Amazon’s first brick-and-mortar store
by Sam Machkovech – Nov 3, 2015 5:10pm CST
There she is: Amazon Books’ first location at Seattle’s University Village shopping center. Certainly puts the “brick” into “brick and mortar.”
SEATTLE—On Tuesday, after years of rumors and speculation, Amazon launched a brick-and-mortar store—the kind of place that it has frequently been accused of putting out of business for over 20 years. We had to see what it was all about.
So we got in the car and drove to Seattle’s famed University Village, the city’s leading upscale outdoor mall, and we did something we never thought we’d do: we walked into an Amazon-branded store, handed money to a human, and left with a book. The future is now.
If this is the future of neighborhood bookstores, however, we’re not entirely excited. We took a few of Amazon Books’ opening day hiccups and kinks in stride, and we saw some ways that the store could provide a unique and pleasing shopping experience, but for the most part, we found the shop—and its reliance on the Amazon smartphone app—something that we had no desire to ever return to again.
You came here to buy Mrs. Bezos’ book, right?
Amazon Books’ first location—which the company says it “hopes” will be followed by others—has been designed with a sort of open-yet-intimate design, meaning aisles and pathways feel both maneuverable and cramped. You’ll find a big magazine stand and some daily calendars, but otherwise, the printed content is all about books.
In terms of aesthetics, hardwood floors and wooden shelves offered a hint of a quaint old bookstore, but copious LED-equipped light bars all over the place—not to mention a lot of electronics demos, but more on those later—made us feel almost like we were in a Best Buy at times.
Some of the store’s bookshelves have been organized by genre or niche, including usual fare like science fiction, travel, biographies, graphic novels, poetry, and children’s age ranges, but most of the shop isn’t organized with the alphabet or other standard sorting. Other than a “top pre-orders” selection of five books behind the main checkout counter, there’s nothing in the way of a rotating best-seller section, either.
Instead, the shop’s selection hinges on Amazon’s curation—books selected due to high ratings, newness, or Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ wife being an author (no, seriously, her novel Traps currently gets a spotlight in the “staff favorites” section). Whatever the reason it’s there, a title at Amazon Books will always face forward—not be wedged among others spine-side-out—and come with a little card to convince you why Amazon chose the book. (We didn’t peruse the entire selection to see if Amazon’s curation process had, for example, an anti-Hachette bias.)
In most cases, that’s a mix of data—the percentage of Amazon customers who posted a favorable or five-star review—and selected customer review quotes. Amazon has clearly tried to select smart-sounding reviews, but the result still ultimately comes off like those awful movie advertisements where major media outlets’ quotes are slammed next to, say, @kimmie73242’s Twitter exclamation that the latest scary movie was “SO WILD.”
We could see this as an ideal shopping experience for some clueless book shoppers. Amazon knows how to target book categories to a wide audience, and it can stock each of its category-specific kiosks with enough well-reviewed and highly anticipated fare to sneak in a few cult favorites or new, unproven titles—and that kind of presentation on its website probably convinces enough shoppers to purchase something, so anybody who enters a bookstore with that sort of “god, so many books” feeling will probably take comfort in this approach.
Nice magazine stand, but what’s this to the left?
Yet Amazon isn’t just interested in offering a comfortable, curated book-buying experience. It also wants to whack everybody over the head with its rapidly expanding empire of devices and content-delivery ecosystems. Everywhere you turn, you’ll find a Fire TV demo, or a table dedicated to Fire tablets, or the bonkers “read the book, listen to the book, watch the book” display—you know, in case you didn’t know that Amazon is ready to supply you with the audiobook and film versions of any hit franchise you can think of.
A few tables were dedicated to Amazon Echo, which we found hilarious, given that the white noise in the store was so loud, you couldn’t hear robo-Alexa’s spoken responses. Whenever Amazon Books turns on its speakers—they will exclusively play music from Amazon Prime Music—those demos will prove harder to hear.
Ultimately, the current version of Amazon Books is too busy, loud, and gadget-loaded to foster any traditional “let’s hang out at the bookstore to read and chat” experience. If you would rather think of the shop as a showroom for the Amazon products that have never been sold at big-box retailers like Best Buy or Wal-Mart, then that’s a whole ‘nother story—but, then, why call the place “Amazon Books?”
Listing image by Sam Machkovech
Don’t put your phone away just yet
We did manage to find a book we wanted pretty painlessly, but the shopping process was a different story. The first sign you see upon entering Amazon Books tells customers that all book prices in the store are the same as at Amazon.com, but you’ll have to dig a bit to find the more informative sign: that the prices on the books themselves are not the real price. You’ll need to scan any book in the store to see how much it costs.
Most of the signs encourage customers to download Amazon’s official app—without directing them specifically to either Google Play or the iOS App Store—and then tap that app’s camera icon to scan a barcode, either on the book itself or on an Amazon Books description tag. We brought a friend along for this Amazon Books visit, and we both all ran into repeated scanning errors, which we chalked up to first-day technical distress.
The store’s few dedicated scanning kiosks worked without a hitch, but most of the store’s signs didn’t mention these kiosks, and we didn’t notice them until after about 10 minutes of organically sniffing around the store. Amazon clearly wants its shoppers to get the app, scan with the app, and perhaps even notice that the app does a good job of recognizing the covers of books. Most brick-and-mortar stores have suffered greatly with savvier shoppers using their phones to price-compare, and instead of shying away, Amazon Books trains customers to do that very thing within its own ecosystem.
Which is exactly what we didn’t want to do at a bookstore. We wanted to put our phones away—to get away from glowing screens for a bit—and bury our noses in books. And in some ways, Amazon Books lets customers do that by giving us a screen-free shortcut to seeing some of the Internet’s most recommended, most highly reviewed books, only to yank that feeling away as soon as we want to suss out our buying budget. (This is doubly annoying when trying to get a few books, since that requires juggling a shopping bag, the current book you’re interested in, and a smartphone.)
There was also the odd matter of how much we interacted with humans. Amazon Books, in some ways, is designed to be a book-loving introvert’s dream: every book has a quote and a sales pitch, and every category shelf has been curated as if to say, “This is just like book stores of old! Look, some recommendations that are tailored for specific kinds of readers! You people used to love this stuff.” Yet when we wanted to see about a specific book being in stock at the store, we couldn’t find any kiosk or app function to search locally, and that’s when we were told we needed to ask a human. (We asked this because we found a book that was a biography but not stocked in Amazon Books’ biography section—which we consider another issue with the shop’s whole “let us curate for you” philosophy.) When Amazon Books didn’t have something in stock, an employee informed us—with no sense of irony—that you don’t have to “special order” it like at other book stores. Just order it through Amazon! You have the app open already, right?
We’re not against talking to humans at all, but it hinted to a split-personality issue that will always arise when places like bookstores push total automation onto their customers. We’d rather have all of the information in front of us when we want to buy a book, and for some people, that means a gazillion unedited reviews, instant price quotes, instant computer-powered searches, and easy access to page samples. For others, that means a gazillion books to pick through, price tags, flippable books, and a single, obvious entity (usually a helpful staffer) to help us find what we want. Amazon Books fails by trying to split the difference—and by hiding the store’s real name, “Amazon Books, Apps, and Beyond.”