The windows outside the ground floor of Amazon’s new re:Invent tower in Seattle are carefully blocked, shielding the bustling activity inside from public view. Stepping through multiple layers of black curtains reveals a crew of roughly 30 people scrambling to put the finishing touches on the latest Amazon 4-star store.
This is the scene less than 48 hours before the tech giant will open its fourth Amazon 4-star store — the first in its hometown of Seattle — the company’s newest brick-and-mortar concept that carries a rotating inventory of highly rated items and local favorites. With the store set to open Thursday morning, GeekWire got an early tour and some insight into the concept.
“Online shopping is super convenient, easy, and everybody does it,” said Jeanine Takala, spokeswoman for Amazon’s Physical Stores division. “We know that customers still like to come in and touch and test out a variety of different things before they make that purchase.”
Squint hard enough and the 4,000-square-foot space resembles a scaled down version of a department store, a little ironic given the impact Amazon’s rise had on the downfall of those retailers. There are sections dedicated to books, kitchen supplies, seasonal items, electronics, toys and Amazon’s own in-house products.
Everything in the store must have a rating of four stars or higher on Amazon.com. Electronic price tags that update in real time display each item’s star rating as well as the number of reviews it has received.
Many of the displays are standardized across stores, though each location dedicates space to popular items in that city. The Seattle-oriented display includes volleyballs, Legos, Tupperware, fans and a Dungeons & Dragons rule book.
There are a few things you won’t see in the stores: food, or really big items that take up a ton of space.
“We do of course use the data that we have available to us, like sales and trending information, stuff that our category curator teams are pulling forward,” Takala said. “We have our own level of human curators that take a look at all that and decide what we’re going to bring forth.”
There’s an entire table dedicated to Amazon’s family of Alexa-powered devices and another for security devices for Ring, the company Amazon acquired last year. A rotating seasonal display focuses on back-to-school and features a lineup of Google Chromebooks.
A wall of Bluetooth speakers in the back of the store stands out due to potential competition with the Amazon Echo.
“They’re top rated products that our customers love,” Takala said of the speakers. “Of course we want people to learn more about Amazon products, but we are trying to bring forth the top of every category.”
The first Amazon 4-star store opened in New York City last September. Amazon has since added locations in Denver and Berkeley, Calif. Amazon has also confirmed a future store in Dallas.
The company hasn’t made a ton of changes to the format since launching last year. Flexibility to shift around displays to accommodate customer demand is important. Amazon also wants to use the spaces to run community events, such as a back-to-school gathering coming up at the Seattle store.
The Seattle store has a team of 20 humans, with seven to 10 people on duty at any given time. There’s no technological sea change in the front of the house a la Amazon Go’s cashier-less checkout setup. Much like Amazon Books, there is a central checkout area, where users can pay via their Amazon app through a QR code or with a debit/credit card.
The Seattle store does not take cash, though Takala said the company is working on accepting paper money at all its physical stores. Amazon also accepts returns from online purchases in the stores, similar to the deal it has with Kohl’s.
The 4-star concept joins Amazon Books, Amazon Go, AmazonFresh Pickup, Presented by Amazon mall kiosks, package pickup storefronts and of course Whole Foods Market in Amazon’s physical stores portfolio. GeekWire research from last year shows that Amazon is approaching close to 600 locations between these concepts.
Thanks to the growth of its brick-and-mortar portfolio, Amazon now breaks out revenue from those stores. In the most recent quarter, the Physical Stores division accounted for $4.3 billion in revenue, however sales grew by only about $18 million over the prior year, or less than 1 percent.
Amazon has said it plans to open more bookstores and 4-star locations this year.
The inspiration for the 4-star concept came partially through customer feedback about the bookstores. People asked for more types of items at Amazon Books and instead of over-packing the stores, the tech giant decided to go with an entirely new concept.
“We have some general merchandise in the bookstores, but we were hearing a lot from people who wanted more of that and rather than fill a bookstore with tons of merchandise, we looked at a new strategy of having something like this,” Takala said of 4-star.