Amazon Explores the Brave New World of Brick and Mortar Book Sales

Did you hear the one about night being day, up being down, black being white, and Amazon opening up a brick and mortar book store? It turns out one of those things is true—earlier this week, Amazon opened its first brick and mortar book store in the tony confines of Seattle’s University Village.

Amazon Books in Seattle's University Village
Source: Amazon

If you're not familiar with Seattle, but University Village rings a bell, that could be because it boasts an Apple Store, which then led to Microsoft opening up one of its retail stores across the street. I'll get into Apple-envy later in the piece, but the first question is why Amazon is going back to the future by dipping its toes into the antiquated world of brick and mortar stores.

Online Discovery Is Awful

The first thought that crossed my mind is that Amazon is tacitly admitting online discovery is unsolvable. I have long been of the belief that browsing books in a book store (or library) is infinitely preferable to shopping online. Same is true for music for me, though less so.

At the same time, I want ebooks instead of physical books. For years, I've been thinking about how awesome it would be if I could go into a Barnes & Noble, browse the shelves, and buy an ebook version of my selections. I won't say out loud that I wanted an ebook version with my physical book so I could own the former and read the latter, because that might reveal my OCD to the world.

Oops. Was that my out loud voice just now?

Getting both versions for the same price was never in the cards, however, because publishers want money for both copies. Absent my penchant for collecting books, the next best thing would be to browse book shelves, look at the covers (I'm weak! I admit it), read the book jackets, and then buy the ebook. That would have kept me a Barnes & Noble customer rather than an Apple iBooks customer.

That was doomed when Barnes & Noble separated its Nook ebook business. That was when I knew that if I was ever going to get that experience it would have to come from an independent book store, but that scenario didn't seem likely, either.

Yet here's Amazon doing just that. Amazon Books features thousands of books, many with their covers facing customers. Those books feature a placard with its Amazon rating (there will be an emphasis on 4 and 5 star books), a quote from an Amazon review (which is clever), and a bar code so you can order the book online, get the Kindle version, or add it to your Wish List.

Amazon Books Placard

Rating, Quote, and Helpful Barcode for Ordering on
Source: Amazon

Boom! As a book lover, that's where it is! Amazon, a company I have criticized for years for encouraging "showrooming," or the idea of using other companies' brick and mortar stores to browse and look at items and then order them from Amazon, is showrooming itself, and that's something completely different. In fact, it's great.

Amazon is marrying its best-in-class inventory management and customer-understanding to a physical showroom where we can browse in a way that offers a better book browsing experience. I like it, even if I prefer Apple's iBooks app to Amazon's Kindle app on my iPad.

Next: Apple Envy and Apes

Page 2: Apple Envy and Apes


Apple Envy

That brings me back to Apple. I'll be the last person on the planet to accuse Amazon's management of having a passion for books. To all outward appearances, the company's passion appears to be to dominate commerce—all commerce—sucking all profits from every industry it touches in the process. That may have started with books, but that wasn't because Jeff Bezos was passionate about books, it was because he recognized how badly the book industry was ripe for disruption.

So why open a brick and mortar book store? As I said up top, it could be a tacit admission that online discovery is unsolvable. No one is better at online discovery than Amazon, and it still sucks donkey balls.

But I think we can explore that just a bit deeper. Amazon may have recognized that we descendant of apes still enjoy handling things, seeing them with our eyes, touching them, and in some cases (like books), smelling them. I miss the smell of books when I'm reading on my iPad.

Amazon Books Shelves

Shopping for Books as the Deity of Your Choice Intended It
Source: Amazon

Enter Amazon's electronic products, including Kindle, Kindle Fire, Fire TV, Fire Phone, and Alexa. Amazon may be looking at Apple's extraordinary success with its fleet of Apple Stores and realizing that if it wants to sell these cheap devices, the company needs a showroom where people can handle them.

The problem is, a store dedicated to those products would likely make Microsoft Stores look crowded in comparison*. Amazon could stock a retail outlet with anything it wanted, but books are an obvious anchor to bring people in. While there, some of them will see Amazon's electronics.

It's clever, and a chain of these stores has the fringe benefit of putting enormous pressure on Barnes & Noble and those independent book stores that remain strong despite Amazon's best efforts to put them all out of business. Amazon is charging the same price it charges online, too, adding an extra kidney punch to those companies who can only survive by selling books at a profit.

Honestly, I hate the idea of Amazon gaining even more power in books. I've argued over and over again that the company's domination of books will eventually reduce quality, and a fleet of Amazon Books stores will only hasten that day.

At the same time, the company is giving me what I've long wanted, a place I can browse real books yet buy an ebook if I want. I like that, and I hope it helps bring change to those remaining book stores. Of course, I could always start showrooming Amazon Books and buy on iBooks**.

*With apologies to Microsoft, but come on, your stores are a joke.

**Just kidding, I'd never do that.