Amazon Stores are a Sad Memorial to Retail


By Kevin Price.

This is one in a series of articles on New York being done on the Price of Business and its sister media.  The series will focus on everything from the unique nature of the city, a little bit about the history, specific locations, and more.  

So I saw the hoopla about the Amazon bookstores in the news.  I knew that NYC was one of the few cities that had one, so I had my eye out for it.  At some point I was going to look it up and go check it out.  I didn’t have to.  I decided to stroll by the Empire State Building and, there it was,right across the street from the iconic building.  I’m a book geek, so I quickly got more excited about the store than the famous skyscraper.  After all, I had been in the Empire State Building many times, this was my first opportunity to check out an Amazon bookstore.  I quickly ran crossed the street — abandoning some of those basic principles of public safety — and went into the store.


I walked in, took a panoramic overview of the store and thought, “okay.”  Not bad, it was just nothing special.  I am sure part of the problem was expectations on my part.  You know what it is like.  You go to a movie you never heard of, but you had nothing better to do and go check it out.  You walk out surprisingly satisfied and think it was a great film.  Than you are planning to go to a specific movie with huge anticipation — your favorite actor is in it, it is the next in a franchise you love, or it perfectly fits your favorite type. You go and you are disappointed — blame your expectations.  I’m sure that played a factor here in this situation.  I am a big Amazon fan, so my expectations were high.  That impacted my view significantly.

So as I looked around the store I noticed how it was similar to other large book retailers. In fact, it was not even as large as a typical Barnes & Noble.  I could go into detail describing it, but I read an article in Publishers Weekly that summed it (and apparently all the others) very well:


“The stores share some basic characteristics, such as displaying their books face out, carrying digital devices and accessories, and only stocking books that receive high ratings from Amazon reviewers. In a new wrinkle added after the first few stores opened, customers who are members of Amazon’s Prime membership service receive the same discounts they get for online purchases; books are full price for nonmembers. Most stores, which range from 3,500 to 6,000 sq. ft., employ around 20 booksellers and staff.

“There are some differences between the outlets, however. The two newest stores, for instance, have small cafés (the Dedham store serves Peet’s coffee, while in Chicago it’s Stumptown), and each store carries books that Amazon has determined will appeal to neighborhood buyers in such categories as travel. The Chicago outlet is also the first store not in a mall and is the only one whose doors open at 8 a.m. rather than 10 a.m., as at the four other locations.”  See the cafe at the NYC store by checking out the top image in this article. 


To see where Amazon intends to expand, see here.

The things about the Amazon stores that are “unique” are not particularly different from other book stores.  All bookstores have recommended books (Amazon bases it on their best sellers, others tend to do it based on the NY Times). Many stores have some of their books face out.  The square footage is similar or even larger at other big book competitors.  The one significant difference is that the store was fresh, new, and clean.  Since Amazon is about the only one making new bookstores, the competitors tend to look tired, at best.  Worn out, at their worst.

The Price of Business and its media partners have done a series of articles celebrating New York.  For background on the series and to get links to the articles click here. 

I would not buy anything in the store.  That was because I did not want to carry it while walking around the city and I did not want to carry anything extra on the plane.  I did see a few things I liked and took pictures of them so I could look them up later and order them on Amazon and have them sent to my home.  That’s the same thing I do when I go to most retailers.  I don’t want to deal with checkout, I don’t want to carry things around.  I just want to go. This sums up nicely why retail is dying, at least in the book space.

Bottom line, the Amazon bookstore has nothing on  Maybe that is the point to them.  It seemed to me it was telling customers, “you are not getting much from the stores”  — even their stores.  It is a sad memorial to bookstores, designed with the knowledge that the vast majority will eventually be gone.  There will always be unique bookstores that are genre oriented or have some other unique niche, but bookstores will continue to decline.  Amazon’s bookstores seem to be telling you, it is okay.  The store really showed me how my relationship to shopping has changed and actually strongly reinforced my online buying behavior. I am sure it says the same to others that shop there.  Also, in a way, these stores are a powerful advertisement for Amazon Price, which provides deep discounts and the delivery of your purchase, typically in two days.  I will give you this, Amazon is always thinking.