Over more than two decades, Amazon has shaped the customer shopping experience, first on the web and then, on the street. Each time, books have led the way.
Company founder Jeff Bezos first launched Amazon as an online bookstore in 1995. Then, in 2015, he opened the first Amazon Books “physical” store in Seattle. The incipient bookstore chain has since grown to 15 locations; Amazon Books arrived in New York in August 2017 to the Time Warner Building and on 34th Street. Last summer, Bezos also acquired Whole Foods, a US-based supermarket chain, moving Amazon firmly into brick-and-mortar.
With the media and retail sectors already turned upside down by a string of digital innovations from Amazon, the company seems positioned to turn markets inside out as well, according to New York-based journalist and blogger Cherie Hu. On a Christmas Eve shopping visit to the bustling Amazon Books in Columbus Circle, Hu said, she realized that Amazon had flipped the table on the analog environment of traditional bookselling.
“The way that I chose a book in that physical bookstore was the same way I would choose a book on Amazon,” she explained.
A writer and analyst covering the music industry for Fortune and Billboard, among others, Hu received the Reeperbahn Festival’s inaugural award for Music Business Journalist of the Year in September, only months after graduating from Harvard University with a degree in statistics. [Based in Hamburg, Germany the Reeperbahn Festival is a European doppelganger for Austin’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival.]
In a post to her weekly online newsletter “Water & Music,” Hu described how Amazon’s legendary reliance on consumer data had reshaped the shopping experience, with important implications for media and entertainment business.
“I was fascinated by how the physical experience was imitating the digital experience,” Hu told me in a recent episode of Copyright Clearance Center’ podcast series Beyond the Book. “What Amazon does in the bookstore is to take certain features from their website, print all the information on a card and place it underneath every single book. You’ll see a rating—[so many stars] out of five stars. For select books, if, say, 95% of users rated it more than four stars, you’ll also see that piece of information. There’s a whole shelf dedicated to books that have been reviewed more than 10,000 or 15,000 times, if you’re interested in tapping into what more people are talking about these days.”
Indeed, the physical experience throughout Amazon Books closely mimics the experience online, Hu noted. All books face “cover out” on the shelves. Displays around the store often have an arrow pointing from one book to another, suggesting that, “if you like this book, you may like this one.” What book browsers may only casually observe is a somewhat ingenious reversal of skeuomorphism.
“Skeuomorphism is a common concept in the design world. It’s the act of making digital objects represent their real-world counterparts,” Hu explained.
“Apple’s iBooks app is a typical example of skeuomorphism,” she said. "If you open the iBooks app, you’re presented with a digital wooden shelf. Yes, the books are facing outward, not the spine like in a traditional brick-and-mortar bookstore, but even just that concept of displaying books on a shelf makes it more familiar to users of Apple devices, because it imitates the physical world.”
As simple and obvious as the Amazon Book store layout may appear, Amazon is only able to execute such a design with authority because it can draw on a deep well of customer data.
“Understanding the consumer is an ongoing issue for brick-and-mortar stores of any kind,” noted Hu. This challenge holds true, she continued, “whether you’re talking about bookstores or stores selling any sort of physical object or physical gear.
‘Intimate knowledge of the consumer is really difficult [for them] because historically they are not digital-first businesses – which Amazon is,” Hu said. “What was really compelling to me is that the success of Amazon Books on this particular day and my satisfaction as a customer after the fact suggested that Amazon could provide added value in a physical environment that its competitors just simply could not, because they are not in the business of gathering data about their consumers.”
In the music industry, the digital streaming service Spotify has played a disruptive role similar to Amazon, and likewise, said Hu, it has relied on skeuomorphism in its digital apps.
“Having that skeuomorphic element is still important,” she asserted. “For instance, at least on mobile, the way that Spotify integrates with Genius, the lyrics site, lets you swipe through the lyrics from left to right, which is similar to the liner note experience—just pulling those notes physically out of a vinyl record cover.”
Like Amazon, too, Hu observed, Spotify has begun to influence music beyond the digital. Summer music festivals already market the experience as akin to a “real-world playlist.” Increasingly, she predicted, digital leaders will use the power of data to influence the physical world.
“That power won’t come from conforming to what was already there before, but rather continuing to innovate, continuing to set new paradigms—not just in the digital sphere, but physically, too,” she said. Which leaves us to wonder: Where Will Digital Lead Analog Next?
Christopher Kenneally is Director, Relationship Marketing, for Copyright Clearance Center and host of CCC’s podcast series Beyond the Book. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org