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Why Amazon’s rivals shouldn’t rest easy after Jeff Bezos’s CEO exit

February 3, 2021, 12:57 AM UTC

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Retail executives shouldn’t rest easy after Tuesday’s announcement that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos would step down later this year.

The company, founded in Bezos’s garage 27 years ago, has transformed from an online bookseller with a basic e-commerce site into a retail titan commanding 40% of all U.S. e-commerce, according to eMarketer. It’s a market share that has grown slowly over time, even as rivals from Walmart and Target to Tractor Supply and Nordstrom have themselves emerged as serious e-commerce players.

Moreover, those competitors live under the constant threat of Amazon Prime, created to increase shoppers’ loyalty by offering them unlimited shipping for a monthly subscription. The service, which now has nearly 126 million U.S. members, has since become a conduit for selling entertainment.

And such is Amazon’s clout that when it moved its Prime Day sales event to October last year, all major retailers shifted their holiday season promotions to the same period. They had little choice.

After Bezos steps down later this year, few people expect Amazon to deviate much from his hugely successful strategy. In fact, Bezos, in his retirement, will serve as Amazon’s executive chairman, which means he’ll still have a major say at the company without having to manage day-to-day operations.

Moreover, many executives who will lead Amazon in the post-Bezos era had a big hand in Bezos’s strategy. His successor, Andy Jassy, head of Amazon’s cloud computing division, has worked with Bezos for 20 years. Meanwhile, the new head of Amazon retail, Dave Clark, was appointed to the job by Bezos just five months ago.

In any case, Bezos remains Amazon’s biggest shareholder, with 10.6% of the company’s shares. He therefore has huge voting power.

And there is no doubt, that Bezos’s focus and that of his management team has been on investing in e-commerce to perpetuate Amazon’s enormous lead over flat-footed brick-and-mortar chains.

“They have Prime, the Amazon flywheel, and an enormous infrastructure that is built to gain more and more market share,” Sucharita Kodali, a Forrester analyst, tells Fortune. “There’s a case to be made that even with minimal focus, it will continue to grow.”

Still, Jassy’s appointment suggests Amazon wants its cloud unit to become a bigger part of the overall business. It generates 12% of the company’s revenue but 60% of operating profit. In contrast, Amazon’s retail operations have long struggled to make a profit given the enormous, unrelenting cost of building infrastructure like distribution centers, and of ensuring fast delivery and competitive prices.

“It’s possible the company’s cloud business could get additional attention,” Bloomberg Intelligence wrote in a research note about Bezos stepping down. But Bloomberg Intelligence and Moody’s analysts were among those saying they don’t expect Amazon’s retail business to change much.

Whatever the case, no retail sector has been left untouched by Amazon, from its bookselling business that severely damaged Barnes & Noble and bankrupted Borders years ago, to its big push into fashion and online grocery.

Yet one area that has bedeviled Amazon, despite its purchase of Whole Foods for a physical footprint, has been grocery. Here, Walmart has proved to be a formidable rival, with its order-pickup capability enabled by thousands of stores. (Bezos’s longtime rival, Marc Lore, the former CEO of Walmart U.S. e-commerce, left that role on Sunday.)

Still, Amazon’s tech push into retail has forced other companies’ hands—whether it’s the cashier-less stores or the delivery network that makes executives at UPS and FedEx nervous with its faster, more reliable service and easier returns. The upshot over the years has been that chains like Target, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Petco, and many others have become the e-commerce leaders they perhaps wouldn’t have without a knife to their throat.

Says Neil Saunders, a managing director at GlobalData: “Its relentless focus on the customer and its constant pursuit of finding better ways of doing business made it not only a survivor but a leader of the Internet age.”