Surprise — Amazon is testing out the bookstore business!
The program is in its infancy, with the first store opening in Seattle, and the store that I visited debuting just two months ago. Other stores will follow in Portland and Boston, and only time will tell where things go from there. Will Amazon’s push into physical retail finally put paid to your favorite comics shop or bookstore? Does Amazon bring anything special to the table besides deep discounts and even faster fulfillment than same-day delivery?
Read on to find out!
I visited Amazon’s meatspace outpost in the Westfield UTC Mall, an upscale fashion venue in northern San Diego. The store itself was a stone’s throw from an Apple Store, and directly next door to a Tesla showroom. The shop was clean and well-lit, and maybe just on the small side for a book store … at least compared to the airplane hanger dimensions of your average Barnes & Noble. The aisles felt a bit narrower than I am used to, and the racks were tall, too, so you couldn’t glance up and see across the store. The effect was more cozy than oppressive, but I expect it could get tight in there with Christmas crowds.
That slightly-smaller footprint meant this Amazon store was stocked differently than a big box book retailer. I didn’t see a periodical rack, a cafe, or anyplace to sit down and read. This wasn’t a library, kid! Aside from a healthy amount of floorspace given over to Amazon’s digital goodies, such as the Kindle, almost everything here was books — the stacks of cat calendars and gaming product that occupy center aisle at Barnes & Noble were in short supply.
Books, also, were in short supply. There were no more than three-odd copies of any given book on the shelf, and everything was displayed cover-out, meaning the shelves carried a fraction of what you’d find packed and stacked into another bookstore. The clerk described the books on offer as “heavily curated” — limited to those titles rated most highly by Amazon readers. (I also got the impression the stock turns pretty quickly). While this reduced opportunity for discovery of new things, it also made for a fruitful browsing experience. I’ve found the paradox of choice to be a real thing, and knowing that every book on the shelf had to pass some soul-destroying Big Data test let me explore with confidence. Having every book racked cover-out also allowed me to quickly scan the shelves.
The user experience of the store took some getting used to. I don’t know as it’s worse than the usual retail bump and grind, and it might have been better — I’m still making up my mind.
I was greeted by staff as I entered the store — it reminded me of an Apple Store in this regard. It was a friendly and non-intrusive “welcome to our store” sort of greeting. The staff didn’t need to put a sales hammerlock on me, because they knew I’d boomerang back to them in confusion after wandering the store for a few moments.
The first thing that confused me was the pricing system. When I think of buying books from Amazon, I think of discounts. So foremost on my mind — did the store match Amazon’s online prices?
The answer was yes … sort of.
Prices weren’t displayed on the little placards identifying each book. Neither did a placard’s bar code register anything for me when I viewed it through my Amazon iPhone app (about which more in a moment). No, to find prices, you needed to turn the book over and look for the list price. (Duh). No different than any other bookstore in that regard.
But you could also take a book to a scanner for additional pricing options, which came down to this — Amazon Prime members get Amazon pricing, and everyone else paid retail. And only schmucks pay retail!
This method was intriguing. If you were interested enough in a book to take it off the rack and carry it over to a scanner, I’m willing to bet you would follow-through and buy it, especially when that scanner beeped up a nice discounted price. I didn’t see shelves or tables near the scanners where you might dump a book after scanning it, so it was kind of on you to either walk it back to the shelf, or walk it up to the purchase station.
Checkout is another place where the system was different from conventional retail, at least for Amazon Prime members. A sign near checkout alerted me to scan a QR code with my Amazon app, then to present my phone to the clerk. The clerk scanned my books and then scanned my phone. My order appeared on a touchscreen, showing everything I bought and the discount I received. I signed with my finger and my transaction was complete, with charges billed to my Amazon account. This was about as many steps as paying with a credit card, but using my phone this way was new, so it felt a little awkward. I expect it would improve with familiarity.
And about that smart phone app — it really was essential equipment to use Amazon Books, along with a Prime membership. Without those things, this was just a small bookstore with limited selection. With the app, you could check prices through the phone, rather than walking over to a scanner. And as a free bonus you didn’t have to feel guilty about doing it, as I do when scanning a barcode at Barnes & Noble to decide if I really want it now, or if I could wait a day or two for a discount.
It did feel like there was a piece missing, though — and that piece was digital. In a very real sense, Amazon’s brick & mortar operation is a feeder for their digital ecosystem. Everything in the store pointed me toward the value of a Prime membership and the convenient utility of their app. But while Kindles were well-represented in the store (with a section of their own, and individual Kindles embedded in the book displays), there was a gulf between paper and digital books that I expected to be bridged here.
The value proposition would have been for a free or discounted digital copy of any physical product I bought to automatically arrive in my account, but no such service was on offer. It would have also been handy if there was a one-touch solution for buying digital editions right where the books were racked — maybe by tapping my phone on the display plate. Instead, the clerk encouraged me to use my Amazon app to scan barcodes to make purchases or put something on my wish list the way you would in any other store. It felt like transferring trains at the station, instead of going directly to my destination, and this (admittedly small) bit of friction discouraged me from grabbing digital books when I might otherwise have given in to impulse.
But I did buy a couple physical books, and it has been a long time since I did that in a bookstore. Even with a limited selection, brick-and-mortar retail beats heck out of digital when it comes to browsing and discovery, and in this sense Amazon Books proved the best of both worlds — I walked out of the store with two books I didn’t have in mind when I went in, and I got them at Amazon’s discounted rate.
So the store was a big win all around, right?
I enjoyed the browsing and buying experience and would likely visit this shop every week if it was closer to home, but three things stick out for me.
First, I really would like a better convergence of the print and digital worlds. That there is still a divide between print and digital inside an Amazon brick-and-mortar outlet feels like a missed opportunity.
Second, as much as the curated selection of books suited my particular needs, I am sensitive to how this system throttles the discovery process. Amazon already exerts an unhealthy influence on the market by what they do and do not chose to show at their site, and this is only exacerbated in the reduced display space of their physical environment.
Third, I do sympathize with every other physical bookseller, who have survived the firestorm of the Barnes & Noble vs. Borders beatdown and seen their business undercut by Amazon’s online discounting only for Amazon to come after them on their home turf. Choice is good for readers, and discoverability is good for authors, and neither of those things will be especially well-served if brick-and-mortar Amazon stores drive everyone else out of business.
But that might just happen. A great local bookstore is a treasure, especially when staffed by enthusiastic readers who offer their own recommendations; or sign you up for an author’s in-store appearance; or when they host book clubs and meet-ups; or even when they just invite you to pet the bookstore cat. Amazon’s store might only offer part of that experience, but the store is still fun, the purchase process is novel and (mostly) painless, and everybody loves an Amazon discount.
Bookstore purists might turn their noses up at Amazon’s operation, but I am reminded of when Apple jumped into the music market with iTunes and the iPod. Apple’s digital music was inferior to other options (and if you don’t believe me, ask an audiophile the next time you have three hours to be harangued about digital music quality), but the end-to-end experience of doing music the Apple Way was greater than the sum-of-its parts, and the iPod conquered the world.
Will Amazon’s store disrupt the bookstore market the way the iPod disrupted music? Only time will tell! In the meantime, I’m going to read Paper Girls, which I bought off the shelf today at Amazon’s discounted price … but please let me know your thoughts in the comments section, below!
Next: #166: A Tale of Two NerdWalks