A detailed business report in the Seattle Times shows just how large-scale Amazon’s retail footprint is growing. It also indicates something about prospects for the Seattle-headquartered giant’s bookstores and other bricks-and-mortar plans. And it underlines what a contributor Amazon is to economic welfare, versus old-line value destroyers like Walmart.
As the Seattle Times points out, Amazon, “may soon employ more people than any other Fortune 500 company except Walmart. The tech and retail giant had nearly 230,800 employees at the end of 2015, not counting the 100,000 seasonal workers it hired for the holidays.” That’s compared to Walmart’s 2.2 million employees in 2015. And one more year of its average annual headcount growth of 38 percent will take Amazon past McDonald’s 420,000, and put Amazon second on the headcount ranking.
That is a global figure, not just U.S. But if anything it underestimates the scale of Amazon’s physical operation. For one thing, so many of Amazon’s fulfillment centers, such as its new facility at Shakopee, are heavily automated, with hundreds of robotic assistants. And also, Amazon still counts for “less than 4 percent of all U.S. retail sales,” according to the Seattle Times article, though around 25 percent of annual retail sales growth, so it clearly has plenty of room to grow. And self-published authors, the article argues, can be counted as part of the broader ecosystem of partners and suppliers also supported by Amazon.
These numbers also point up, ironically, how relative and even hollow the virtual, headcount-lite image of e-commerce is. To become America’s, and probably the world’s, most successful e-commerce company, Amazon has invested in a real-world headcount and physical infrastructure that rivals all but the largest retailers. Even if most of that bricks-and-mortar presence is in backdoor fulfillment rather than actual storefronts, this is how Amazon has made it work. Amazon already has a huge physical footprint. Front-of-house retail premises would simply be no more than a cosmetic overlay on that operation, rather than a major drag on it, or reconfiguring of it. And analysts have lined up plenty of reasons why bricks-and-mortar retail could deliver Amazon even more growth.
Bookstores, publishers, and retail chains, meanwhile, perhaps ought to reflect that, if Amazon’s success depends, not on absence of physical infrastructure, but simply a different kind of physical infrastructure, they might consider how better to lever the online/offline balance themselves, rather than simply blaming Amazon and trying to go on the same old way. If Amazon-style business is driving most of the retail employment growth in the U.S., they might do the country some good too.