On Thursday, the company's newest store debuted on the third floor of the Time Warner Center in New York City, not far from where the Borders book chain once stood before going out of business. The immaculate, 4,000 square foot wood-lined space has all the signifiers of a traditional haven for books, but is perpetually reminding customers that it's trying to hook them on Amazon's operating system.
Guests are immediately welcomed by an Echo speaker, primed to respond to customer requests. (These requests need not limited to Amazon or the physical space; I asked Echo to play Bjork, and she cranked out "Hyperballad" loudly enough to annoy a fellow shopper.). Books are presented with their covers flashing out--similar to how they appear online--and are mostly paired with an online customer rating (see below, Patti Smith's memoir M Train, with four stars).
The tech behemoth coverts its online data into a smart offline discovery experience. Books are organized by genre, but also showcase sections devoted to more specific tastes, like "Fiction Top Sellers in New York," based on what readers in the Big Apple rated highly on Amazon.com. (Unsurprisingly, these include apocalyptic tomes such as 1984, by George Orwell, and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.) There's also a "Page Turners" section, featuring books that customers finished reading on their Kindles in fewer than three days, like J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy.
Perhaps most notable, though, is the strategic move not to place prices on the books themselves. That's because this is where the critical Amazonian conversion happens: Book costs are "dynamic," a store rep explains, meaning a book will be less expensive for a member of Amazon's Prime subscription service than it would be for a non-member, though the discount varies from product to product. Customers need to scan the item's barcode in their Amazon app to learn the price. If that customer doesn't have the app, they can scan the item at a kiosk. (But these can be difficult to find, incentivizing users to download the app anyway.)
This, coupled with the badgering to "become a prime member" at check out, leads some analysts to argue that the physical stores are a ploy to convert shoppers to the more expensive Prime membership. Jennifer Cast, vice president of Amazon Books, disagrees. "We are a bookstore, and yes, for Prime members our prices are better," she said on the day of the store opening. "I would flip it around and say that at Amazon, we're always looking at ways to make our prime membership more valuable." The New York store, located in a high-traffic tourist zone, is also an opportunity for the company to acquire new customers who've never before shopped at Amazon.
On the store's first day in business, guests seemed to enjoy the experience--sort of. "I like that the prices are the same as they are online," says a teenage girl, flipping through a copy of Roxane Gay's Dangerous Women. Her friend interjects: "But annoying that you can't see them!"