Jeff Bezos emailed 1,000 Amazon customers in 1997 asking what he should sell — and the common theme in their answers is still clear in the business model today

Bezos in 2002.

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Bezos in 2002.
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Mario Tama/Getty Images

  • Amazon began in 1994 as a bookseller. Then it expanded to music and videos.
  • But by 1997, Jeff Bezos wanted to see how else he could expand his online storefront.
  • He emailed 1,000 randomly selected Amazon customers and found an interesting similarity among their answers.

While we think of Amazon as a place where you can buy truly anything, it wasn’t always that way.

Jeff Bezos formed Amazon in 1994 as a bookseller.

Two years later, the fledgling e-commerce website had done well enough that he was able to expand to music and videos. After that, he knew it was time to expand the company further.

“I emailed 1,000 randomly selected customers and asked them, ‘Besides the things we sell today, what would you like to see us sell?'” Bezos said in a talk at the Economic Club of Washington on September 13.

The answers were all pretty lengthy, Bezos said. But they all had one thing in common: “Basically, the way they answered the question was with whatever they were looking for at that moment.”

One customer, for instance, said they wished Bezos sold windshield wiper blades, just because they needed new ones.

“I thought to myself, ‘We can sell anything this way,'” Bezos said at the talk.

So, Bezos started to introduce more of those everyday products to Amazon’s storefront.

More than two decades later, we can still see that interest in addressing customers’ needs with devices like the Amazon Dash Button, which allows users to quickly reorder laundry detergent, paper towels, or other necessities with simply the push of a button.

It wasn’t the first time Bezos thought of Amazon’s potential beyond hawking books. As Business Insider’s Shana Lebowitz reported, Bezos first conceived of Amazon as an “everything store.” It would sell every type of product all over the world.

Such an undertaking wasn’t possible on day one, so Bezos focused first on books. As Lebowitz writes from Brad Stone’s book “The Everything Store“:

Stone writes that Bezos thought up 20 possible product categories, from music to office supplies. Books seemed like the best option, for a few reasons. Customers would always know what they were in for, since one copy of a book is the same as another.

In 1995, Amazon had one million products for sale, and they were all books. Now there are more than 562 million products – and more than 5,000 of those goods are windshield wiper blades.