SEATTLE — I entered Amazon's first brick-and-mortar store completely convinced it was a terrible idea. I already had a snarky headline ready in my head: "I went to the Amazon store in Seattle. It was just as dumb as you think."
Except … it wasn't. I spent about an hour in Amazon's Seattle bookstore shortly after it opened in November. And it actually made me think the store wasn't that dumb. It might even be a good idea, a thought that still gives me cognitive dissonance with Amazon's announcement Tuesday that it would build 300 more of these physical bookstores.
There are definitely dumb parts of the store, for sure, and I will happily detail those below. But my big takeaway was this: The case for the Amazon bookstore is the case for any retail store. It's a curated collection of items available for immediate purchase. If that doesn't sound revolutionary, it's because it isn't! It's how stores have worked for decades now — and why there are millions of them in perfectly good business across the country. Amazon has been a phenomenal success, but it hasn't rendered brick-and-mortar retailers obsolete. And with a big investment in Amazon bookstores, the company is acknowledging that might not be such a bad thing.
There are definitely dumb parts of the Amazon store
I didn't even mean to go to the Amazon bookstore on my trip to Seattle last November.
But I was getting lunch at Seattle's University Village — a shopping center near the University of Washington — and saw it on the walk back to my car. Since it had just opened a few days earlier, I decided to check it out.
The store was packed. Most of the people whom I interviewed there were, like me, there for the novelty of the experience. They'd also read that Amazon had opened a store, were passing by, and wanted to check it out. One guy appeared to film a video tour of the entire store on his iPhone. It didn't even seem weird when I snapped photos for this story on my phone; plenty of other people did the exact same.
The Amazon bookstore felt like a pretty normal bookstore except for one infuriating difference: The books don't have prices. Look closely at the photo above — the books have no price information, just a short summary of their plots. (Some standard Amazon items, like Kindles, do have price information.) Whenever you want to know how much a book costs, you have to either find a scanner in the store or open up the Amazon app and use that as a scanner.
The Amazon bookstore has to work this way because it promises to match the prices it offers online. And with prices changing so frequently, it can't print them out (although I don't see an obstacle to displaying the prices digitally). I knew I needed a new pair of earbud headphones and, since I was there anyway, picked up a pair of Bose headphones. I scanned them. They were $299 — very much out of my price range.
This appeared to be one of the biggest frustration of the customers at the store. One older man berated an associate over the point. "Your store is very crowded and uncomfortable to be in," he noted. "There are no prices. Just some feedback for you."
He then proceeded to buy a Kindle and an Amazon Prime membership.
The main job of the Amazon employees appears to be telling people to order things on Amazon
I hung out by the "Amazon Answers" desk for about 15 minutes, right in the middle of the store. Customers came by with questions about two things: where to find prices and whether the store had a particular item in stock.
The answer to to the latter question typically went something like this: "We don't have that particular item in stock, but you can order it on Amazon.com." I heard this line repeated again and again. As far as I could tell, the main job of the Amazon bookstore employees was telling people to order things on Amazon.
My favorite version of this interaction was between a middle-aged woman and a sales associate. He explained that the particular book she asked about wasn't available, but he could order it to the store for her. This felt absurd, given that Amazon offers free home shipping to everyone on orders of $35 or more, and to Prime members for all orders.
I thought the Amazon store was dumb. I spent $36.74 there anyway.
Amazon definitely did not have the wide array of items at its bookstore that it does online. I could not buy my dog's food and a year's supply of almonds in one fell swoop.
But it did offer something different: a curated collection of its top-selling and top-rated books. Amazon says it uses data on customer preorders and ratings to decide what to stock in the store. That pretty much ensures that only popular books will make their way off the internet and onto the store's shelves.
And for me, as a customer, that worked. It was a relief not to have to browse through dozens of books, looking at different summaries and trying to decide which one I would purchase — my typical method online. Psychologists have found that this endless number of options can create a "paradox of choice," where we become too paralyzed to choose anything.
This is why I prefer shopping at Trader Joe's (which tends to offer one of everything) to Safeway (where there are two dozen types of peanut butter, inevitably resulting in crippling indecision). And I think that's what works about the Amazon bookstore too. Its selection is way smaller than what a Barnes & Noble or Borders would typically offer. But the books it does choose to offer are, according to Amazon's massive trove of online shopping data, the ones customers are most likely to want.
I had absolutely no plans to buy anything in the store. But surrounded by a small number of highly rated books, I quickly saw one that grabbed my eye (It was Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, the first in a four-book series currently getting rave reviews). I knew I had a long flight back to DC coming up the next day. I bought it, somewhat sheepishly, along with Amazon's basic (and much cheaper than Bose) earbud headphones.
Amazon specializes in instant gratification. So do brick-and-mortar stores.
I spent about half an hour standing outside the Amazon store, interviewing people who decided to buy something there about why they decided to shop in the store rather than online.
The most common phrase I heard was two words: "instant gratification." The reason they decided to buy an item here versus online was simple: They could have it right now.
This felt especially odd and a tad ironic considering that Amazon, as a website, pretty much specializes in instant gratification. It did tons of work to normalize fast and free shipping as part of the online shopping experience.
But the Amazon bookstore was, of course, an even faster experience than online. I couldn't have ordered the headphones or the book in time for my flight tomorrow morning. If I hadn't stumbled into the Amazon store, I would have just taken my flight without reading materials or headphones.
If there's a case for an Amazon bookstore, it's really the case for any other store in the mall: It will always (or at least the foreseeable future) be faster to buy something in person than it will be on the internet. The experience of in-person shopping will always, when customers have the time, be more instant.
Will the Amazon store work? Who knows.
To be clear: I appeared to be in the minority of Amazon bookstore shoppers who actually bought anything. In the half-hour I spent standing outside the store, about one of every 10 shoppers came out with an Amazon bookstore shopping bag. (Full disclosure: I do not know whether this is higher or lower than other bookstores, as I have not spent time standing outside of those).
But Amazon likely does have good data on its store, how it compares to competitors, and whether having more would be a boon to its business. The web giant's big investment in hundreds of new stores indicates that they think something is going right in the Seattle experiment — enough that they want to replicate it in hundreds of other stores. And in my own experience, the store did work to convince me to buy something I never thought about ordering online — and I have a new book and pair of headphones to prove it.