One of the hot stories last week was the surprise news that Amazon had opened their first retail locations, but it turns out that the real story is much more complicated.
According to the WSJ, Amazon had opened up a couple pop-up stores in an SF-area mall where it was letting passers-by try the frontlight on the Paperwhite and was "selling the devices as well as branded covers and power adapters from vending machines".
That sounds like a retail store, right? Not according to Amazon.
I double-checked this story with Amazon and I was told that this was part of a marketing effort:
This is part of Kindle’s ‘Read-It-To-Believe-It’ campaign highlighting the all-new Kindle Paperwhite. The mall integrations at a handful of malls across the US give customers a hands-on chance to try Kindle Paperwhite. In addition, the ‘Read-It-To-Believe-It’ campaign includes both TV and print advertising. You can see the commercials here.
If you take Amazon at their word then these locations aren't there to sell Kindles, just to promote them. It's possible that Amazon is trying to distract attention from their retail pilot (just in case it doesn't work out), but it's also possible that they're serious.
But would that necessarily mean that we're not talking about some new type of store?
The locations certainly don't look like a traditional store. Now that the news has sunk in I find myself in agreement with a reader, Carmen, who said:
I agree it could just be a way of testing to get customers reactions to the devices. The “shop” looks a lot like the set of their TV commercials, in fact.
From what little I can make out in the photo I think she's correct. The "store" did look more like a set than a store.
Here's a panoramic photo of one of the SF locations:
But the locations are still selling hardware, you say, and that makes the pop-up stores actual stores. On the other hand, if the sales are being conducted via vending machines then does that make this a retail store?
For your viewing enjoyment, here is one of the vending machines:
As a strict rule, I would say no - not unless you want to describe all vending machines as retail stores. But I also think that would this question hinge upon whether the staff there is actively promoting the merchandize, is capable of processing a return, or can generate a tech support ticket. If you cannot answer yes to a couple of those questions then this probably isn't a retail store. At the very least it doesn't fill the same needs as one of B&N's Nook depts.
But never mind the services offered, were the 2 SF-area pop-up stores even staffed by Amazon employees?
We know that Amazon has been hiring Kindle field reps since June 2013 and that they have at least one based in the SF metro area, but were any Amazon reps at the pop-up stores? The WSJ article wasn't able to find anyone who worked for Amazon, so we don't know for sure.
I am inclined to say that these aren't stores, but I hesitate to make an absolute statement. For all we know this "marketing effort" could become a semi-permanent part of Amazon's operations, and if these kind of pop-up stores are still around 6 months from now then arguably they are stores - even if they don't look or operate like a traditional retail store.
Stranger things have happened, after all; I can recall Nokia opening retail stores where you couldn't actually buy any of the products on display (I cannot find a link, darnit). So it's possible that Amazon is developing their own quirky take on a retail operation.
Past rumors about Amazon entering brick and mortar retail have turned out to be completely wrong (just ask Jeff Bezos), but that doesn't mean that Amazon won't eventually end up with something resembling a retail store. This question is far too nebulous to have a definitive answer, so at this point we'll just have to wait and see.