Bezos, who will remain executive chair, will hand the reins to Andy Jassy, chief executive of Amazon Web Services, the company’s fast-growing cloud computing business.
The surprise news came as Amazon released its latest financial results. Few companies have thrived like Amazon during the coronavirus pandemic, and in the last three months of the year, the company recorded sales of more than $100bn for the first time.
Bezos has pledged to focus on “new products and early initiatives” after announcing he is to step down as chief executive later this year.
In a letter to employees, he said the business was “firing on all cylinders, just as the world needs us to”, as it reported a 43% rise in sales to $125.6bn (£92bn) for the Christmas quarter ending in December.
Bezos said his departure as chief executive would give him more time to focus on side projects such as space exploration company Blue Origin, fighting against climate change, and overseeing The Washington Post, the newspaper he owns.
However, Bezos remains Amazon’s biggest shareholder, and looks likely to continue to have a major influence over the company’s direction.
Chief financial officer Brian Olsavsky told reporters: “Jeff is not really going anywhere. It’s more of a restructuring of who’s doing what.”
Amazon has thrived during the coronavirus pandemic as the closure of physical retail prompted an acceleration in online consumer demand.
Amazon’s revenues for the whole of 2020 climbed 38% to $386bn (£283bn) and profits rose 84% to $21.3bn (£15.4bn).
Bezos’s stellar success since founding Amazon as an online bookseller in 1994 saw him catapulted to the status of world’s richest man last year, before being overtaken by Tesla’s Elon Musk.
He told investors on Tuesday: “If you do it right, a few years after a surprising invention, the new thing has become normal.
“People yawn. That yawn is the greatest compliment an inventor can receive. When you look at our financial results, what you’re actually seeing are the long-run cumulative results of invention.
“Right now I see Amazon at its most inventive ever, making it an optimal time for this transition.”