Amazon.com is to 2010 as Sears Roebuck was to 1910

In many ways, amazon.com is doing now what the Sears Roebuck mail-order catalog did in 1910. A hundred years ago, the Sears catalog was the first comprehensive, massively distributed retail presence. It gave a lot of people more buying options and information, reducing the economic friction of personal purchases. Today Amazon has achieved something similar.

I had this epiphany after spending two weeks trying to buy a snowblower - a specific electric one. Every year we've paid a guy to come and plow our driveway, but last year he couldn't handle all his clients on the worst days, which was when we need him most. So why shouldn't I get outside on snowy mornings instead of spending half an hour on my exercise bike? The blower would pay for itself in a year. If I could find one.
In the late 1800s, farmers bringing their goods to town had to buy necessities like tools and medicine. Mr. Sears and Mr. Roebuck noticed that those farmers were at the mercy of local general stores, who often charged outrageous prices. So they advertised the same goods at fair prices and their catalog business exploded. By 1910 you could mail-order almost anything, up to and including a complete prefabricated house, if you were willing to wait for delivery.
So where was the problem? My preference for electric. I hate polluting two-stroke engines, I don't like to keep gasoline in my home, and I'm happy with my electric lawnmower, trimmer, and leafblower. Toro has been making a reasonably well-regarded 12-amp unit for several years. But when I called around, none of the Toro dealers within 20 miles of my house had one in stock. Eventually I was told that Toro makes one--just one--shipment per year, and it's basically impossible for brick-and-mortar retailers to get more once they're sold out.

As I write this, clothing stores are probably stocking their shelves with bikinis. It's winter! What if I need a new coat? Brick and mortar retail is broken.

Here is Amazon's opening: catalogs have become as seasonal and limited as the contents of stores. They get thrown away, partly because 100 years of consumerism have made so much crap available for sale that you'd need an extra bedroom to keep catalogs around. But Amazon has no such limitations. Their warehouse stocks millions of items--hello, replacement screens for my 8-year-old electric shaver--and the third parties that sell through the Amazon Marketplace probably offer another order of magnitude of obscure items. There are mobile phone apps that will scan barcodes, look up prices on Amazon, and tell you whether or not a retailer is charging a fair price. Amazon has become standard and universal.

But the reason I keep coming back is free shipping for anything over $25. I don't know how they can offer that for something the size of a refrigerator, but I'm all over that deal. How would I get a snowblower home anyway? I drive a small car. I like to buy local when I can (especially food) but this is a no-brainer.