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It only takes up a couple square feet, a small fraction of the size of Amazon’s first real bookstore in Seattle, but the company has been quietly making another foray into physical retail — offering individual ebook gift cards for sale under a pilot program at Bartell Drugs in Washington state.

amazonebooks - 1 (3)The pilot was launched in October, in time for the holiday shopping season, but it flew largely under the radar until now. Amazon has long offered general gift cards in many retail locations, like other digital merchants, but the move to offer cards for specific ebooks is a new move for the company.

Details of the 61-store test were confirmed last week by Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader news site, and I found one of the “Kindle eBooks” kiosks tucked between displays of Valentine’s Day candy at my local Bartell Drugs store in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood this weekend.

Perhaps tellingly, even though the kiosk was well-positioned toward the front of the store, none of the three employees I spoke with initially knew what I was talking about when I asked if they sold individual Kindle ebook gift cards. (Initially they told me they didn’t.)

But I ended up spotting it on my own, and bought a couple cards to test the service.

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The top row of the kiosk features cards for three- and six-month Kindle Unlimited memberships, for $29.99 and $49.99 each. Below those are cards featuring the covers of 20 individual ebooks, best-sellers across both fiction and nonfiction, ranging from “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” and Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” to Dan Brown’s “Inferno” and “The Martian” by Andy Weir.

On the back of each ebook card is a quote from an Amazon customer review and a summary of the book, along with an area for writing a message to the recipient and instructions for redeeming the book by scratching off the claim code and going to a dedicated Amazon url to enter it.

Purchasing the card at the Bartell Drugs register automatically activates it for use, as with a standard gift card.

Here’s the most interesting part: Any of the cards can also be treated as a regular Amazon gift card, if your gift recipient doesn’t like the book you chose for them, or already owns the title you picked. In other words, it offers the personalization of a hand-picked gift with the flexibility of a regular gift card — another example of Amazon blending the best of physical and digital retail.

The card promises that you’ll always get “the lowest online price, plus the balance.” For example, I purchased a card for “The Martian” for $14.99 at the store, but the price online was $8.99, and when I redeemed the book, the difference was automatically added to my gift card balance.

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After deciding that I really didn’t want a 3-month Kindle Unlimited membership (I previously tested the subscription service and found that I didn’t use it as much as I planned) I was able to add the entire $29.99 balance from that card to my gift card balance. Everything worked smoothly.

This is the latest example of Amazon testing out new initiatives in physical retail, but as noted by the Digital Reader’s Hoffelder, the company is not the first to try this concept. Most other e-book sellers who’ve gone down this path haven’t seen much success.

Whether it turns out to be worthwhile for Amazon remains to be seen. Even during the checkout process, the concept was clearly a novelty to the Bartell Drugs employees at my local store, perhaps indicating that they haven’t been selling a lot since the October launch.

We’ve contacted Amazon for more details on the pilot, and to see if it will be expanded to additional stores and regions.

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