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A Visit to Amazon Books

Customers shop inside Amazon Books in Seattle, Washington, on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015. The online retailer Amazon.com Inc. opened its first brick-and-mortar location in Seattle's upscale University Village mall. Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg
Customers shop inside Amazon Books in Seattle, Washington, on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015. The online retailer Amazon.com Inc. opened its first brick-and-mortar location in Seattle’s upscale University Village mall. Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

It wasn’t one of the detours I planned to make this trip, but Thursday afternoon rolled around, and I needed a break from the hospital, and I was in Seattle. Two logical things came to mind: I wanted to visit Stumptown coffee, as often as possible. And I wanted to visit a bookstore.

One of my usual picks is Seattle Mystery Bookshop, but after one of the worst customer experiences ever there, along with my experience as an author trying to work with them, I looked around and found a few options, then I remembered.

Amazon now had a physical book store.

And it was something I thought I could probably learn from, as an author, an entrepreneur, and someone experienced in management and business.

When I heard about Amazon Books, my immediate reaction was “Why would the world’s biggest online retailer often blamed for driving bookstores out of business, want to open a physical store?”

First, I considered why Amazon has been so successful in the first place: not only was the retailer willing to innovate while keeping overhead costs low, they were also willing to operate on a narrow profit margin, always betting on what was next.

And what was always number one? Customer satisfaction. They developed an often criticized review system, an unparalleled return policy and process, and a drive to assure that every customer was happy.

The daring to forage into the digital book process, to that point only offered by Apple, and in a very limited way, offered customers a new reading experience, on new, customer friendly devices. The instant satisfaction of downloading and reading a book replaced the browsing of shelves, to the point where even libraries embraced, if reluctantly, the rise of e-books.

So bookstores and libraries changed. Many smaller book retailers and even a few giants did not survive, many refusing to adapt until the ship sank below the waves.

In many ways, with Amazon Prime and now Prime Now in some locations and the entry into the potential world of drone deliveries, Amazon has bought into the Culture of Now, the business of instant gratification.

But what is the easiest way for a customer to get instant gratification? To walk into a store, see an item, and buy it. Or order it online, and walk into a store moments later, leaving with their purchase in hand. A physical purchase, not a digital one like a digital music file or e-book.

A physical location seems like Amazon’s next evolution. But what else does Amazon have to leverage at physical locations?

First, these locations can turn into distribution hubs for Amazon products, as well as a showroom much like what Apple has created, yet also very different. That’s what struck me first: the blend of the digital and physical in the store. Kindle devices and tablets lined a center aisle, with more than one of each model for customers to try. There were even kiosks on each aisle that encouraged customers to browse the world of Kindle with the books on the shelves, or just in the category itself.

Second, Amazon has access to a lot of data. There was a very picked over section called. “Books Popular in the University District.” How does Amazon know what sells here? We tell them, not only by what we purchase, but what we buy. Amazon has a tone of data that almost assures them what is likely to sell in a certain locale.

There is another section dedicated to local authors as well. It’s called “Read Local,” and it is much like the local author section Barnes and Noble and Borders used to have. Those sections are slim now, as instead of embracing the self-publishing revolution and vetting titles, bookstores just run from them.

This is a problem Amazon just doesn’t have. They know what local titles are well reviewed and sell reasonably well, so embracing the local writing community, even those who are self-published is simply not difficult for them.

On top of that, they carry books popular to local readers. The Seattle store carries books on the Seahawks, and Pete Carrol. Not a surprise, except that it’s rare for national chains to follow this lead. But why is that?

Amazon targets readers, not stores. Here is the final rub, the war Amazon has won over and over again: for a bit, the Big 5 were the only path for an author to get published and make a living. So their customers became, instead of the reader, the bookstores. The best seller lists became not what people were actually reading, but what book stores could be convinced to buy and stock.

Amazon skipped the retailer section of the funnel, and sold directly to readers, relying on their reviews and feedback instead of the traditional system. The result is that Amazon became the retailer instead of a wholesaler, and the retailer that conforms to the wishes and whims of readers rather than bookstore purchase agents.

Readers love it, and Amazon profits. Authors have a new platform to express themselves, and while there is debate about how much an author really makes with Kindle, it certainly is more than the zero they would have made with the Big 5, and at least there work is out there to be discovered (a whole other issue, for another later blog post)

So will Amazon plant more book stores across the country? I think it’s possible, and they could do so with some success. What I would almost rather see is other book stores to wake up to what Amazon is doing, and follow their lead, or innovate in a new and better way to reach customers.

But it’s more likely that Amazon will spread physical bookstores, slowly, and with success. I hope one comes to my area soon. I want to work there part time while I write. I’d be spending a lot of time there anyway.

Published inAdvice for AuthorsFor ReadersOpinion