Amazon Books starts new chapter with Chicago store opening in Lakeview – Chicago Tribune
Amazon launched its online bookstore nearly 22 years ago. On Tuesday, it will open the doors of a brick-and-mortar store in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, giving customers a chance to test the e-commerce giant’s take on offline shopping.
It’s just one 6,000-square-foot neighborhood bookstore. But it’s also one of Amazon’s first experiments with live customer service and cash registers, and a sign that one of the retail industry’s biggest disrupters may not be content to stick to e-commerce.
As fast as online shopping has grown, in recent years — thanks in no small part to Amazon — e-commerce accounted for only about 8.1 percent of all U.S. retail sales last year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Merchants that got their start online have increasingly supplemented their digital stores with physical storefronts.
“They can win as much of the online space as they want and still be eyeing a piece of (the in-store) pie,” said Brendan Witcher, e-commerce analyst with Forrester Research.
Amazon is still in the early days of its bookstore experiment. The first location opened in Seattle in late 2015, and the Chicago store, in the 3400 block of North Southport Avenue, will be Amazon’s fifth, and first outside a mall. It opened briefly on Saturday as a test and is expected to start regularly scheduled hours Tuesday.
Why get into a business it helped disrupt?
Amazon wants to take the best of online shopping and in-person browsing and apply it to selling books and Amazon devices, said Jennifer Cast, vice president of Amazon Books.
“We just believe that we can do this well, and we believe that if we do it well, we will have an even stronger relationship with our customers,” she said.
Walk into a traditional bookstore, and the first rack you see is usually stocked with newly released hardcovers. At Amazon Books, the first table holds titles that earned customer ratings of 4.8 stars (out of five) or better, whether or not they’re new or likely best-sellers.
Every book is displayed with its cover facing out and a small card underneath listing its Amazon rating and, usually, a customer review. The Chicago store will stock only about 3,800 titles, compared with the untold number available online.
Shoppers will find familiar sections, like biographies or graphic novels, but they’ll also see displays showing books that are popular with Chicago Amazon shoppers, books that frequently show up on kids’ Amazon wish lists and page turners — books Kindle users sped through in three days or less.
Amazon app users can scan covers with their phone to pull up more details or purchase online. And a sizable portion of the 6,000-square-foot store’s center is devoted to Amazon’s devices, including Kindles, Fire tablets and TVs and the Echo smart speaker.
The Lakeview store is also the second bookstore with a coffee shop — Chicago’s supplier is Stumptown Coffee Roasters — and will have outdoor seating in the summer. Five more stores around the country have been announced.
Amazon’s August announcement about the Lakeview store spooked some Chicago independent bookstore owners, pushing nearly two dozen shops to band together as the Chicagoland Independent Bookstore Alliance.
The group is focusing less on Amazon and more on efforts to boost the city’s independent bookstore community, including a week of events around Independent Bookstore Day on April 29, said Lynn Mooney, co-owner of Andersonville’s Women & Children First bookstore.
“Of course we’re concerned, but we also feel that all we can do is be our best selves and be creative and nimble,” Mooney said. “The personal touch, having a real professional bookselling staff, is going to be one of our greatest strengths.”
Katharine Solheim, a buyer at Unabridged Bookstore, which is about a mile east of Amazon’s store, said she’s confident the nearly 37-year-old Unabridged is an established part of the community, with an active book club, frequent in-store events and higher-than-ever sales.
“I can’t pretend it’s not on our radar, but our focus is on being the best booksellers we can be,” she said.
If the experience in Seattle, home to the first Amazon Books store, is any indication, indie booksellers in Chicago may be taking the right tack.
“It’s a glorified ad to order online,” said John Siscoe, owner of The Globe Bookstore in Seattle, who says his business has benefited from a resurgence of interest in physical books, especially among young shoppers.
Siscoe said he thought generic bookstores would suffer more than those with a distinct identity and loyal customer base.
At the moment, Amazon is mining a trove of data on its own customers, including book purchases, ratings and reviews to help fill its shelves.
Amazon hasn’t decided how much it will try to tailor individual stores’ inventory to what it knows about what local customers buy, Cast said. In addition to highlighting local-themed reads and area best-sellers, Amazon tweaks certain geographically specific categories, like gardening or travel, store by store. Chicago stocks a book on Indiana hiking, but you probably won’t see it on either coast.
But otherwise, much of the stock is consistent across stores.
Other opportunities to build a community are still in the works, including book readings and author visits, Cast said.
So far, Amazon has also done little to integrate its Prime membership program beyond its pricing structure. Members pay Amazon’s online prices — which can fluctuate but are the same for all Prime customers, Cast said — while nonmembers pay list prices.
While Amazon has only a handful of bookstores so far, Forrester’s Witcher cautioned against underestimating a competitor with a knack for raising customers’ expectations in tough-to-match ways. Consumers, for example, didn’t always expect free two-day shipping.
Stores should ask their customers why they keep coming back, and double down on their strengths, he said. Amazon will ask those same questions, “and what you don’t want is Amazon understanding your customers better than you do.”
Amazon’s Cast acknowledged they’re just getting started.
“We’re in diapers right now,” she said.