About a year ago there was a meme going around Twitter where people made fun of Mark Zuckerberg trying to connect with ordinary people. One of the ongoing jokes was that he was some type of alien or android.
"Thank you fellow human for sustenance for Zuckerberg. This...sand witch? It is woefully inefficient yet makes my taste sensors live again." pic.twitter.com/BrRCikZtwu
— Ed Dead Redemption 2 (@edzitron) May 1, 2017
I was reminded of that joke today when I visited the new Amazon Books store in Washington DC.
Located in Georgetown, the store occupies an oddly shaped space. It shares a 3-story building with a Nike store, but it only has a storefront on the street level. It doesn't use the two stories above it; instead, the bookstore extends into the basement, where it has about twice the footprint of the storefront.
The store has all the features you read about in past coverage of earlier stores, including an extensive hardware section, a small coffee shop, toys, games, and books.
The overall aesthetic was less bookstore than airport gift shop. I estimate around half of the floor space was devoted to books (5,600 titles), with the rest taken up by the other departments. And unlike your typical chain store, which can feel blandly corporate, the Amazon Books felt sterile and algorithmic. The layout, shelf-tags, and stock selection all give the impression that this store was stocked by the numbers.
In much the same way that Zuckerberg's attempt to connect with the public comes across as an Android trapped in the uncanny valley, this bookstore feels like it was an AI's attempt at making what it thought a human bookstore should look like.
People buy books? *whirr* *whirr* *whirr* We put books on shelf *whirr* *whirr* *whirr* - all 4-star and above.
Booksellers assemble unique collections? *whirr* *whirr* *whirr* Here are random collections based on Amazon's sales data and customer behavior. *whirr* *whirr* *whirr* Here's a regional collection. *whirr* *whirr* *whirr* An assortment of books bought or favorited by customers in the area. *whirr* *whirr* *whirr* An also bought collection.
Honestly, folks, this store feels like the only human involvement consisted of people carrying out the AI's orders. It is that soul-less.
And the strange thing is, the store works.
The goal of the store is to help you discover books you like, and it succeeded for me. I found most of the store just unappealing because I could see how the stock selection was assembled, but towards the end of my visit I got stuck in the crafts section where I discovered that a couple of the art projects I had admired online were now available in print as coffee table books.
I'd still be there, flipping through books and photographing covers (so I could "showroom" Amazon Books), if I hadn't reached the end of my two-hour parking window (I didn't think DC police were ticketing today but I didn't want to push my luck).
My key takeaway today is that Amazon has a winning model here for a brick-and-mortar bookstore.
If I were Books-a-Million, I would be very worried. Amazon is currently building bookstores singly and in small locations, but this is a model that could scale up to a chain of big box bookstores.
And it could happen sooner than you think. When B&N goes bankrupt in January, Amazon will have the ideal opportunity to snap up leases in great locations and open a few dozen bookstores - or a few hundred bookstores - in one fell swoop.
Given that Amazon owns hundreds of Whole Foods, dozens of "pop-up" electronics stores, and some fifteen bookstores (plus 3 more under constructions), wouldn't buying ex-B&N leases be the next logical step?