Amazon in the Physical World: Not Bookstores — Media Showcases

amazon books gadgetsAmazon’s much-commented—and, at first glance, counter-intuitive—foray into brick-and-mortar “bookstores” began last year in Seattle. Now there’s a second physical store planned for San Diego.

As with nearly everything innovative that has come out of Amazon in past years, this move too has been widely misunderstood and misconstrued on the part of many people living in that quaint but increasingly myopic world called traditional bookselling: a hazard of that trade’s habitual lack of imagination.

“[I think Amazon’s move is] a great acknowledgement of something that independent brick-and-mortar stores have known for the past few decades,” Powell’s Books CEO Miriam Sontz told CNBC, “which is there is something special that occurs at a physical bookstore that is not replicable on the Internet. People have tried, and it’s just not the same experience. It doesn’t have the same serendipity. It doesn’t have the same sense of community.” In the same breath, Sontz expressed skepticism that an Amazon brick-and-mortar chain would find success due to the high rents that keep Powell’s and other smaller chains largely out of such pricey neighborhoods as Manhattan. Also, Sontz commented that while one or two Amazon stores might prove “novel,” 200 of them would be “less exciting.”

As envisioned by Sontz, perhaps so.

Writing in The Guardian, author Lee Child likewise sees Amazon’s move into brick-and-mortar retailing as a type of surrender—the long overdue recognition of a somehow superior anachronism. As Fitzgerald might have put it—Amazon has been “borne ceasely into the past” despite its best effort to beat on, a boat against the current. Hardly.

Child ignores the steady decline in bookstore retail shelf space over the past decade, not to mention the steady growth of Amazon, to insist that “for most books and most people most of the time, the biggest spur to purchase a physical book is seeing that actual book in a physical place. … Nothing sells physical books better than physical displays in brick-and-mortar locations. … That is still how books get sold. … Physical eyeballing is way ahead of any other prompt, be it word of mouth, spam, social media or other kinds of advertising. Which is a problem for Amazon.” [Note: Child cites no source for his data.]

Memo to Sontz and Child: Everything old isn’t new again.

Sontz (in imposing the p&l limitations of traditional physical bookstores upon the kind of Amazon brick-and-mortar presence we’ve already seen in Seattle), and Child (in assuming that Amazon must retreat into the “superior” old-world rubric of physical bookselling in order to grow its business), both display a fundamental misunderstanding not just of Amazon’s intentions, but of the very nature of content-marketing in the 21st century.

Amazon’s brick-and-mortar presence as built-out already in Seattle and ready for roll-out elsewhere may be based on the bookstore model, but is in fact something completely new.

Yes, there are physical books in the room. After all, bound paper remains a handy device for media delivery—albeit a lesser form. Given more attention, however, are Amazon’s various digital media options: Fire Tablets, Fire TV, the Echo voice-activated personal digital assistant/music-player/shopping aide, and its children Tap and Dot.

Amazon has designed its Seattle “bookstore” with a view toward creating a safe-space in which tech-nervous consumers can become acquainted with digital delivery options, conveniences, and subscription models without feeling intimidated. The Seattle store features a perimeter lined wall to wall with packed bookshelves. However, the center (and heart) of the store has been given over completely to digital products. The overall vibe is far less urgent and threatening than the vibe one finds in most tech stores, with more of a library feel that encourages browsing—not just of books, but also devices.

John Mutter—editor of the bookstore-industry newsletter Shelf-Awareness—recently spent 45 minutes observing customer behavior in the Seattle store. In that time, he didn’t see anyone paying any particular attention to the printed books, and in fact didn’t see anyone buying anything at all. Playing with and asking questions about devices? Well, that’s another matter.

So. A bookstore? Think again. More like an elaborately (and smartly) staged showcase for Amazon’s digital media devices and services. In other words: an effort at outreach and PR: a giant tent erected for a camp-meeting of Amazon tech evangelists. And, unlike your typical brick-and-mortar bookstore, NOT a profit center.

Traditionalists take note. Stop comparing apples with oranges. Or in this case, general stores with shopping malls.

Edward Renehan

View posts by Edward Renehan
Ed is an author, sailor, former Big 5 publishing exec, and is currently the publisher and managing director at New Street Communications.

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