Sometimes it’s obvious when you’re living through moments of History with a capital H, the stuff that makes the textbooks and will be remembered for ages – like watching the moon landing.
Then there are those longer-term shifts and trends powerful enough to redirect the course of human events, but that often aren’t recognized as historical moments until we’re in the midst of them – as happened with the recession.
As our annual review of the topics we discussed in this space in 2017 suggests, we’re living in a big bunch of history now, coming right out of our backyard.
No one predicted what Jeff Bezos’ launch of Amazon.com in 1994 would mean for this region’s economy or for retailing. Not only had people not heard of either of them, they were still getting comfortable with the notion of the internet, what it was and what you could do with it as a business and a consumer.
Nor would they have had much reason in the early 2000s to forecast Amazon’s size or influence today, when the dot-com bust crushed so many would-be e-commerce businesses.
In 2017, however, it was hard to find a business-column topic on which to opine without invoking the names Bezos and Amazon.
Not surprisingly, Amazon dominates the conversation whenever the topic is retailing. That’s been true for at least a decade, but in 2017 the conversation’s scope is far broader.
Name the product or service category, and Amazon is in it, studying it or rumored headed toward it. Such is Amazon’s size and influence that the mere hint of interest in a new sector is enough to create spasms of upheaval and near-panicked defensive measures.
In 2017, Amazon was well beyond the rumor stage in the grocery business, with its acquisition of Whole Foods and the opening of pickup locations for orders placed online, causing considerable consternation amid the established players.
Meanwhile, Amazon is becoming a big player in business-to-business commerce. It has signaled an interest in some segments of health care. Who knows what might attract Amazon’s attention in 2018.
But Amazon’s presence doesn’t stop there. You can’t answer questions about regional economic development, housing prices, commercial real estate and traffic congestion without knowing what Amazon is up to.
And then there are Bezos’ various side projects, such as space (Blue Origin) and media (The Washington Post), each with its own considerable influence.
This isn’t the region’s first go-round with a vast and vastly powerful company that people marveled at and feared. Two decades ago the company in question was Microsoft.
Just as with Amazon today, Microsoft was seen as so powerful and ambitious that it would control not just computers but anything done on them, such as financial services. Just as with Amazon today, there were calls to break up Microsoft, which the federal government actually tried to do.
Microsoft did have huge influence over economic development in the Puget Sound region, and it’s still a very big company. As a world dominator, though, it came up short.
Today it’s one of multiple companies battling for dominance within its own sector, never mind being banker, retailer, health-care provider and everything else to everyone else.
History isn’t exactly repeating itself. If anything, Amazon’s reach and influence are already much greater than Microsoft was ever accused of accomplishing.
Maybe Amazon will succeed in fulfilling its ambitions, or sputter or be thwarted by competitors. Whatever the outcome, it already counts as a significant chapter in business history. And you’re living it.
Yes, there was other news to write about in 2017, including the port(s) and arenas and Boeing and Tacoma’s future as an industrial city. Those topics, like the subject of Amazon, are stories that will spill into 2018 (and more on those in our 2018 preview column next week).
Interestingly, the one topic that didn’t appear that often was the economy itself.
There’s one corner of the state where the economy has been too overheated for some people’s liking (hello, Seattle), and there are parts of the state where the economy needs a boost.
But much of the region experienced what this columnist, in a presentation to a local group, characterized as the “shoulder-shrug economy” – not great, not terrible, could be better, has been worse.
We talked about interest rates, inflation, the prospects of a recession and stock performance, but frankly none of those topics was of sufficient heft to avoid being crowded out by other matters.
Maybe we’ll regret not paying closer attention to those subjects. In 2017, though, there was too much history being generated to worry about what might be next.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at email@example.com.