The History of Powells.com
One Monday in 1993, a man in England emailed Powell's Books with an interesting request.
He wanted to buy a book on electronics. His local bookseller had informed him that a copy could be ordered from the United States, and the process would take six to eight weeks. The book would cost $80 U.S., plus shipping an additional $40.
The English gent decided to shop around and happened upon an FTP site listing the inventory for Powell's Technical Books in Portland, Oregon. There he found a used copy of the desired book priced at a mere $45, so he promptly emailed the store and ordered it. Powell's shipped it to him express for $25. He got the book in three days and saved $50.
Thus, a novel idea was born.
Back when Amazon was just a river... in a time when the public at large thought the World Wide Web was a missile defense shield and gourmet coffee was a cup of joe with flavored creamer... a little dream of online bookselling became an unlikely reality.
Herewith, a timeline of the evolution of Powells.com:
Powell's posts its initial, albeit rudimentary, website: www.powells.portland.or.us. An Apple employee is the first to place an order. (The Powell's employees make several jokes at the expense of Macs. Then their Windows program crashes. No more jokes are made.) Two full-time employees staff the internet business: one programming, the other taking orders. The month of August averages 50 searches per day. Many Arsenio-inspired dog noises are heard in the office.
January sales hit $8,000. Searches reach 470 per day. Powell's increases its internet staff by a whopping 50% adding one more person. The three employees converge on Powell's corporate building and form a separate department within the company.
Staff increases to 10 full-time workers, who have a hard time explaining what they do for a living to friends and family. Bob Dole retires from politics.
By the end of the year, online sales account for 3% of Powell's total revenue without cannibalizing store sales. Passersby speak in whispers of the constant stream of Simpsons quotes spewing from the internet department.
Online sales reach 10%. Powells.com operations move to a small though not quite as small location across from Powell's City of Books. Powells.com employees predict that a sci-fi film starring Keanu Reeves will be a lot better than the long-awaited Star Wars prequel; skeptics in the early months of '99 will end up as believers by year's end.
Somehow surviving the unspeakable worldwide catastrophe of Y2K, Powells.com sales grow to 20% of the company's total earnings. Store sales continue to rise. Internet staff increases to 40 full-time employees. Many are quite certain the Pets.com sock puppet will be as ubiquitous as Ronald McDonald and Spuds MacKenzie.
Online sales jump to 30%. Sixty full-time internet employees scramble to keep up with the influx of orders. Stores continue to prosper.
Pets-dot-who? Kozmo-dot-what? As internet entrepreneurs watch their dreams of delivering candy bars and videotapes to every American home dwindle, Powells.com finds 80% of its sales coming from outside the Pacific Northwest, meaning the stores' sales are still left unscathed.
Two (really) bad Matrix sequels are released and quickly forgotten. Despite this setback in morale, Powells.com keeps on truckin', with online sales rising to 25% of the company's sales.
Powells.com operations relocate to a new 60,000-square-foot warehouse. Growth continues unabated.
On July 1, Powells.com unveils its new website, featuring a clean, updated look and an emphasis on recommended reading. But why stop with a redesign? In November, PowellsBooks.BLOG is launched a daily weblog that offers a window to the world of bookselling and features weekly guest bloggers, the first of whom is Susan Orlean. All of this hard work pays off in December 2005 when Powells.com is named one of the "Top 50 Retail Web Sites" by Internet Retailer magazine.
Emily Powell graduates from the internet marketing department to begin the transition toward assuming ownership of Powell's Books from her father, Michael Powell.
After 30 years of buying used books over the counter, Powells.com introduces its new online book buying program, allowing bibliophiles around the United States to sell their books back to Powell's via Powells.com.
Powell's introduces a subscription club, called Indiespensable. Swooning ensues. Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson all turn 50. Gen X-ers grapple with identity issues.
Powells.com turns 15! That's 105 in internet years.
And so it goes. Somehow Powells.com survived the dot-com boom and bust to emerge as one of the few online merchants to report increased profits. Perhaps it's our policy of growing only as profits permit, or our slow and steady expansion hiring and advertising only when economically feasible. Or maybe it's just clean living.
Everything from database and search engine creation to site design is created and maintained in-house. When Powells.com started selling online, there were simply no web-building tools available outside of the company. It's this kind of self-reliance that keeps books not only on the shelves of our independently owned and operated business, but online and on bookshelves all over the world.
The Powells.com story continues ever onward...