Why Did Amazon Open a Bookstore? | Vol. 3 / No. 2.2

Confused? | Zhao!, CC BY 2.0
Confused? | Photo: Zhao!, CC BY 2.0

This week, Amazon — you know, that place online where you buy your memory cards, your Tupperware, and (yes, you, America) 40% of your books — just opened a bookstore. A solid, physical, brick-and-mortar, actually-a-real-place-you-can-go bookstore.

Most of the commentary I’ve seen on it seems to be centered around the company’s predatory pricing policies (well-documented elsewhere), its attempts to drive smaller shops out of business, and how its flagship bookstore is weirdly not “disruptive.”

But here’s the thing: I don’t think Amazon Books (as the store is called) is trying to be disruptive. I’m not even sure it’s trying to turn a profit, though I’m sure they’d be happy to pay for their expenses.

I haven’t been to Amazon Books, but judging from the descriptions I’ve read, it sounds much more like an Apple Store than a Barnes and Noble, which is to say it’s only half a retail outlet. What is it really?

Well, mostly, it’s a showroom.

For years, Amazon has been making money off small bookstores, most egregiously offering customers fifteen dollars each (back in 2011) to go to a bookstore, find what they want, and then order it on Amazon.com, but it’s not limited to that, specifically. The more widespread and general way they’ve been using independent booksellers is by treating them all as in-person showrooms for their own products. Even without being offered money for it, customers have a habit of going to booksellers, discovering new books, and then going home to order them on Amazon for cheaper than list price.

But Amazon may have been a little too successful at this: for example, in the UK the number of independent booksellers is down below a thousand, and in the US the big-box bookstores — the ones people didn’t feel bad about using as a showroom — are either dying or dead. Independent bookstores have actually seen their numbers increase in the US since the financial crash, probably because they offer a unique and identity-invested experience.

But with the profit-driven big-box stores no longer around to serve as the showrooms for Amazon, it might just be that they’ve decided to get in the game themselves, which might explain some of the apparent oddities one reviewer found upon visiting the physical store.

Among them was the small selection of books. According to the reviewer, the store faces more of its books forward than a traditional bookstore, averaging about five titles per three feet of shelf space and severely limiting its in-store inventory. Also cited as peculiar was the change to “curators” (Amazon’s word) or “gatekeepers” (the reviewer’s word) whose choices steer your purchases in a way that Amazon’s online experience doesn’t. These fit perfectly with the idea of a showroom.

Part of the challenge shoppers face is one of choice. Give them too many choices, and they might not choose anything. Like Apple limiting buyers’ choices to only a few models crossed with Tesla’s “look in person, buy online” model, Amazon Books seems to be a curated buyer experience.

This also explains why the Kindle isn’t front and center. If you want a Kindle, you know it. You can buy it from Amazon.com and have it arrive the same day if you’re desperate. And of course you can buy one in the store, but that’s not what the store is for.

Amazon believes a bookstore isn’t just where you go to buy a book. You can (and do) do that online. No, Amazon believes a bookstore is where you go when you aren’t sure which book you want next

Some of the oddities can be accounted for by inexperience with physical stores — bookshelves too close to the front entrance, not enough aisle width to comfortably crouch down — but the biggest ones, the facts that it’s a physical bookstore and a remarkably “normal” one (for a big box store) is precisely the point.

It’s your friendly big-box browsing room. Except in this case, if you see something you like (or remember something they don’t have in stock) you can just go home and order it online. It’s almost like they want you to.

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Richard Ford Burley is a writer and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and techno-futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.

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