Amazon Books: Future of Bookselling?

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A little over a year has passed since Amazon opened its first physical retail location in Seattle. The retailer has since opened two more locations in San Diego and Portland.

Over the last four months, I have had the opportunity to visit all three locations and if there is a trend to watch in book publishing, this is one worth watching.

Hailed for their success in creating the infinite bookshelf, Amazon takes a different approach in their physical spaces. The stores have a small footprint (3500-8000 square feet) and all of their inventory is positioned with the covers facing out, giving customers the ability to clearly see what is available in the store. These decisions mean their stores stock between 3000 and 5000 titles, versus 100,000+ titles in a typical Barnes & Noble superstore.  Instead of the long tail of obscure, their selection presents a small concentration of big sellers.

While the selection is small, Amazon is using their vast storehouse of data across the store.  Various shelves in the store highlighted books that were top sellers in the city, books with ratings of 4.8 stars and higher, and “if you like this, you will like that selections,” similar to what you find on Amazon’s product pages.

Each book in the store includes a shelf display with more collected information: the number of reviews, the average customer rating for the book, a reader review from their site. I’d guess that sales rank in the local area also contributed to their stocking algorithm.

For example, The Phoenix Project, a book near and dear to my heart, has always sold well through online retailers and in ebook formats.The Phoenix Project has over 1,600 reviews with an average rating of 4.6 out of 5 stars. It was quite a surprise to find the book available in Amazon Books’ Seattle and Portland locations. This is the first time I had ever seen the book in a book retail location. The book sells well in the Pacific Northwest given the number of technology companies here and the fact that IT Revolution is based in Portland. Interestingly, The Phoenix Project wasn’t available in San Diego’s smaller store.

With the stores called Amazon Books, bound volumes are the central focus, taking up around seventy five percent of the floor space. The stores also prominently display the company’s flagship electronics.  Kindle e-readers of all shapes and sizes sit alongside their colorful Fire tablet cousins. Employees encourage customers to try the Alexas and Echoes microphoned speakers. A collection of batteries, cables and memory cards round out the devices section.

Amazon also makes sure to leverage the existing relationships they have with online customers in the physical stores. When you check-out, the clerk asks if you have a Prime account. If you say yes, they can confirm your account with a credit card number you have saved in your profile and your purchase prices are the same as you would find on their website. If you say no, the clerk offers a discounted price on Prime membership. Declining the offer means you pay the retail price for all of your selections.

Overall, their approach is interesting, but I wonder a little where these new stores fit among  the choices for book buying between the near complete availabilty of Amazon.com and the high fidelity experience of Powell’s in Portland or a Barnes & Noble superstore. The Amazon Books stores are somewhere in between–an interesting place to discover new books but the small selection makes it hard to depend on finding the book that needed to purchase.

It would be nice to know if a title I searched for online was available at my local Amazon store. My hometown bookstore Powell’s makes the location of their inventory visible on their website.

Amazon has officially announced five more stores in cities like Chicago, Boston, and New York. Reports say they could open as many as 100 locations around the U.S.

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