Inside Amazon’s first New York City Bookstore
Lawrence stood at the front of Amazon’s first New York City bookstore, momentarily startled by the applause.
He was the first shopper at Amazon’s newest “Amazon Books” physical retail location – and he wasn’t even shopping for books. Lawrence, who didn’t offer his last name, had basically wandered into the still unopened location during a press preview and instead of throwing him out, Amazon welcomed him as customer #1 with a round of applause.
Lawrence later told me he “really just wanted to check out the space.”
His interest is warranted.
With just six physical bookstores dotted around the U.S (this is the seventh), few have seen or experienced Amazon’s vision for retail book shopping in the real world.
As the world’s largest online retailer (and second-biggest retailer overall), why would Amazon need floor space? Didn’t the company spend the last 23 years essentially wiping out not only tiny mom-and-pop bookstores, but bigger players like Borders and Waldenbooks?
Perhaps it’s because recent studies have shown a significant number of college students (read: millennials and probably GenZers) prefer real books over ebooks.
VP of Amazon Books Jennifer Cast, who gave me a tour of the 4,000-square foot space, said the store is all about discovery of books and devices. She never used the words “book sales” or even “selling books.” In fact, 20 percent of the store is devoted to Amazon Kindles, Fire tablets, Echos, Dots, and a variety of smart home devices you can connect to the Echo. It will also be the future of home of the Amazon Echo Show.
There are also a handful of devices among the books, like the Kindle Fire Kids Edition tablet I found in the Children’s book section.
Otherwise, though, the store is a dozen or so aisles of books, roughly 3,000 titles in all, with virtually all of them front-cover forward. In other words, Amazon purposely isn’t even taking advantage of all the extra titles it could squeeze in if it placed the tomes with only their spines showing.
These choices are by design.
“It’s still new for us to be constrained by walls,” said Cast, who explained that the secret sauce for boiling down in-store options from the roughly 2 million titles available on Amazon.com to the curated selection available in the third-story space in Columbus Circle (just opposite a yummy-looking Bouchon Bakery) is data.
Amazon sets a high bar for inclusion in the store. It’s like a physical version of Amazon’s “Recommended for you.”
To score a bit of prime Amazon Bookstore physical real estate, books must be either rated four stars or higher on Amazon.com, a bestseller (where people voted with their pocketbooks), have huge pre-sale numbers, or come from an author with a significant track record.
“We’re bringing customer voices and choices into store,” said Jennifer
Everywhere you look, the power of the crowd and Amazon’s vast retail intelligence is on display.
Above the book shelves are signs that reveal groupings only possible with Amazon, like, “Page Turners: Kindle readers finish in three days or less” and “Books with more than 10,000 reviews on Amazon.com.” On that shelf, I noticed The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and two Bill O’Reilly Killing [So and So] books. Jennifer calls the shelf end-caps, “Little discovery moments.”
Amazon also makes every effort to keep book shoppers connected to the digital corpus.
Every single shelf label includes the book’s rating and number of reviews (in this case, accurate up to 2/2/2017; the company plans to refresh the cards when there’s been a notable change), and a bar code.
The codes are there not for the sales associates to take inventory, but for Amazon Bookstore customers to scan with their smartphone to get instant detail on the ratings and reviews for each book. I was also able to use the Amazon Shopping App’s built-in Firefly capability to scan book covers for a deeper dive.
Amazon’s data also allows for more usual collections and pairings. There’s “100 Books to read in a lifetime,” which slams together current titles like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks with classics like Silent Spring. There’s also an “If you like” shelf with two sets of books and signs in between them that read, in classic Amazon fashion, “If you like” with a big arrow pointing to, say Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow” and “You’ll love” with an arrow pointing to American Ulysses by Ronald C. White.
Data also helps Amazon add a localization element to each store. In the Travel section, for example, Amazon features travel books that reflect choices made by New York-based Amazon.com shoppers, who prefer books on Brooklyn and European destinations (West Coasters, by the way, favor New Mexico and Hawaii).
Strong, free Wi-Fi bathes the store and, especially, the device area where Echos and Kindles are connected, full of content and ready to interact. There are also helpful associates on hand who will be happy to show you a wide array of hidden device features.
For as much as the store looks and smells like a traditional bookstore, there are notable omissions. There is, for instance, no in-store coffee shop. In fact, there’s a real dearth of seating in the smallish space. Amazon wants you to browse and buy, but not necessarily stick around and read. Up front, there are commerce-ready tablets, but no cash registers.
In addition, Amazon has no plans right now for book signings or major in-store events. Instead there will be “Flash Classes,” three-to-five minute introductions to (you guessed it) Amazon devices.
Speaking of buying, Amazon Prime members can expect to pay Amazon.com prices. Otherwise, you pay retail. All devices, though, even for non-Prime members, will be available at Amazon.com prices.
The Columbus Circle location, which opens Thursday, will soon be joined this summer by another Amazon Bookstore on New York City’s 34th Street. Other stores are planned for New Jersey, San Jose, and Bellevue, Washington.