Amazon is opening its ninth and 10th bookstores this week — in Bellevue and San Jose. The brick-and-mortar stores provide a glimpse into what Amazon’s ultimate goal might be as it undertakes a massive effort to understand how to deal face to face with customers.
Amazon.com launched its first real-life bookstore in University Village less than two years ago as an experiment.
Now, as the e-commerce giant prepares to open its ninth and 10th locations this week — in Bellevue and San Jose, California — and three more by the end of the year, it’s clear it’s no longer an experiment and has taken on a life of its own as the online retailer aims to add more stores.
“How many is it? We don’t know yet, but we’re really excited about the results,” said Jennifer Cast, vice president of the Amazon Books unit, in an interview at the 4,600-square-foot Bellevue Square mall location, which opens Thursday. “We’d like to be able to have as many stores as would make sense.”
Amazon Books locations
Seattle: November 2015
San Diego: September 2016
Portland: October 2016
Boston: February 2017
Chicago: March 2017
Boston: April 2017
New York City: May 2017
Paramus, N.J.: June 2017
San Jose, Calif.: August 2017
Bellevue: August 2017
Los Angeles, New York City and Walnut Creek, Calif.: this year
Amazon is not providing any bookstore sales or traffic data. But the growth of the bookstore operation is evident, and it comes at a time Amazon, which got its start by convincing people it was more convenient to buy books online, is becoming more interested in the brick-and-mortar retail world that it helped upend. That emerging ambition was recently put in the spotlight by Amazon’s $13.7 billion deal to acquire Whole Foods Market.
The ongoing evolution of Amazon’s bookstores shows that the company is undertaking a massive effort to understand how to deal face to face with customers.
It also provides a glimpse into what Amazon’s ultimate goal might be.
By incorporating into the bookstore experience features from its website and product choices based on deep reservoirs of purchasing and usage information, Amazon is creating a shopping ecosystem that seamlessly spans the online and offline worlds. The two are also linked by Amazon’s $99 a year Prime loyalty program, which gives online customers perks such as a video streaming service and shipping privileges, and at Amazon’s bookstores, cheaper books.
Cooper Smith, who closely follows Amazon as director of research at L2, a brand consultancy, said the online retail giant isn’t opening bookstores to thumb its nose at competitors like Barnes & Noble and now-defunct Borders, who were hurt by Amazon’s online bookselling dominance. Rather, Smith said, Amazon is using the bookstores to develop technology and savvy that it can apply to other aspects of the physical retail world, from grocery stores to electronics.
“Brick and mortar is an extremely complex operation, and Amazon is new to it,” he explained.
Cast, the Amazon Books executive, is what Amazonians call a “boomerang” — somebody who has left the company only to return to the fold.
She was one of Amazon’s first few staffers, joining in 1996 as director of marketing. She later helped lead the launch of the company’s music CD business, and then left Amazon in 2001, dedicating much of her time to nonprofit activities.
In August 2014, Steve Kessel — the creator of the first Kindle e-reader and the person in charge of launching Amazon’s foray into physical retail — called her to talk about the idea of a bookstore that might also feature some Amazon devices. “It literally took me two days to say yes,” Cast said.
At the beginning, it was just a few very busy people who put together all aspects of the launch. For the first bookstore, which opened in November 2015 at the University Village shopping center, Amazon had just hired a curator for children’s books who needed some quick assistance. So Cast chipped in, picking the books for 6- to 12-year-olds.
“I had a spreadsheet of 300,000 books” that often crashed due to its huge size, she said.
Since then, some things have changed. First, many more people are employed in the effort (Cast declined to say how many, however.)
There were other discoveries too. For example, initially aisles felt too narrow to many customers — who were annoyed by “butt-brush.” So Amazon made them bigger.
“We learned a lot of what customers like and what they don’t like,” Cast said, explaining some of the features at the new Bellevue Square location that make the Amazon bookstore concept tick.
Amazon designs its bookstores for relatively tight spaces — a good fit for city neighborhoods and premium malls.
With room for just about 3,700 titles, the Bellevue store has a lot fewer options than a typical indie bookstore. So Amazon curators combine their expertise with a mountain of data extracted from the company’s website to pick books that customers will like.
The way Amazon displays books at the store mirrors the look of Amazon.com. The covers face forward. Under each book there are printed reviews from Amazon customers plucked from the website.
The store includes categories such as “Highly Rated Science and Nature Books, 4.5 Stars & Above,” making reference to how customers rate items they buy online.
There’s even a section that mimics Amazon’s automatic recommendations — for instance, suggesting to readers who liked “The Boys on the Boat,” a tale about the 1936 U.S. Olympic rowing team, that they might also like “The Jersey Brothers,” a real-life World War II story.
The bookstore’s titles aren’t selected by computers, but rather by humans enabled with lots of information and applying their gut feelings. “You can’t just use an algorithm,” Cast said.
Massive amounts of data do give Amazon book pickers a nice perch from which to make their decisions. Take, for example, a section of the store labeled “Page Turners.” Those are books that have been read in three days or fewer by Kindle readers.
The Amazon Books team was particularly excited about the success of the kids’ section, which Cast said draws a lot of traffic for a bookstore that size. That’s a function of the way the books are chosen — only those that are highly rated on the Amazon site make the cut — and described by customer reviews.
“Lots of parents come to malls to go into our store and buy kids’ books,” she said.
Another key feature of the store: Amazon devices. Customers come in to test Kindle e-readers, Fire tablets, and increasingly, the Echo line of speakers — which some prefer to try hands-on before purchasing.
The Echo devices harbor Alexa, Amazon’s popular voice-activated digital assistant. Part of the reason for that line’s success is that it allows owners to control light switches or coffee makers using their voice. Customers increasingly come into the Amazon bookstores asking staffers to help them with smart-home issues, and the company has started training associates to give “flash classes” about Alexa and other products.
What Amazon gets the most from visitors to its bookstores, however, is requests for more stores — in Shanghai, Dubai or other sites in the U.S., where all the bookstores are currently located.
“Half of our comments are people asking for our stores in other places,” Cast said.