There are plenty of the same trappings of typical bookstores: The light jazz music, dark wooden floors and rows of bookshelves.
But then you notice this place is a little like walking inside Jeff Bezos’ head: All the books are facing out to make them more customer-friendly, someone nearby is calling out repeatedly for “Alexa,” and just about everything is touched by data.
That’s the feel of the newest Amazon Books location, the company’s first in New York, which opens Thursday in the Shops at Columbus Circle, across from Central Park.
“We talk about this as a physical extension of Amazon.com,” said Jennifer Cast, Amazon Books’ vice president, as she showed a few reporters around the store Tuesday. “So you’ll see that we incorporate features that customers love from Amazon.com in various places.”
The space is part of Amazon’s expanding portfolio of store concepts it’s developing in hopes of cracking into physical retail, with each idea offering its own Amazonian twists. There’s the cashier-less convenience store called Amazon Go and the buy online, pickup in-store grocery called AmazonFresh Pickup. There are also college “bookstores” that don’t store any books.
Amazon is likely hoping to build up its retail presence so it can keep up its massive growth, especially because more than 90 percent of US retail sales still happen in stores. But all this work is coming at a particularly grim time for the broader world of physical retail. At least 10 traditional retailers filed for bankruptcy protection so far in 2017, and more announced store closures and layoffs. A major culprit of all this upheaval is Amazon, which convinced more people to shop online. So it’s not without irony that the e-commerce pioneer is now pushing into brick-and-mortar.
“We know that customers like to touch and feel and be in a store, particularly for books. We’ve heard for the past decade that customers want to be able to experiment with our devices and ask questions and try them,” Cast said when asked about Amazon’s new move into physical stores, “and so it just makes sense for us to do this.”
She declined to say whether the stores are profitable but said that the intention is to make money from them, not just to build these spaces as elaborate Amazon billboards.
The Columbus Circle location is Amazon’s seventh bookstore, coming about a year and a half after the first Amazon Books opened in Amazon’s hometown of Seattle. A total of 13 Amazon Books locations will be open by year’s end, including another Manhattan location on 34th Street, the company said. In comparison, there are about 630 Barnes & Noble bookstores.
Amazon Books’ unique features include a lack of price tags on the shelves. Instead, customers can use the Amazon shopping app on their phones to scan nearby barcodes to find prices, reviews and other information. The company also relies on its wealth of shopping data to create different sections, such as Page Turners, which are books Kindle readers finish in three days or less. There are also only about 3,000 titles in the store, so any books that don’t get at least a four-star customer rating or are anticipated new releases won’t make the cut.
There’s also a section in the front showing off a bunch of Amazon’s own gadgets, including Fire tablets, Echo smart speakers and Fire TV game controllers.
Amazon is still experimenting with its stores, trying out a bunch of ideas to see what sticks. It should be an uphill battle for the company to outdo incumbents like Macy’s and Target and Barnes & Noble, which have been at this game for a much longer time. But if it finds the right mix of tech and retail, that could spell even more trouble for traditional stores.
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