What Publishers and Retailers Can Learn from Amazon’s Bookstore

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

You gotta love some of the ways Amazon’s first bricks-and-mortar bookstore functions:

–All titles are face out. *love*

–The store doesn’t attempt to overwhelm you with choices. The stock is curated via Amazon online and Goodreads so only the books of greatest interest to the greatest number of readers are found there–or books with consistent 5-star ratings, even if their rank on Amazon isn’t high. If you want to buy something a bit more esoteric, you can shop online. *love*

–It’s a place to discover books you might not have realized you were interested in, with commentaries about the books and ratings arranged as part of the display. *love*Amazon books

What can publishers and bookstores learn from Amazon’s bookstore and other retailers who are creating a marriage–not of convenience but of love–between their brick-and-mortar stores and their online presence?

  • Move away from being product-focused to being consumer-focused. Traditional retail=anonymous buying and selling. Studies show that each American lives an average of 20 miles from the closest WalMart. Yet WalMart has no idea what you bought last time you shopped there. Meanwhile, Amazon knows the title of the first book you bought on Amazon. Because of the vast data Amazon holds from everyone who’s ever purchased anything from them, it can curate the titles being offered in its store. The inventory in the Seattle store was selected not only based on best-sellers but also on the books Seattle readers are likely to enjoy. The idea for publishers would be not to think about what book they want to publish but what book does the reader of sci-fi or the cookbook buyer want. Publishers have few avenues to figure this out.
  • Stop viewing online shopping as a secondary sales option. Publishers are just beginning to open up online shopping on their websites, having in the past believed that doing so would divert buyers from physical stores. While hard-core readers still love to roam a bookstore’s aisles, books are among the most frequently purchased items online. What publishers need to figure out is how to incentivize book buyers to shop at individual publishers’ websites rather than just heading over to the big Amazon online “warehouse” of books. And also how to fairly compensate authors for purchases made on a publisher’s website. It isn’t the authors’ job to pay for the development of online shopping. That’s delivery-of-product expenses the publisher needs to invest in.
  • Make the bookstore a showroom, not a warehouse. When we shop online, we’re looking for a big selection; when we shop in a physical store, we shop in a more targeted way. We might well have already searched around online to figure out what we think we want. In a physical store, we’re looking for confirmation. At a store, we can handle the merchandise, try it on, or try it out. Virtual shopping is a different dynamic from touching a book, flipping through the pages, reading a snippet we’ve selected, studying the photo insert …or spying the book nestled next to it is actually of more interest.
  • Achieve one of the goals that Amazon probably had in mind in setting up the store: appeal to Millennials and teens, who tend to want to read physical books. Forbes published an article that explored Millennials’ reading habits. “Millennials preferred to buy books in a brick-and-mortar store as opposed to e-commerce sites like Amazon. 52% of the surveyed U.S. millennials said that they ‘normally acquired’ books from large chain stores.” The study went on to say that 28% of Millennials discover and purchase books by browsing the displays in bookstores. Since 45% of Millennials discover books through word-of-mouth referrals, why not offer book discussions with authors in physical bookstores rather than book readings or signings? (That’s a suggestion the writer of the Forbes article made.) In actuality, word-of-mouth is the most effective way to sell books to most readers from middle grade up, and starting that word-of-mouth through interaction with the author in real time seems like a great way to do it..
  • Offering a pickup or subscription service. If you order a book from Amazon, you could pick it up at the Seattle store, if you lived nearby, of course. But this type of service is of real interest, especially to Millennials. They aren’t caught up in acquiring more things so much as they are in accessing it–a ride, a place to stay, regular reading material, a stylish sweater to wear. A physical store where a Millennial can pick up an item selected online adds that personal touch. As this Techcrunch article states, Nordstrom bought a subscription clothing company, Trunk Club, that appealed to Millennials. Nordstrom would provide subscribers the chance to try items on in a store, and Nordstrom salespeople could help in making selections–and entice a younger generation to shop Nordstrom. Target, with 5,000 stores nationwide, could readily serve as a pickup waystation for regularly purchased items, especially via subscription. (Anyone ready to subscribe to have weekly grocery items–and a book?–packaged up for you when you walk into your nearby Target?) Subscription services are a natural for books. That’s what mail order book clubs used to be all about. Now books can be delivered digitally, too.

Considering the innovations that are being tried to reach consumers, such as Amazon as it occupies a space it hasn’t been in before, is instructive to all of us–publishers, bookstores, consumers of books, and writers, who hope one day to see their books on Amazon Books’ shelves…face out.

Why do you think Amazon opened a bricks-and-mortar store? Which of the ways an online-physical store combo could function appeal to you?


What does Amazon’s physical store teach us about ways increase book sales? Click to tweet.

As retailers innovate to reach consumers, what can the publishing industry learn? Click to tweet.


32 Responses

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  1. This reminds me of different realtor signs planted in front yards. Most of them say “for sale.” One firm’s signs say “to buy.” It seems Amazon sells “reading” as much as books. And that, i *love*.

  2. I received a message from Amazon that I’ve been a customer since 1999. I thought that was a nice touch.

    A friend’s husband works for Amazon in KY. He shared that the Salvation Army asked Amazon to sponsor 10 children this Christmas. Amazon said give them 110 children. They spent a week organizing and gathering gifts for these children and filled a truck. When word got out, other companies in our area began trying to match Amazon’s generosity.

    I know not everybody likes Amazon, but they treat their employees good and they are good to the community. So I’ll continue to shop at Amazon because I *love* so many things they do.

  3. Fascinating post, Janet. As I read, I kept thinking about all the data Amazon has gathered from its consumers over the years. It sounds like they’ve done a masterful job of culling and utilizing the data they’d need to succeed as a bricks-and-mortar.
    *I like that they keep their bookstore as a showroom, not a warehouse. Current, Inc, has their warehouse where I live. And it’s almost easier to order from their catalog. The warehouse is harder to walk through and browse because the way things are pushed into each row. I sometimes find better deals at the warehouse, but I don’t stop there often because it’s not a pleasant environment to my senses. I definitely prefer a showroom model for a place I’m going to spend time and money.

  4. I don’t know much about this topic, but it seems with all the bricks-and-mortars dwindling, if Amazon has opened one, they must believe they’ve tapped into what would make one successfully work. Or maybe they can just afford the risk. And I guess they could be the main reason for all the dwindling. Maybe they know people love bricks-and-mortars and plan to be the next B&N or Books-a-Million. I wish we could all gather there, in person, with a steaming latte, to discuss it. πŸ™‚

  5. Thanks for sharing your perspective on the Amazon store, Janet. It’s interesting to hear about it from this angle. I think Tyndale has done a good job with routing buyers to their website. They have a rewards program set up and I regularly get emails from them featuring books, or offering consumer oriented promos.

    Why is Amazon opening a brick and mortar store? That’s a question I’ve been pondering. But I think it does show that there is still profit and interest in physical bookstores, so I find that encouraging. They won’t disappear into oblivion and be a thing of days gone by. BUT, like everything else, they need to be reevaluated and rearranged to fit the new generation of tech-saavy readers/buyers.

    I think there’s several points here that we as authors can apply to marketing our books. For example, are our promotions and newsletters consumer focused? are we taking advantage of online sale opportunities? Is our website nice looking, more like a showroom than a cluttered and cheap warehouse? Are we appealing to the high-tech generation? Do we have a place for readers to subscribe to updates, and is it easy to find?

    Great points, Janet. Thanks again for sharing.

  6. The way you’ve written this post makes me want to browse the aisles, Janet. My closest “bookstore” is Wal-Mart, and that’s just not the same. I completely understand why the Amazon store works the way it does. It used to be that stores offered personal service and the clerks knew the customers. I’m not sure what changed to create super-stores (population growth? greed for sales?), but the personal service disappeared. Not all changes are bad. And it thrills me to see enthusiasm over paper books and brick-and-mortar stores.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Meghan, I’m trying to recall the name of the first super store, but it’s escaping me at the moment. But I do remember we readers loved the huge selection, and the prices were the best you could find anywhere. That bookstore chain is defunct and has been for quite some time.

  7. So interesting…I think having recommendations for similar books, endorsements, and author discussions next to each book would be very helpful. Gives each display a kind of “word of mouth” feel.

    • Janet Grant says:

      And it’s a real-time expression of much of what Amazon offers online. Of course, most bookstores do have staff picks and reviews, but what Amazon is doing is offering that for every book in the store.

  8. It’s wonderful to know that people – especially younger ones – are buying hard copy books, not just e-books. If Amazon thinks physical book stores are worth investing in, that certainly shows the people who predicted e-books would completely replace physical ones were wrong.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Janet, I never believed digital books would replace physical books. All one had to do was look at the life cycle of entertainment to see that we never gave up radios, movies, of TV as each new possibility entered our lives. I figured we would never completely give up physical books because ebooks are, in many ways, a different reading experience.

  9. Community! You said it right. No matter how much time we shop for books “on line” we are body of people, a community, with community needs. Touching, smelling and reading a book is an experience. When we take a book home from the store we’re bringing home a friend we’ve had a cup of coffee with. I’ve heard it said, and I believe it to be true – You’re never alone if you have a book. Respectfully yours, Christine writing at http://www.christinemalkemes from a yeilded heart.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I remember reading an article about a bookstore in either Hong Kong or Japan (can’t remember that detail) that is open 24/7. It’s busiest time? Late at night. Young people hang out in the store and read books at night. They find a cozy chair to snuggle up with a book, or just plop on the floor and read away. The reporter found that the readers liked perusing books with others hanging out, too.

  10. Lara Hosselton says:

    I’m such a sensory focused person. As a child I loved the way our Carnegie sponsored library smelled of old books, polished wood and I still hear the sound of my tennis shoes squeaking up the marble steps to the children’s section. This is one reason I prefer to shop at a bookstore. I am intrigued, however, by the option of ordering online and picking up my book at their store if it saves on shipping. Amazon is such a forward-thinking corporation it will be interesting to see how this plays out in the publishing world. I truly enjoyed reading about their newest venture.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Lara, I have fond memories of the library I went to as a child as well. It seemed immense (probably not true) and charmingly old (probably true) to me. I recall standing at the top of the stairs before I descended to the children’s section and taking a deep breath of all those beautiful books, all of which I fully intended to read.

  11. This explains why I’m anxious to visit an Amazon bookstore. They’re doing so much right for the consumer it’s hard to beat. I *love* these innovations too. I just visited a Barnes and Noble, which I still love, but find a bit overwhelming. All the Christian bookstores in town (we used to have 3) are gone, or almost gone, so any swing toward a bricks & mortar bookstore is great.

    In You’ve Got Mail, Barnes & Noble (ish) was the bully beating up on a little bookstore for kids. Now, Amazon is the bully beating up on poor B&N. #ironic

  12. Elissa says:

    I have to disagree with this: “When we shop online, we’re looking for a big selection; when we shop in a physical store, we shop in a more targeted way.”
    When I shop in a physical store, I browse. I look for books I never heard of. I pick things up because a title or cover catches my eye. I can’t easily search a web site the way I wander through bookstore aisles.
    Local booksellers–independent stores more than big chains–know their clients. They can recommend books based on human connections and not on what their customers bought before. I find that far superior to any computer algorithms.
    Overall, I find online shopping works for me only when I know exactly what I’m looking for, whether it’s a book or some other product. I concede I might be in the minority. I’m glad we can shop either online or physical stores–or both if we choose.

  13. Peter DeHaan says:

    Janet, there is so much good news in your post. It’s a great time to be a writer. You made my day. Thank you

    (BTW, I think Amazon opened their store to show that it could be done — and to make money. I suspect they will accomplish both.)

    • Janet Grant says:

      One of the aspects of Amazon that never ceases to amaze me is that they seldom try a new venture solely to make money. And often they DON’T make money for a really long time. Which is okay with them. They generally have an agenda that includes making money…eventually. But they don’t seem to make that the driving force in their decisions.

  14. I love the insight this blog post and the articles provide. My first reaction to an Amazon bookstore is: geez, do they need to have a hand in everything? But when I think about it, they know how to do things the right way, so they are smart.

    The mention of Millennials and teens wanting physical books is spot on in our house. My daughter doesn’t even consider an audio book a real book.

    The showroom option is very appealing to me simply because going to a Barnes & Noble is the most overwhelming thing. There are piles and piles of books. Usually I head for the staff picks because if I am not going there for a specific book, I want to find something someone has recommended.