When I heard Amazon was opening brick-and-mortar bookstores, it didn't make sense to me. For a business that thrives online, especially one that gets its kicks from pushing mom and pop shops to close, it seems odd they'd try to get into the local business game.
I'd been wanting to visit one for awhile to see what it was all about, but there aren't any near where I live (not that I'm complaining). I finally got the chance to check one out when I was in NYC.
I don't know what I was expecting, but when you walk in, it looks like just about any other chain bookstore. The setup was pretty similar to Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. Part of me appreciates that they aren't trying to get crafty and trick people into thinking they're an indie bookstore when they're obviously not. On the other hand, it kind of made me wonder if perhaps their goal with these brick-and-mortar bookstores isn't to shut down independent bookstores but to threaten the aforementioned chain bookstores. That's my guess, but only time will tell.
Immediately, I noticed one major thing was different. Every single book was facing out. There was no part of the store when you could only see a book's spine and only get a closer look if you pulled it off the shelf. Literally, every single book was facing out. Of course, this poses a challenge to bookstores strapped for space, but it sure does make things easier on the eyes for shoppers. Although I didn't expect to like anything about the store, this, I have to admit, was well done.
Another thing I picked up on immediately is that every book had an info card with a five-star review from a random reader pasted on the shelf. Amazon is known for their reviews, so this kind of makes sense. But it was just one review and all the ones I noticed were five stars, so it was like they just picked reviews at random and put them there to reassure buyers. I'm assuming they were there for folks who don't keep up with what books are bestsellers and need some added assurance that they're going to like the book.
Indie bookstores often have a staff picks table and it's not uncommon to see the staff member who chose a particular book write up a short review about why they loved the book and paste it on the shelf by their chosen book. So maybe that's what Amazon's goal was––to make it look like the entire store was one big staff picks shelf. Except that's not how it works...
Now, here's the even weirder thing. Since Amazon also serves as a publishing house through its self-publishing platform, Kindle, I assumed that every book in the Amazon Bookstore would be one of those rare self-published books that get a lot of hype. I wondered how such a bookstore would survive, especially when (in some crowds) self-publishing has a bad rap for being trite and poorly written.
Wonder no more. While I'm sure there were some in the store, I didn't notice a single self-published title. In fact, pretty much every book I saw was a popular bestseller. The store actually reminded me of a bigger version of those airport bookstores that only carry the biggest bestsellers.
Nothing wrong with that, but I feel those kinds of bookstores cater more to the casual reader because the more dedicated readers wouldn't be caught dead at an airport with no reading material. I'm glad they're there, of course, and should I ever find myself without a book I wouldn't hesitate to shop in one, but it's not going to be my first choice in a normal situation.
What's even weirder is that while Amazon's online arm prides itself on rock bottom prices, the prices in the physical store were the exact same list price you'd get from any retail bookstore. I even went as far as to look up new copies of some of the same titles on Amazon's website on my phone while standing in the store and the prices were often a good bit lower. That being the case, what incentive would I have to buy in the actual Amazon store as opposed to their website or an actual indie bookstore?
I figured there was a catch, so I asked an employee. She informed me that for people who don't have Amazon Prime, you pay the full list price of the book. But if you do have Amazon Prime, you get the online discounted rate (which is available to everyone who shops online).
From this, I gathered that the Amazon Bookstores are there to benefit Prime users and sell more Prime memberships. Since there's no incentive to shop there over an indie bookstore or online unless you have a Prime membership, it's clear to me that the store is catering to Amazon's existing customers rather than actually appealing to bibliophiles since, besides perhaps getting some new Prime members, I don't get the impression they're actually trying to get new customers.
The only real benefit I can see the store having to Amazon's brand is that people tend to think (rightly so) that Amazon is this big box company that puts local businesses out of business and steals jobs from communities. It's slightly harder to say that if you have an Amazon Bookstore in your community because they're probably employing people who live in your area and getting your area some tax revenue.
Perhaps that's the strategy all along: marketing and shifting the brand's perception with the public. It wouldn't surprise me. The CEO, Jeff Bezos, isn't afraid to take a loss at first with the goal of making more money in the long term. When Kindles first came out, they were sold at the price they cost to make, with no markup, because his thinking was that they'd make their money by people buying Kindle ebooks. It's possible they're doing something similar with the physical bookstores: take a loss on the retail to get more Prime memberships and get some people to stop thinking Amazon is evil.
Personally, whatever it is they're trying to do didn't work on me because I left without buying anything. And I seldom leave a bookstore without at least one book, so that ought to tell you something.
Have you been to an Amazon Bookstore? What did you think? Tell me in the comments!