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News & Views

Is Amazon building the bookstore of the future?

Staying true to its 20-year raison-d’être, Ecommerce giant Amazon has opened its first physical bookstore in New York City, in the Columbus Circle shopping mall which once housed a now-defunct Borders.

Like the inaugural Amazon Go store which opened late last year, this is a cashless business; customers can pay via membership on the Amazon app. Unlike Amazon Go, however, the bookstore will also allow debit and credit card payments.

Data-driven shopping

The store itself is smaller than your average bookshop; 4,000 square feet compared to the average 25,000 occupied by Barnes & Noble. This is because the company is relying on data to hone their inventory; with the exception of new releases and bestsellers, the store will only stock books with a ranking of four stars or higher on the site.

“We have this 20 years of information about books and ratings, and we have millions and millions of customers who are passionate,” says VP of Amazon Books, Jennifer Cast. “It really is a different way to surface great books.” And Amazon’s algorithms meet human curation on the shelf, with “If You Liked This” displays which collect titles by theme, and “Page Turners” suggesting books that Kindle readers finished in three days or less. 

Amazon’s grand entrance into physical retail coincides with the planned closure of several Barnes & Noble locations; eight of the chain’s sites will shut down by the end of the year. B&N has proven it is open to experimenting with how to keep bricks-and-mortar shops alive; last year the company launched three “conceptual” stores which combined books with dining.

But while B&N experiments, Amazon knows exactly what it’s doing. The flagship New York City store will be followed by another on 34th Street over the summer, with 13 planned to open over the next seven months.

However, not everybody is convinced of the slimmed down, algorithmically selected reading on offer. “The cashless Columbus Circle store is founded on Amazon’s belief that people will want to discover (and buy) books that are rated highly on Amazon.com, with a barrage of in-person signs and data-driven shelving choices,” writes Quartz’s Thu-Huong Ha. “But buying a book in the store is actually more expensive than purchasing on the site if you’re not a Prime member. The upshot is that, while the physical store succeeds as an ad for a Prime membership, it fails to be joyful, or even effective, as a bookstore.”

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