying market. Instead of being stuck with whatever my local store carried, I could order anything I wanted. However, Amazon was not the first. I was buying from books.com before Amazon existed, back in the early 90’s. (Evidently it’s real name was Book Stacks Unlimited and it started in 1992.) This was when the “web” barely existed – I think I originally accessed it via telnet. Books.com was eventually bought by Barnes & Noble but I still think of it fondly – it was my first opportunity to access a world of books beyond my local Waldenbooks.

  7. Ihaveasmartpuppy says:

    Happy Birthday Amazon! Here’s to many, many more!!!

  8. Dustbunny says:

    I remember Amazon’s early years — they had a small enough number of customers at first they could afford to send each of them Christmas presents. I got a couple of Amazon mugs & a mousepad. I could still kick myself that I forgot one of the mugs at a temp job when I left.

    • Sparkstalker says:

      I had one of the mugs. Used it for about ten years until it fell apart…

    • arachne says:

      Yes, I was so impressed that they sent the Christmas gifts. Wow, they really cared about me as a customer– ok, ok, I know that was foolish, but I still have a bit of the warm fuzzies for Amazon.

      I remember ordering books from Amazon when it was essentially the Books in Print data. Half of the things I ordered wouldn’t be available due to lack of stock from the publishers so I always ordered a lot at once. I am glad Amazon prospered.

    • Courtney Ostaff says:

      Yes, I remember the mug!! It was cute! Fell apart in the dishwasher, though. That same year, I got a really nifty blanket from DishTV for being a customer at Christmas.

  9. tbax929 says:

    Happy Birthday, Amazon! I can’t imagine being a consumer in a world in which you don’t exist. I love my Prime membership, and have recommended you to everybody I know.

  10. MyTQuinn says:

    I remember my first online shopping experience. I can’t really call it a purchase, because after finding what I wanted at the price I wanted, I was too concerned about online security to place the order, so I called the vendor and placed the order over the phone.

    Back then (maybe it was earlier) I remember a PC Magazine article foreseeing tampering with prices as data traveled between a seller’s web site and third party shopping cart services. Sadly, the problem still exists today. There are still web sites where I can place any item I want from the site into the shopping cart at any price I want, and proceed through checkout without a hitch. Not that I would do such a thing.

  11. Fubish says: I don't know anything about it, but it seems to me... says:

    My first purchase from Amazon was a paperback in 1995. Since then, as they have offered more diverse merchandise, I have bought more and more stuff from them. They really sucked me in! Insidious! But then again, other than the fact that their prices are frequently the best, their customer service has been truly great in my experience, and their shipping is free, they don’t have much else to offer.

  12. dbeahn says:

    Amazon Student (free Prime!) + Amazon Store Card with 1% back + Paid off every month = EPIC WIN. Note, the store card is not the same as the Amazon Visa.

  13. Bob Lu says:

    Amazon actually denied my credit card application :(

  14. KyBash says:

    I tried to buy something from them about ten years ago. They charged my card, never shipped the item, wouldn’t answer e-mails except with form replies having nothing to do with the situation. Fortunately my credit card company had no problem doing a chargeback — the rep said she handled so many concerning Amazon she was surprised they were still an authorized merchant.

  15. wickedpixel says:

    My first online purchase was a book from Amazon during the summer of ’97.

  16. pantheonoutcast says:

    Yes, Happy Birthday Amazon! Keep an eye out for the birthday card I sent you – it’s the one in the otherwise empty 6′ X 5′ X 3′ cardboard box….

  17. seaanemoneman says:

    Remember how amazingly long it took Amazon to turn its first profit?

    • koalabare says:

      Here is a great quote from an article when they first posted a profit:

      “Amazon reported net income of $5 million, or a penny a share, under generally accepted accounting principles, well ahead of analysts’ expectations.”

      WOO! ONE PENNY A SHARE!

      • hansolo247 says:

        Yet it grew into a viable business.

        Not many companies on the web did that.

        I don’t see Facebook doing it. Not when they have to answer to shareholders at least.

  18. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    I love Amazon. I’m too young to have purchased anything from it in the early to late 90s, but by the time I graduated high school, Amazon was all over my house. During college, Amazon was a godsend since the small-ish town I was in didn’t have too many good bookstores.

  19. Cyniconvention says:

    The only thing I ever got from Amazon was a pair of roller skates. As far as I remember, the experience was pleasant enough.

    I wonder about shipping for their new books, if it’s reasonable? I buy used from B&N and it’s always $4 for shipping even when the book is $2.

    • psm321 says:

      Most books will qualify for free super saver shipping which gives you free (slow) shipping if you buy $25 or more of qualifying items

  20. Employees Must Wash Hands says:

    When I first got Amazon Prime 2+ years ago I was traveling M-Th every week and thus my time on weekends was extremely valuable. I would do all my shopping, even buying things like shampoo and toothpaste, on Amazon on Wednesdays so they would show up Fridays when I was working from home. It meant I could spend more time on weekends with the people I cared about rather than spending time at Target buying everyday stuff.

    I don’t travel anymore but I still keep Prime, and I still buy from Amazon probably once a week. I’ll be at my office and think I need to do yard work this weekend but I don’t have a weed whacker, and two days later I’ll have one and an hour saved since I didn’t have to deal with Home Depot. It’s a beautiful thing.

  21. Dead for tax purposes says:

    Keep being awesome Amazon.com!

  22. microcars says:

    We were using Peapod before they had a website. Early 1990s I think.
    They had a proprietary piece of software on a floppy that had to be in the computer while you used your dial-up connection to shop.

  23. ZacharyTF says:

    As Doc Brown would say “My God, has been that long?”

  24. Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:

    Wow, this makes me feel old, old, old.

    Started buying from amazon in college (97? 98?) when they were renovating the bookstore and I was unwilling to walk that far carrying all those books. In fact, got my first credit card to expedite the process.

  25. pj1280 says:

    Anybody know where to find screenshots of Amazon’s early days? I love archive.org for old archived web pages, but their archive of Amazon only goes back to 1998.

    I’d just love to see the ratio of text-to-graphics on those early pages. And some of the merchandise, too.

  26. NarcolepticGirl says:

    aw, I’m disappointed. I thought there would be some old screenshots from the 90’s.

  27. NarcolepticGirl says:
  28. Dallas_shopper says:

    Used Amazon for the first time in 1998, have loved it ever since. I just put in an order from there yesterday. :-)

  29. Ted3 says:

    As a ten-year customer of amazon, keep up the good work!

  30. HogwartsProfessor says:

    Happy Birthday, Amazon!

    I don’t remember what my first purchase from them was (probably a book) but I love them. I’m dying to try the White Glove service, so next time I get a TV I might go with that. I’ve only had to return one thing and it was easy peasy lemon squeezy.

  31. Puddy Tat says:

    I love amazon great company – great prices and no BULLSH*T.

  32. brinkman says:

    First (mostly) online purchase: telnetting in to cdnow.com to order Lou Reed bootlegs. I then had to mail in a check.

  33. gman863 says:

    I find it surprising that The Consumerist and its followers are getting all warm and fuzzy over a mega-retailer. If this were about Wal-Mart’s anniversary, this would be a lynch mob whining about low wage jobs created at the expense of thousands of mom-and-pop stores killed off by an 800 pound guerilla.

    Ah, the hypocrisy of this Amazon.com lovefest.