Amazon has almost perfected a shopping experience for browsers â€” and I meanÂ human, not web.
Four months after the first Amazon Books physical store opened in Seattleâ€™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 â€” and purchased â€” 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.
Iâ€™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 locationsÂ 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, didnâ€™t, and much later its assets wound up helping startÂ Amazonâ€™s own software store. The originator wound up Eggdead.
Since then, â€œshowroomingâ€ 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 thisÂ 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 airyÂ and wood-filled interior, to the long counters with seats by the windows and a good-sized childrenâ€™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 â€” something even Amazonâ€™s online recommendation engine (which keeps offering me items related to gifts I bought for others) struggles to get right. I accidentally came acrossÂ a book Iâ€™d heard about and immediately picked it up. None of theseÂ approaches are unique to Amazon Books, but theyâ€™re hallmarks of a good, traditional bookstore, and Amazon hasnâ€™t screwed it up.
Removes â€œbetter dealâ€ fears. I was at first taken aback when I saw all books (including the one I had in hand) apparently at full, publishersâ€™ 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 ofÂ Amazon-brand products. A lot has been written about Amazon Books being like an Apple or Microsoft retail store, offering hands-on experiencesÂ 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 didnâ€™t realize how much lighter a regular Kindle was overÂ the same-sized Kindle Paperwhite or Voyage (perhaps because of the embedded reading light in the latter two). The store also has extensive displaysÂ of private-label Amazon Basics products, from cables to Bluetooth speakers. This is a literally tangible improvement forÂ shopping Amazonâ€™s own product lines.
Leverages the e-commerce experience. Perhaps mostÂ important to customers used to a lame integration of offline and online shopping (â€œGive us your email address for discountsâ€), Amazon has taken what itâ€™s learned on the web and reduced the friction between worlds. While browsing, youâ€™re exposed to Amazonâ€™s star ratings and review excerpts and encouraged to snap bar code images toÂ read full reviews on Amazon.com. At the register, swiping a credit card tied to your Amazon.com account not only automatically triggersÂ an emailed receipt, it puts the purchase in your online Amazon order history. Everything Amazon, in one place (conveniently or creepily).
What doesnâ€™t work? The Amazon Answers counter seems awkwardlyÂ out of place, perhaps trying to tilt the balance too much to the Microsoft or Apple full-frontal-tech model (and it was aÂ lonely counterÂ when I visited, even as the rest of the store was busy). There is aÂ decent, but not deep, on-site book selection. And this is noÂ independent bookstore either in content or vibe: No handwritten shelf tags with staff recommendations â€” instead, itâ€™s typewritten customer reviews â€” no genre specializations, and sadly, no bookstore cat.
But there is no doubt of theÂ customerÂ response, four months in. One staffer said it remains â€œphenomenal â€¦ we are busy all of the time.â€ Especially popular on my shopping trip was the kidsâ€™ 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. Itâ€™s not that Amazon has integrated tech with books â€” Barnes &Â 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, carefullyÂ bringingÂ 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 hasÂ gelled.
It may have simplyÂ required a dot-com era survivorÂ like AmazonÂ to createÂ Pixels and Brick 2.0.