Here's the strangest thing about the Amazon Books bricks-and-mortar store in Seattle: It isn't really a bookstore. Even though it mostly sells books.
My husband and I recently visited the only Amazon bookstore (so far), which is in Seattle's University Village shopping center. After a few months of being curious, we were both eager to see what the new store would be like. And we both had the same reaction: This isn't an actual bookstore. It may be selling books, but that is not its true purpose.
Whatever that purpose is, the store will soon have plenty of company. Amazon is known to be hiring for another store in San Diego, and news reports widely quoted a mall company CEO who claimed Amazon plans to open 300 to 400 stores.
This comment was met by consternation from Amazon, and the CEO quickly retracted his statement. This hilarious post at Gizmodo tracks Amazon's increasingly futile efforts to quash the story, especially on Gizmodo. Nonetheless, the company does not do things halfway and it has rehired some of its most prominent former executives to manage this bricks-and-mortar operation. So there will be a lot of them.
But a lot of what? If the Seattle store is any indication, these will be nothing like traditional bookstores. Here's what's different:
1. The books all face out.
This may not seem like a big deal--but it is, and it's completely different from any real bookstore. A real bookstore displays most of its titles spine out so that it can fit more of them. Amazon Books is not a huge store to begin with. With all the books facing out, with lots of space between books, there isn't room for that many of them. Apparently, the store has about 6,000 titles whereas an average Barnes & Noble might stock more than three times that many.
2. There are no prices.
This is because books are priced at the same prices they are on the Amazon website, where prices change very frequently. (Although there are prices for the many Amazon devices sold in the store.)
The way to find out the price of a book is either to take it to one of the price scanning stations set up around the store, or--much easier--to scan the book with your smartphone using the Amazon shopping app. This is an "omnichannel" world, and showrooming is encouraged. In fact, this is clearly one major purpose of the store--to make sure all shoppers have an up-to-date version of the app. I didn't, and I had to update on the spot, using the store's WiFi.
3. Books each have barcodes.
The purpose of the barcodes is to facilitate scanning--although I found the app would recognize a book's cover with blinding speed, much more quickly than it did the barcode. In fact, it was tough to get the app to read a barcode without instead picking up the title below it on the next shelf down. The message was crystal clear: Point your smartphone at any book cover even for a split second, and the app will instantly find it for you on Amazon.com. Just in case you find yourself somewhere where showrooming isn't quite so welcome.
4. Books have user reviews on display.
Most bookstores display staff picks and perhaps quotes from reviews in newspapers. This store displays customer star ratings and user reviews. Indeed, most of the books in the store are there because of their high ratings and popularity on Amazon.com. Of course, this doesn't allow the store to adjust its offerings much to please the customer base in its particular market, an essential strategy of most bookstores. But then, this isn't really a bookstore.
5. Checkout is fast, and may get faster.
We didn't buy anything but others who did found checkout to be extremely quick and efficient. And it's likely to get quicker. About a year ago, Amazon received a patent for a system that would actually identify a customer (possibly by facial recognition) and charge that customer for an item at the moment he or she carries it out of the store--eliminating the need for checkout altogether.
6. There's no coffee.
When was the last time you were in a bookstore that didn't sell coffee? And toys, fancy pens, and chocolate? And pretty much everything else besides books? Because, of course, Amazon undercut their bookselling business, and to survive most bookstores had to start selling lots of other stuff.
Being undercut by Amazon might seem like less of a problem if you actually are Amazon. But think about it: One reason Amazon.com could price books below traditional booksellers is that it didn't have the expense of a bricks-and-mortar store. This store is well-maintained, neat, has lots of staff, and is sitting in some very expensive real estate. Which means you can be sure the Seattle Amazon Books is operating at a loss. Future stores, whether there are 300 of them or not, will likely do the same.
7. The objective is not clear.
Which brings us to the most obviously odd thing about Amazon Books: It's not there to make money selling books. Amazon has already proved itself better at selling books than any bookstore on the planet--it had no need to open a retail location for that purpose.
So what the heck is it there for? There are a lot of possible answers, ranging from the sinister to the futuristic. To put merciless pressure on the last few remaining bookstores left standing. As a place to sell books as gifts--you can browse, find what you want, and take it with you immediately. Speaking of immediacy, a bricks-and-mortar Amazon store is a great place for people to pick up their Amazon orders if they need them really quickly, especially since--hoopla aside--widespread delivery by drones is a long, long way off. It may be intended to get more people using the Amazon shopping app, as happened with me. Like the Echo, which is prominently on sale at Amazon Books, the app's convenience makes buying things on Amazon into a path of least resistance.
Which of these is the true purpose of Amazon Books? It's impossible to know for now. But I have the feeling that we're all about to find out.