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Amazon's bolts and beakers business is booming

The e-retailer has grown Amazon Business, which sells office and industrial supplies, into a $1 billion operation.

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Amazon is in business.

The Seattle e-retailer, which grew by selling baby wipes and smartphone cases to consumers, is now expanding its influence selling industrial and commercial supplies to companies, too. After quietly building out Amazon Business, its marketplace catering specifically to enterprises large and small, the company on Wednesday revealed that the new site hit over $1 billion in sales in the past year, with customer purchases rising nearly 20 percent each month. Amazon didn't specify the segment's profitability.

Amazon, which rarely offers hard statistics on many of its segments, likely decided it wanted to do a little showing off a year after launching Amazon Business to bring more attention to a part of its sprawling operations many people don't even know exists. The company jumped into the market of selling companies and government offices plumbing supplies, power tools and office chairs four years ago, first with the site Amazon Supply, but then expanded the business and transitioned to its new name.

"I think broadly awareness is low. So there's a lot of opportunity to ramp awareness," Prentis Wilson, vice president of Amazon Business, said, adding that his company plans to increase marketing spending to tell more people about the new site.

Granted, $1 billion in sales is tiny in the context of Amazon's $107 billion in total sales last year. However, Amazon's suddenly vocal approach to the marketplace points to the company's interests to grow in a new area after already dominating consumer online sales. Keeping up its double-digit sales growth will get more challenging every year, so Amazon is already expanding into both enterprise sales as well as services like home improvements and payments in hopes of finding its next major business.

Amazon hopes to draw in customers by piggybacking off their experience using Amazon.com to buy diapers at home, perhaps transitioning more business owners to look to Amazon for their next snowplow or lab beakers, too. Because a lot of business purchasing still happens with catalogs, Amazon has an opportunity to help modernize the market. But, it will have to compete with a number of other industrial and commercial suppliers that already sell online, including Grainger, which posted $10 billion in sales last year -- 10 times Amazon Business' take.

"We're continuing to grow at a pretty strong pace," Wilson said. "We'll see how big it turns out to be, but we're excited."