The new just-opened Amazon bookstore in Manhattan made my wife think of an airport bookstore or a “gallery, where the books are displayed rather than sold”. Everything is faced out. The selection is limited. An airport bookstore would almost certainly have a different mix of titles: far fewer cookbooks (the Amazon store gives them quite a bit of space) and a much bigger selection of novels, particularly genre novels (of which there seemed to be relatively few at Amazon).
But the gestalt is similar. It’s not a store in which you are expected to spend hours browsing. You’re there to select from the most popular possible titles displayed for very rapid scanning and choosing.
The bays are five face-outs wide, with what is to a lifetime bookstore observer a disconcerting space between the titles. Each book has a card in front of it with some summary, usually from a reader. The shelves have adjustable blocks on them that push the front of the faced books to the front of the shelf, even if there is only one copy left of that title. (I learned by asking that the store personnel are alerted when a slot is empty, but I didn’t ask whether that was because they know what books have sold or because there’s some sensor I didn’t notice. A question for next time…) It’s very clean but it is a conspicuous consumption of shelf space per title that I have never seen before in about 60 years of looking at bookstores.
However, unlike any airport bookstore to date, or any other there will ever be until Amazon builds one, there are a few features and merchandising ideas that are special and that it would be hard for another entity to imitate.
“Page Turners” is a section of “books Kindle readers finish in 3 days or less”. The only other brick-and-mortar retailer that could even entertain presenting something like this is Barnes & Noble. They can “see” how fast their (far far fewer) Nook customers go through books. But it seems like a great idea. Lots of people want to find a book they can read quickly. Obviously, this metric could reflect that the book is short as much as that it is compelling. But maybe that distinction doesn’t matter to the person who wants a quick read.
They have a section of “Fiction Top Sellers in New York”. I suspect this would be a more powerful tool for them in a less diverse place. But it is an idea that employs their ability to see and segment interest through data.
They exploit their access to customer reviews for the content of the display cards but also as hooks for promotion. Some books show on their information cards that “98% of reviewers rated this item 5 stars”. Another whole section is headed “Books with more than 10,000 reviews on Amazon.com”.
Another feature Amazon is uniquely positioned to offer is “If you liked this, you’ll love these”. The signage designating this feature is placed to the right of one book and points to the four others on the same shelf. This is, of course, the first question many bookstore customers would ask a knowledgeable clerk, who would, presumably, answer from some combination of what the store staff had read and discussed and what other customers had told her. But Amazon has pretty deep information about this through the reader reviews and ratings they capture. This data-driven approach has at least an even chance of being as accurately predictive as any well-read clerk.
They have another section that is “Hot in Amazon Books: Popular Titles in Our Stores”, which has to be a recent addition because the stores themselves are so new.
I was intrigued that a section called “Our Picks for New York Area Travelers” had guides to Toronto, Barcelona, and Croatia on the lower shelves. That seems like a mistake. Surely they could fill a “section” that only required about 25 or 30 books (5 across: 5 or 6 shelves…) entirely with New York area guidebooks or relevant fiction or non-fiction.
There is a pretty big chunk of the front of the store dedicated to displaying and demonstrating various Amazon devices. All the kids we could see in the store were sitting at tables playing with them. This was despite the fact that a large amount of the store real estate was devoted to juvies organized by age range and those aisles had no kids in them. My wife pointed out that, unlike in a Barnes & Noble or many indies, there was no place in the kids’ book section to sit down and read.
Aside from the unique data-driven ways Amazon has to decide what to feature, the shopping tech is also very cool for a Prime member. Using the Amazon app, you point your phone at a book (the cover, not a bar code) and it gives you your online Prime price for the book, which was a deep discount of at least 25% on every title I checked. There are stations where those without the app, and perhaps without a Prime membership, can scan the book’s barcode and get the same information: how much they’d save if they joined Prime!
I have so far gone twice to the store, which is on the 3rd floor of a shopping mall at Columbus Circle. The first time was Thursday, the day it opened. The store was loaded with TV crews. It also had a ton of “clerks”, Amazonians greeting you as you came in and introducing themselves ubiquitously as you browsed. On Saturday at about 1 there was a line to get into the store. We were being metered in as people left. It took about five minutes to get inside.
The clerks knew their stuff. On Saturday, Martha wanted to shop for a cookbook for a niece, something aimed at a pre-teen. She asked an Amazon clerk near the cookbook section if they had such a thing. “Not here,” he knew. He had personally placed every single book on the cookbook shelves. (My quick math would say that was about 150-200 titles.) He suggested we check the books for young people. We did. They didn’t have such a thing.
One of the clerks on opening day introduced herself as a “book person”. Further conversation elicited that some of the staff specialized in knowing about the devices. We learned some interesting things from her. She’d worked in other Amazon stores. She said that anywhere from 10% to as many as 30% of the titles could change week to week. This is critical if they want repeat customers for a store where you can pretty much browse the entire contents in 15 or 20 minutes.
She told us that the 34th Street store that will open soon will have a different title mix. One wonders how Amazon creates the distinctions between two stores that are less than 2 miles apart, both of which will have an enormous percentage of their traffic comprised of people who aren’t local. The formulas and algorithms honed in Seattle and San Diego might need some adjustment.
From her I learned that my guess that the store had 5,000 titles was wildly high. “Three thousand,” she told me.
Fifteen years ago, Barnes & Noble was my client. They were phasing out the mall stores that stocked 20,000 titles in favor of the 100,000+ title superstores. I observed that with their great supply chain, “you should find a way to make the 15-20,000 title store work”. What I was told was, “we’re thinking about the million-title store”.
Now Amazon is trying to leverage a fabulous supply chain to make a THREE thousand title store work. Wow!
I have to admit that the bookselling instincts developed since my youth (my first “real” job was on the floor of Brentano’s bookstore on Fifth Avenue in 1962) want them to try one shelf of spined titles in each section in single copies. That would double or more the number of available titles from which a customer could choose. They wouldn’t each have their own announcement cards or face-out display, but I wonder whether they’d outsell the shelves with five titles. And I wonder how many customer wants like “an instructional cookbook for a pre-teen” could be satisfied that aren’t now.
They’re a data-driven company and they’re just getting started with these stores. I hope that when they get a couple hundred open, maybe they’ll try some experiments like that. But they’ve already built something with a lot of interesting features which will probably prove an entirely satisfactory bookstore for many people. And having a fraction of the footprint, which means a fraction of the rent, of any other chain store is one substantial competitive advantage.