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Meet the Guy Behind Amazon’s Secret Retail Store Plans

The initiative involves more than just bookstores.
Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

The man behind the Kindle is leading Amazon’s project to create the retail stores of the future. And bookstores are just the beginning.

These are two of the new details Re/code has uncovered about Amazon’s plans for expansion into physical retail. They come a day after the CEO of a large shopping mall company said he believed Amazon was planning on opening 300 to 400 bookstores, sending panic through the retail industry. Here’s what else we found.

Amazon Vets

The Amazon retail store initiative is being led by Steve Kessel, a longtime Amazon executive whose team launched the first Kindle e-reader and who is very tight with CEO Jeff Bezos, according to three sources familiar with the group.

Kessel is widely respected inside Amazon, where he is known as a low-ego leader with greater emotional intelligence than some other senior executives at the company, according to two sources. He joined Amazon in 1999 and left in 2011 or 2012 to take a sabbatical. He started working on this initiative when he came back, these people say. The specifics of Kessel’s project had been a secret internally for a long time, but his group has attracted more attention since it opened up Amazon’s first brick-and-mortar bookstore in Seattle in the fall.

The store, called Amazon Books, sells a few thousand books chosen in part based on customer reviews from The store also has Amazon’s line of devices on display, such as Kindle Fire tablets and the Echo voice-controlled speaker.

Early Amazon exec Jennifer Cast runs the Amazon Books division and reports to Kessel. She spent a long time away from Amazon before returning in 2014 to take on this role. Another vice president working on the project is Cameron Janes, who joined Amazon in 2007 and was recently the product management leader for Amazon’ Fire Phone.

Back to the Future

Amazon will indeed open up more bookstores, but it also plans to eventually unveil other types of retail stores in addition to bookstores, according to two sources familiar with the plans. It’s not yet clear what those stores will sell or how they will be formatted, but the retail team’s mission is to reimagine what shopping in a physical store would be like if you merged the best of physical retail with the best of Amazon.

One source says the team is experimenting with some of the ideas discussed in this retail-store-related patent application that Re/code uncovered last year. One of the experiences discussed in the application would allow customers to pick an item from a shelf and automatically be charged for it upon exiting the store without stopping to pay at a checkout counter or kiosk.

“[W]hen the customer passes through the exit (transition area) of the retail location, the items picked by the user may be automatically transitioned from the materials handling facility to the user and the user may be charged a fee for the item,” one section reads.

Kessel is one of the three inventors listed on the patent application referenced above.

We’re Hiring

Amazon is currently hiring for a new Amazon Books bookstore in Southern California that has yet to be announced, according to job listings. One listing, for an Amazon Books assistant store manager in La Jolla or San Diego, says: “You love the excitement of running a bookstore. You have a flair for leading teams and adjusting your leadership style based on the situation. You enjoy reading and keep yourself updated on the latest in the digital devices front. You are part of the store leadership team.”

There are no immediate plans for a rollout of 300 to 400 stores, two sources say, but they could not rule out that eventual outcome. The mall company CEO who originally asserted those numbers released a statement on Wednesday saying his comment “was not intended to represent Amazon’s plans.”

In addition to its college campus stores and the new Seattle bookstore, Amazon currently operates pop-up shops in some California malls and Amazon device vending machines in some airports.

An Amazon spokeswoman did not reply to multiple requests for comment.

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