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The holiday shopping season is now in full swing, but don't tell (NASDAQ:AMZN). The company isn't like conventional retailers, with their bloated seasonality. Naturally, this will be Amazon's best quarter of the year, but the country's leading e-tailer has grown up, to the point at which, nowadays, it's profitable all year round.

As Amazon CFO Tom Szkutak showed when he addressed the crowd attending the Credit Suisse 2007 Annual Technology Conference on Tuesday, the company's maturity is striking. This is no longer a debt-cuffed dot-com disaster.

Sure, Amazon's balance sheet packs some debt, but it's offset nicely by the $1.9 billion in cash and marketable securities. Free cash flow over the past 12 months has more than doubled to $800 million.

Net sales in that time span have climbed 36% higher -- or 32% on a currency-adjusted basis -- to $13.1 billion. You don't expect retailers this big to be growing this rapidly, or to be lapping the growth rates of smaller Web-based standalones such as (NASDAQ:OSTK) and Red Envelope (NASDAQ:REDE).

Then again, this isn't the same Amazon that cynics used to rip apart.

Clearing a path in the Amazon forest
Few things are as encouraging as watching a well-oiled Amazon in action. It is not just an Internet retailer. It is the Internet retailer. And that's a pretty powerful thing. It's got warehousing and fulfillment down to a perfect science, turning over its inventory roughly a dozen times. Its successful relationships with suppliers grant it lenient payment terms.

Add this all up, and you have a company working on a negative operating cycle. Now, don't let the word "negative" frighten you -- that's a good thing. At the end of the third quarter, Amazon had 29 days of inventory on hand. Tack on four days' worth of receivables to that figure. Meanwhile, it's now paying its suppliers -- on average -- in 52 days. Subtract 29 and 4 from 52, and you arrive at a negative operating cycle of 19 days. In other words, Amazon has already collected on its sales nearly three weeks before it pays its suppliers for those items.

That's the kind of working-capital splendor that draws folks such as Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B) Warren Buffett into the insurance business, even if few will confuse a risk-taking maverick like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos with a more calculated risk-taker like Buffett.

Then again, Amazon has grown into a pretty diversified company. Over the past five years, media sales (essentially its bread-and-butter business of selling books, CDs, and DVDs) have gone from 79% of the revenue mix to just a 64% slice. But that doesn't mean Amazon is selling less. In fact, media sales have risen from $2.9 billion to $8.4 billion in that same time. The thing is that other Amazon categories -- such as consumer electronics and groceries -- have been growing even more quickly.

Amazon is sharing its growth formula, too. Just 68% of Amazon's sales are for actual Amazon-stocked merchandise these days. The rest comes from third-party merchants who sell through Amazon's digital storefront in exchange for sending Amazon a piece of the action.

The digital future
Amazon has also expanded its categories. It's been renting DVDs overseas for years, though it doesn't seem interested in taking on Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) or Blockbuster's (NYSE:BBI) Total Access closer to home.

"It is something that we're learning," Szkutak says of this part of the business. "We will make a decision based on what we think over time."

One crowded sector where Amazon is encroaching is digital distribution. With Unbox, Amazon MP3, and now Kindle, Amazon has digitized solutions for DVDs, CDs, and books, respectively.

This is a big deal, because it's a lot cheaper to cover the bandwidth of delivering files online than it is to subsidize storing, packaging, and shipping of physical goods. That doesn't mean tangible goods are a bad thing at Amazon, of course. The company's dependable reputation there has allowed it to introduce the Amazon Prime program, with which shoppers pay $79 a year for free two-day shipping on Amazon-fulfilled orders.

Amazon Prime rolled out domestically two years ago. It's so successful that Amazon has recently rolled it out in Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Is that Amazon's big secret? That it has quietly taken over the planet? Well, no. Not yet. It's still busy unveiling new store categories in different geographic markets. But then again, why shouldn't Amazon take over the world? After all, it did take over the calendar, with its year-round profitability.

Fool Prime:

Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and Netflix are active recommendations in the Stock Advisor newsletter service. You're welcome to read up why with a free 30-day pass to access all of the newsletter's content services, including a lively subscriber-only discussion board. Berkshire is also an Inside Value pick.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has been bitten by the Prime bug, but he's been an Amazon shopper since pretty much the beginning. He does own shares in Netflix and is part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Motley Fool holds stock in Berkshire Hathaway. The Fool has a disclosure policy.