Thomas de Monchaux, who appears to write extensively on architectural and cultural topics for the New Yorker, has penned a long analysis there of the design and layout of the new Amazon Books bricks-and-mortar bookstore in Seattle. His view – elaborated at great length – is that Amazon’s design scheme “soothes our anxieties about technology” with a layout sort of like a Starbucks” using a “Heritage Modern or Warm Industrial” aesthetic. That implies that there’s some anxiety that needs soothing in the first place, but put that aside for now.
The author insinuates that “Amazon’s intention had been a miniature masquerade, to pose as the kind of downtown community bookstore that it (like Barnes & Noble before it) is conventionally said to have displaced.” Honestly, it just looks like a bookstore to me: conventional enough to allay anxieties, fine, but very little different from, say, a typical Waterstones interior in the UK. Okay, there may be brown shelving instead of black, rather like the old Borders stores in fact, but otherwise there’s precious little to choose in terms of ambience. And it also seems a bit much to call out Amazon for using faux-retro demi-industrial frontage in an American retail landscape bulging with Polo Ralph Lauren country house kitsch and Replay stores.
This also represents to me something of a misunderstanding of Amazon’s business. Yes, Amazon is all about tech, but what Amazon Books does well is ram home how much Amazon’s business remains about physical product. Amazon is Big Publishing’s single biggest market, and the street corner bookstore’s biggest rival, in physical books, as much as if not far more than in ebooks. It’s also a publisher of physical books, with Amazon Publishing. And what Amazon Books does very well is to underline how to use tech to support the physical retail experience.
As Amazon Books’ website proclaims, “the books in our store are selected based on Amazon.com customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments. These are fantastic books! Most have been rated 4 stars or above, and many are award winners.” Now, was anything stopping B&N or other bricks-and-mortar rivals digging into Amazon’s customer ratings, Goodreads assessments, and so on, and stocking on a similar basis? Maybe they can’t link back end to front end as nimbly as Amazon itself, but then they have far wider networks to do it across. Amazon for now has only one physical storefront. And yes, you can “walk out of the store with a book” or “lighten your load and buy it online” at Amazon.com, as well as “test drive Amazon’s devices,” but Amazon appears to be actually using its tech to simply make for better retail. Isn’t that a more significant, striking example of integrated retail experience?
Instead, we get plenty of flannel about how Amazon is prettying up its raw tech with much the same kind of styling that any other up-market retailer does. Was Amazon really trying to allay tech anxiety in the same way that early railway carriage designers copied the familiar lines of the stagecoach? I rather doubt it. But that makes for snider copy than a more analytical dive into how Amazon is actually levering technology in the retail space. It may all be very monopolistic and incestuous. But you still get the impression that other retailers ought to learn from it.