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The Digital Skeptic: 'Amazon Dot-Org' as Vulnerable as Anyone Else

Tickers in this article: AMZN

LAS VEGAS ( TheStreet) -- Gary Shapiro is not concerned whether Amazon (AMZN) makes money. He's not concerned whether it's a so-called "Web retailer" or not. In fact, he is not concerned at all.

"This is a brutal business," he said to me. "The barriers to entry are low. Companies are trending up. They trend down. Things change."

Shapiro and I were digging deep into what was working -- and not working -- in consumer technology retailing. We were sitting in what had to be the only quiet room at last week's Consumer Electronics Show: Shapiro's extravagantly silent temporary office smack in the middle of the Las Vegas show floor.

Shapiro is the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association. That makes him the evil genius that crams 100-thousand-plus tech vendors, retail buyers, IT nerds -- and yes, throwback columnists such as me -- into the Coachella of U.S. geekdom, the 2013 International CES.

And -- to his credit -- he was gracious when I admitted I questioned most of his latest book on creating and profiting from new ideas: Ninja Innovation . He laughed. He knew my stuff. He figured it came with the territory.

What Shapiro and I were hashing out was not CES, but his larger role of working for the Consumer Electronics Association. He answers to a board that includes such tech heavies as Scott Burnett from IBM (IBM) , Mike Dunn from Twentieth Century Fox , Joe Hartsig from Sam's Club , Tim Baxter from Samsung and Luis Pineda from Qualcomm (QCOM) , just to name a few.

I wanted Shapiro's take on the hip -- but telling -- new Vegas nickname for Web retail bellwether Amazon.com. Profits have gotten so thin for the Internet sales giant that CES hipsters were winking and calling it "Amazon Dot ORG."

To Shapiro, he'd seen it all before.

"Amazon has done a great job by providing a great experience and great customer service," he said. To him, the biggest issue in his business is the perception that players in the space are trying to control the market, which can lead to antitrust issues.

"So you come to trust the markets to tell you what companies are or are not worth," he said. "The numbers are the numbers."

I pointed out that said numbers for Amazon are now hard for me understand: price-to-earnings ratios of roughly 3,600 times earnings and net margins that make T-bills look rich. Shapiro walked this skeptic through the history of selling technology to customers, with the lesson that what works one minute may simply does not work the next.

"Retailers come and go," he said.

Whatever works is what works
Shapiro pointed out that original discounters such as E.J. Korvette essentially invented selling at a lower retail price by leveraging the buying power of its many stores to sell below the manufacturer's suggested retail price, even as showroom merchandiser and catalog showroom fads brought many brands into one store.