Today, Amazon, the online shopping behemoth that has transformed how people buy, well, nearly everything, is taking its next leap forward. The only problem? This step into the future looks a whole lot like the past.
As of today shoppers in Columbus Circle can browse for books at the company's first brick-and-mortar store in New York. A total of thirteen such outlets are planned to open by the end of the year.
Back to the future?
Rather than break the mold in terms of design, the company's latest venture into real-life retail looks pretty much like you'd expect a bookstore to look, with gentle lighting, tables full of suggested titles, and quietly browsing patrons.
Of course, this being Amazon, there are innovative touches. The store is entirely cashless. Shoppers use their phones to check prices and then check themselves out at self-serve kiosks. If you're an Amazon Prime member, you get the same price as you'd pay online. Non-members pay the full retail price.
Book displays are based on Amazon's huge trove of data. Looking for something to read at the beach, for instance? Then check out the shelf of books that Kindle readers devoured in three days or less.
But despite this sprinkling of high-tech features, the collective reaction of journalists who previewed the shore yesterday was pretty much, "meh." Here's the main impression of Recode's Dan Frommer (his article is jam packed with pictures if you're interested): "It just feels like a normal mall bookstore." He goes on to say:
I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't some efficiencies on the back end that could eventually make this a better business for Amazon than brick-and-mortar bookstores have been for bookstore companies. (It doesn't feel massively oversized, for one thing.)
But it also doesn't have anything really special going on -- not yet, at least... There's no café, not really anywhere to sit and read, nothing special about the fixtures, a very boring magazine selection and a collection of books that feels blandly standard -- not the sense of opinionated curation you'd find at a boutique..
But that's always been what Amazon does best: Predictable, good value and reliable for the masses.
After so many traditional book stores having been driven out of the business by no other than Amazon, at lease there's a place to run in and buy a book again, he concludes. Which is pretty faint praise.
Lots of data, no joy
Quartz's Thu-Huong Ha is even more damning. Amazon's new store offers neither the sensual pleasures of "hushed page-flipping; the sound of two covers sliding against each other as a book is returned to its spot on the shelf; the quiet murmur of, 'Have you read this one?'" which keep bibliophiles loyal to independent bookshops, nor the efficiency of the online experience, in her opinion.
Ha calls the in-store experience cluttered, soulless, and noisy, and the selection strangely limited. In fact, her headline probably best sums up her viewpoint: "Amazon's first bookstore in New York City sucks the joy out of buying books."
Are you interested in visiting Amazon's real-world stores, or do you plan to stick to ordering online?