Things keep getting better for the online retail bellwether left for dead by the Street a little more than a year ago.

Shareholders don't need to be reminded of Amazon's(Nasdaq: AMZN) amazing run. They have seen the stock nearly triple off its 9/11 lows, despite a sputtering market. With the company coming off an analyst-thumping fourth quarter and setting its sights on a brighter 2003, is it too late to take back all the snide remarks made after CEO Jeff Bezos was crowned Time's Person of the Year in 1999?

Think about it. What did the cynics argue about back then? That Amazon's low-price strategy would put it out of business? Well, it has survived and done that one better by making free shipping a permanent fixture. That Amazon was a debt-laden, money-scorching disaster? Well, it produced $135 million in free cash flow in 2002. That Amazon's days of growth were numbered? Well, it will deliver pro forma profits of $0.27 a share and is looking for sales to grow by at least 15% this year.

Yes, we can always scold a company for its liberal definition of "pro forma," but it's hard to argue with Amazon's 2002 free cash flow and the fact that it reported an actual profit -- all expenses considered -- over the holidays. Fourth-quarter sales grew by 28% to hit a healthy $1.43 billion.

It's time to get real. The dot-com dream of fat margins in e-tail, given the operating efficiencies and lack of local operating overhead, may never materialize. Amazon will play it razor-thin with free shipping and low prices -- the only two proven tonics to grow sales online. With Wal-Mart(NYSE: WMT) trading at a little more than one times trailing sales, maybe Amazon will never command a premium much greater than its price-to-sales multiple, which is twice what Wal-Mart commands.

The upside may be capped, but naysayers have to concede that Amazon won't fall prey to spontaneous combustion. It's here -- for keeps.