Never has the opening of a new bookstore been written about more than the launch of Amazon Books in the University Village shopping mall in Seattle on November 3. In spite of all the speculation about what Amazon is really up to with the store, Jennifer Cast, v-p of Amazon Books, said that the objective from the beginning has been to create a place where customers can discover and pick up great books. She downplayed the idea that the store was a prototype for other outlets that would sell a range of items that Amazon offers online. “The store is called Amazon Books,” she noted.
Cast is a self-described book lover who joined Amazon in 1996, a year after the company was founded. After being away from the company for 13 years, mostly working for nonprofits, she returned when a former boss told her he had something that would interest her. “I always knew I would return to Amazon,” she said.
Cast said the store has been in the planning stages for about a year. Once a location was chosen, the Amazon Books team began gathering information about who shops at University Village to help develop its inventory. For example, because the area has lots of families and children, Amazon Books has an extensive children’s section.
Since the store “will be limited by four walls” that can house only between 5,000 and 6,000 titles, Cast said she wanted to use the data that Amazon has on books to develop a mix of titles that would be different from traditional stores, and so the decision was made to focus on “great books.” All books carried by the store have at least a four-star rating from Amazon customers. And though Amazon uses other data in selecting titles, staff members make the buying decisions, Cast said. Amazon’s main objective in using the data is “to surface great books,” she noted—even if those books are not necessarily new titles. The result is a store that has a large share of books by authors who have won a range of writing awards, and where older books may be displayed next to a brand-new ones. Cast said the store will carry most bestsellers for a few weeks, but if a title doesn’t receive positive feedback, the store will drop it.
While most bookstores display some titles face out, all titles are displayed this way at Amazon Books, a tactic Amazon is using to improve discoverablity. The store has been laid out so as to create a “discovery mecca,” Cast said, adding, “We want people to bump into books that they hadn’t been thinking about.”
With a selection of Amazon digital reading devices as a part of the store mix, another objective of Amazon Books is to teach customers how to effectively read across different formats. Cast cited her own experience reading All the Light We Cannot See, which she read simultaneously in print, as an e-book, and as an audiobook. She picked the format that was most appropriate for a particular time, such as listening to the audiobook when she was traveling by car.
While Amazon has certain goals in mind for the store, Cast acknowledged that “we have no idea what is going to happen.” She said Amazon Books is fully prepared to make changes to the store based on the feedback from the community, in typical Amazon fashion. “We are in the learn-listen-adapt mode,” she added.
Feedback from the community will affect what types of events the store will have. At present, no author signings or readings are scheduled, and Cast said that she doesn’t expect any to take place until after the holiday season. She made clear, however, that she expects Amazon Books to be very open to making the store a place where customers will feel comfortable. Cast said the Amazon Books team has lots of ideas on how to engage customers, but for the time being, “we are focusing on our knitting and making sure we have books in stock.”
The store attracted large crowds in the first few days after it was opened and Cast said it was “great to have non Amazonians in the store and see their reaction.” Although it is very early days for Amazon Books, Cast said she is “very, very hopeful” that the Seattle store will only be the first of a number of Amazon bricks-and-mortar outlets.