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Amazon Is More Than A Shopping Site. It's A Search Engine Too


Amazon says it's launching a delivery van business that will allow contractors to deliver Amazon packages. It's also buying an online pharmacy called PillPack. This is all just more evidence that Amazon is dominating the online retail world. According to a recent NPR-Marist poll, Amazon has been used by 92 percent of all online shoppers. And for this reason, Amazon has a big advantage over other tech giants like Google. NPR's Jim Zarroli has the story.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Kara Swetski (ph) is something of an Amazon junkie. She uses it three or four times a week.

KARA SWETSKI: I buy cleaning supplies on there, household items, like paper towels and toilet paper. I use it for greeting cards and gifts, groceries, pet products.

ZARROLI: Amazon can take over your life, or at least your living room. Once, she and her roommate bought a beanbag chair that expanded once they took it out of the box.

SWETSKI: And it came in a vacuum-sealed box. And when we opened it, it grew to be the actual size of the living room.

ZARROLI: So they decided to return it. But it was too big to mail back, so they had to remove the insides.

SWETSKI: It was this foam material. And we sat there for hours digging it out before we could get the bag small enough to get it into a box.

ZARROLI: And Swetski says Amazon took the chair back no problem. That's one of the things she likes about the company. They make shopping easy. Swetski says much of the time when she wants to research a product, she doesn't even go to Google anymore.

SWETSKI: I find that a lot of the time, I realize I need something or I'm out of something, and I'll quickly open up the Amazon app on my phone and can, with a couple clicks of a button, have it within a few minutes.

ZARROLI: In other words, Amazon isn't just a shopping site. It's become a kind of search engine all its own. A plurality of people answering the NPR-Marist poll, 44 percent, said they go to Amazon first to search for a product. Only a third turn to Google. As a result, Daniel Ives of GBH Insights says Amazon is slowly collecting an enormous trove of data about how its customers shop.

DANIEL IVES: It's a huge advantage. If you look at buying behaviors of those Prime members, it speaks to not just understand the behavior, the spending pattern, but also there's definitely an opportunity from an advertising perspective.

ZARROLI: Google and Microsoft know what consumers are looking for. But Ken Auletta, author of "Frenemies: The Epic Disruption Of The Ad Business (And Everything Else)," says Amazon has something much more valuable.

KEN AULETTA: Amazon data is what you've acted on. And so they have a history of what you've purchased. And for an advertiser, oh, my God, that's the Holy Grail.

ZARROLI: Auletta points out that Amazon knows what sells and what doesn't. And it's increasingly offering products of its own, like detergent, diapers and paper towels. When you go on Amazon and search for batteries, the first ones that come up are Amazon branded. And Auletta says Amazon's smart speaker, Alexa, will be even more integrated into its customers' lives, as its commercials suggest.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Echo's really good at keeping track of things like shopping and to-do lists.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) And paper. Alexa, add wrapping paper to the shopping list.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: I put wrapping paper on your shopping list.

ZARROLI: Alexa can tell when you're running out of something. It will be everywhere. That became clear when I was interviewing Auletta from his hotel room in Seattle where he was on a book tour.

AULETTA: Alexa is basically in your home and it's recording. And if you order - it's interesting. I just said Alexa in my room, my hotel room, and I didn't even know there's Alexa here, but it came on.

ZARROLI: Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.
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