Sue Smith, CBA Board Chairman

The jury is no longer out. According to the Quartz Daily Brief, Amazon’s first bookstore in New York City “sucks the joy out of buying books.”

Let’s admit it—most of us brick-and-mortar retailers secretly find a fair amount of glee in reading this review. Leaning into the nitty-gritty of this critical evaluation is valuable. What can we learn from this critique of the Amazon bookstore?

THE HUMAN ELEMENT

Friends have noted that their visit was a great experience. The store was clean; the books were all face-out and the employees seemed to genuinely love to work there.

Yet, inventory selection and product layout are based on sales data provided by Amazon.com, resulting in analytics and logarithms making the decisions. This will most likely end up in sales at the register, but what seems to be missing is the personal delight of being known by a neighborhood bookstore. The best indie stores understand their communities, know their customers personally, and, in my opinion, will reveal that knowledge in product selection and displays. It evokes a connection between the customer and that store that makes it feel like home. A data-driven approach alone cannot do that.

A PLACE TO ESCAPE

The Quartz article says, “By making the store an extension of Amazon.com, rather than a place in which people really want to spend time … Amazon Books takes away one of the greatest pleasures of a bookstore: escapism.”

I’ve heard this from my own customers: “I love getting lost in the stacks of books.” Applying feedback like this makes us more valuable to our customers, creating a place of destination. It brands us that invaluable “third place” in people’s lives.

ABILITY TO ADAPT

“What is interesting about Amazon books is that it is seemingly quick to adapt once it learns what doesn’t work—a challenge for traditional bookstores,” says the article.

Paying attention to consumer habits and reacting quickly is not our strong suit. Are we even in the posture of intentionally listening? Paying attention takes incredibly energy. Change takes focus and time.

So, the physical presence of Amazon’s grip on the book business, as threatening as it is, can intimidate us or it can reflect to us where we need to move forward in our own business. The latter will be the harder but better move.

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