This week I’m in unusually sunny Seattle as a mentor at Datapalooza, a data science conference that is organized by my employer. While here, I thought I’d pay visit to the first – and currently only – physical Amazon store.
Amazon Books is a retail outlet located in University Village, an upscale mall in Seattle, Washington.
The type of shops in the area.
As soon as you enter the store you’re greeted by a sign that answers the question most of us would have: yes, store prices are the same as Amazon.com. Buying in person is therefore handy for those who live in the area, assuming one can find the book they’re looking for. In this regard, Amazon Books is at a strong disadvantage over Amazon’s own site (naturally), but also against other physical bookstores such as Barnes & Noble.
Book selection is in fact severely limited, even considering the modest dimensions of the retail area. Bookshelves are mostly reserved for best sellers in highly popular categories. Technical books are all but excluded from their physical bookstore, as admitted by a clerk with whom I spoke to see if by chance my own book was available onsite (in my defense, I prefixed the conversation with a, “I know it’s a long shot”).
The available books are best sellers, new releases (a service I offer myself :)), and books with at least four stars on Amazon’s website. Specifically, there are bookshelf areas dedicated to books that have more than 4.8 stars, four stars, books of the month, staff picks, and highly reviewed books about current topics (e.g., being February, Black History Month).
I found it to be a nice touch that their online “customers who bought this…” narrative has been brought down from the cloud to the physical world. Some shelves were in fact dedicated to books similar to a given author (i.e., John Grisham) or a particular bestseller (i.e., Zero to One by Peter Thiel).
Books don’t have prices on them or on the shelves. Instead the public is supposed to download the Amazon app and use it to scan the barcode available on the shelves next to each book (or on the back of the book, naturally).
For those with a dead battery or who are not inclined to take their smartphone out of their pocket, there are a few scanners around the bookstore, which you can use to scan books and discover their prices.
I asked how to check if a book was available in the store, and was told that the only way to accomplish such is to ask them. This strikes me as a rather low-tech solution from a company like Amazon. I suspect this might change, including listing current in-store inventory through their app, once more stores are added and Amazon Books becomes a chain.
On the shelf labels for each book there is often a quote from a review on Amazon.com, or some statistical tidbit (e.g., 91% of reviewers give this book five stars).
As you’d expect from the name, the shop is mainly a bookstore. The central section however is dedicated to various gadgets, mostly created by Amazon itself, such as Echo, Fire TV, Kindle Fire, etc. In this the shop reminded me a little of the Apple Store, which clearly inspired the layout of this section.
Tucked away there was even a tiny section dedicated to Amazon Basics, for those who’d like to buy an HDMI cable or similar accessories, without splashing out much.
There is a decent selection of mainstream magazines, but nothing too impressive (I’d say inferior to that of most large bookstores in America or Canada). And towards the end of the store there is a fairly large section for children’s books, complete with small tables and chairs so that kids can browse/read on site.
Adults can sit as well, though their padded bench area is located by the largest window, which is near the magazines. As well, a few secured-in-place Kindle Fires are available for those who’d like to play with them.
Employees were friendly and ready to greet you at the entrance, and the general environment was fairly inviting. Overall it wasn’t what I expected, but it was a positive experience and they even managed to sell me a book (Elon Musk’s biography). With my purchase they included a complimentary orange bookmark, branded with their logo.
At the checkout you can insert your Amazon.com email and your order will automatically be added to your account, on top of emailing you a receipt for your purchase.
In conclusion, I see a couple of strategic advantages in Amazon Books. Such stores offer to Amazon.com, what Apple Stores provide to Apple.com. Namely a showroom where customers can try products such as Amazon Echo, Kindle Fire, Fire TV, and whatever new products they might produce in the future.
The second advantage is actually a side effect of their limited selection approach. They are essentially offering a pre-selection service to the public. The average user could enter the store, grab a random book from the bookshelf of their interest, and they’d be almost guaranteed to go home with a book they’d enjoy. (Yes, there are fake reviews on Amazon, and bad books with high ratings, but manual filtering is almost certainly at play here.)
What the bookstore is not, at least in its current incarnation, is a monster that would justify the accusation of having first destroyed retail bookstores through their online site, only to turn it around and eliminate the leftover competition with physical stores of their own. The Amazon Books store I visited is a bit Apple Store, a bit Starbucks in terms of atmosphere. In some ways it tries to lift the Amazon brand from utilitarian to almost a luxury brand. It has a boutique-like charm, rather than the utility of a warehouse. In this choice, it leaves ample space to offline competition (a good thing, of course).
An offline Amazon that would have caused serious trouble not only to bookstores but also to other types of shops, would be an Amazon modeled after a Costco warehouse with the addition of high-tech automation. Amazon Books is the exact opposite. Nevertheless it is an interesting bet on Bezos’ part, and one I suspect will ultimately bear fruit (particularly if they evolve the concept further based on their data analysis of what people purchase in-store).
Unlike some pundits who mocked Amazon for going offline, I personally admire Amazon for trying new things (even if it can be argued that we’ve come full circle over the course of the last 20 years).
They are not afraid to experiment and fail fast, and I can’t help but suspect that, ultimately, that is their proverbial secret sauce.
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Antonio Cangiano is a Software Developer and AI Evangelist at IBM. He authored Ruby on Rails for Microsoft Developers (Wrox, 2009) and Technical Blogging ( The Pragmatic Bookshelf, 2012, 2019). He is also the Marketing Lead for Cognitive Class, an educational initiative which he helped grow from zero to over 1 Million students. You can follow him on Twitter.