Amazon has almost perfected a shopping experience for browsers — and I mean human, not web.
Four months after the first Amazon Books physical store opened in Seattle’s University Village, Amazon appears to be satisfied enough with the results to move forward with a second location in San Diego. But is the original just a novelty, attracting only nerdy tourists? Or does it work as a retail store for people who truly want to browse and buy?
From what I saw — and purchased — on my recent visit, Amazon has nailed what it takes to have a successful retail store in an e-commerce world. Any kind of retail store.
I’ve long been skeptical about the artificial separation between online and physical retailing. Nearly two decades ago, when one-time software retail giant Egghead Discount Software was shuttering its physical locations in favor of moving completely to the web, I (once in Egghead marketing management) called for it to keep at least one store open in each market to act as a showroom for orders to be fulfilled online. It, of course, didn’t, and much later its assets wound up helping start Amazon’s own software store. The originator wound up Eggdead.
Since then, “showrooming” has become a dirty word in retail, reflecting customers who check out products in a store and then buy them cheaper, online. But Amazon has embraced this reality of consumer behavior and flipped it into a positive, matching price and adding the satisfying bonus of instant gratification.
Why does Amazon Books work, beyond the novelty of seeing the Amazon name IRL?
Encourages browsing and serendipity. From the airy and wood-filled interior, to the long counters with seats by the windows and a good-sized children’s section with play table, Amazon Books feels like a traditional bookstore that wants customers to linger. The books, displayed face-out on both shelves and displays of varying height, make it easy to make a serendipitous discovery — something even Amazon’s online recommendation engine (which keeps offering me items related to gifts I bought for others) struggles to get right. I accidentally came across a book I’d heard about and immediately picked it up. None of these approaches are unique to Amazon Books, but they’re hallmarks of a good, traditional bookstore, and Amazon hasn’t screwed it up.
Removes “better deal” fears. I was at first taken aback when I saw all books (including the one I had in hand) apparently at full, publishers’ list price. Until I saw the signs and scanners which assured me that whatever the price was on Amazon.com now would be the price I would pay in store. (Yes, I double-checked on my smartphone.) Since Amazon is constantly adjusting online prices, that provided both reassurance and a good reason to not have to sticker and re-sticker price tags on inventory.
Provides physical comparisons of Amazon-brand products. A lot has been written about Amazon Books being like an Apple or Microsoft retail store, offering hands-on experiences with Fire TV and Echo devices, Fire tablets, and Kindle e-readers. Equally as valuable is the ability to do side-by-side comparisons: Until this visit, I didn’t realize how much lighter a regular Kindle was over the same-sized Kindle Paperwhite or Voyage (perhaps because of the embedded reading light in the latter two). The store also has extensive displays of private-label Amazon Basics products, from cables to Bluetooth speakers. This is a literally tangible improvement for shopping Amazon’s own product lines.
Leverages the e-commerce experience. Perhaps most important to customers used to a lame integration of offline and online shopping (“Give us your email address for discounts”), Amazon has taken what it’s learned on the web and reduced the friction between worlds. While browsing, you’re exposed to Amazon’s star ratings and review excerpts and encouraged to snap bar code images to read full reviews on Amazon.com. At the register, swiping a credit card tied to your Amazon.com account not only automatically triggers an emailed receipt, it puts the purchase in your online Amazon order history. Everything Amazon, in one place (conveniently or creepily).
What doesn’t work? The Amazon Answers counter seems awkwardly out of place, perhaps trying to tilt the balance too much to the Microsoft or Apple full-frontal-tech model (and it was a lonely counter when I visited, even as the rest of the store was busy). There is a decent, but not deep, on-site book selection. And this is no independent bookstore either in content or vibe: No handwritten shelf tags with staff recommendations — instead, it’s typewritten customer reviews — no genre specializations, and sadly, no bookstore cat.
But there is no doubt of the customer response, four months in. One staffer said it remains “phenomenal … we are busy all of the time.” Especially popular on my shopping trip was the kids’ area, and the staff member said families regularly come in and kids run right to it in the back of the store.
The genius of Amazon Books is not that Amazon opened a physical store. It’s not that Amazon has integrated tech with books — Barnes & Noble had tried, and failed, with Nook in its stores.
The genius is that Amazon has neatly knocked down the virtual walls between online and physical retailing, carefully bringing online content and transactional expertise to what already works in in-person shopping. It just happens to be a bookstore. Four months in, the combo has gelled.
It may have simply required a dot-com era survivor like Amazon to create Pixels and Brick 2.0.