It was a gorgeous spring Sunday in Manhattan. The cherry blossom trees were in full bloom. New Yorkers were thronging the Farmer’s Market, thankful to be outdoors after a long, harsh winter.
Eager for some new reading material for my long flight home to Mumbai, I dragged my husband into Barnes & Noble to take a quick perusal. We left barely fifteen minutes later, totally uninspired by our shopping experience and bemoaning the state of retail.
Contrast this with my experience the very next day: With a few hours to kill while my husband finished a business meeting, I reluctantly headed toward the shops at Columbus Circle. I ended up in front of Amazon Books, and in I went, more out of curiosity about the online retailer’s offline experience than out of a genuine desire to purchase anything.
From the minute I walked in, I was mesmerized. My husband found me there a few hours later and had to beg me to leave—bag loads of books in hand.
Amazon Books: Getting retail right
As a shopper, I was left cold by Barnes & Noble’s brand experience, while Amazon’s was so delightful that I ended up spending way more money than I had planned. What was the difference, and what can retailers learn from Amazon Books’ in-store environments?
1. Small is beautiful
In today’s digital world, with e-commerce at our fingertips, I cannot fathom why Barnes & Noble needs such a massive store. I had to ask staff for directions as I schlepped from the second floor for children’s books to the third floor for business. And the journey to these sections felt utilitarian—there were no surprises or delights along the way—just thousands of books piled up clinically row upon row. In comparison, Amazon Books was much smaller—just around a thousand feet I’d reckon—but every foot packed a punch. Each section had a designated purpose, and every book felt like it had a reason to be there. The smaller footprint lent the store an intimacy and coziness, harkening back to the bookstores of old that I grew up with.
2. Curation is king
The first thing that struck me as different about Amazon Books was the curation. In the front of the store, all books are selected from customer reviews on Good Reads, a book-sharing social network that reflects the public’s opinion rather than those of highfalutin book critics. Because of its incredibly accurate reviews, Amazon leverages Good Reads’ data to manage the curation of its stores, delivering a fresh set of books every week. In fact, it felt almost Zara-esque in that regard—fast fashion, meet fast books. Best of all, reader quotes abounded on the store shelves, offering interesting insights and points of view about each book. Not only did this make for an interesting journey through the store, it encourages and inspires you to pick up a book you might otherwise not consider.
I was also fascinated by how Amazon brought one of its earliest online seller propositions—the “if you love” suggestion—to the offline format. Throughout the store, black, book-cover-sized “If you like” signs are placed on shelves with an arrow pointing to a book on the left. To the right, a sign says, “You’ll love,” with an arrow pointing to a whole other row of books. Amazon also uses unique category names to direct shoppers through its store. “Hot Right Now” features the books everyone is talking about. “Page Turners”—my favorite section of the store—features books Kindle readers finished in three days or less. And categories like “Anytime Gifts” and “Great Gifts Under $20” can help shoppers on a mission or those on a budget. The brilliance of these sections is immediately apparent: Whether you have picky taste, don’t know where to start, or are short on time, Amazon will help you figure it out.
3. Design makes a difference
The design of Amazon Books also made a big impact on my experience. Wooden doors with large windows draw you in as you approach the store. Black-and-white flooring at the entrance adds a contemporary and modern touch, while the wood floors throughout the rest of the store lend warmth to the space. Black shelves contrast strongly against a neutral background, allowing the books to be the heroes. And brightly colored section headings add a pop of color and act as easy-to-see directional indicators for shoppers.
Each area of the store is treated as a beautiful island unto itself. While there are fewer books per section, you want to spend time browsing through every single one. Each section flows organically into the next, allowing me to circle the store many times while still feeling riveted by my journey.
4. Technology is almost invisible
One of my favorite things about the store was that technology was used sparingly. With the exception of one section in the front featuring Amazon’s tech gizmos, there are no fancy digital screens drawing your attention away from the books. I am sure that data is the bedrock of Amazon’s in-store business, from restocking books to creating customer review labels to choose inspiring quotes; but however it is used, the data is completely unobtrusive. Tech becomes a silent facilitator powering the experience.
5. The loyalty factor
As if I were not delighted enough with my shopping experience, I was in for a real delight at checkout. When the staff member at the counter asked me about my Prime membership, I told him that my account is with Amazon India. “Not a problem,” he said. All I had to do was flash him my Amazon app and voilà, a magical 30 percent came off my bill. “Wow” was all I could think as I walked out feeling like a truly valued Amazon customer.
Multiple shopping bags in hand, I walked out into the brisk New York day feeling warmed from head to toe by my shopping experience. My head was buzzing with ideas to share with my team, and I could hardly wait to open my first book on my flight home.
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