Disappointed and bored.
Not the experience I was expecting from the Amazon real-live bricks-and-mortar bookstore in Seattle.
I had high expectations, I suppose. Not for an amazing experience, but that it would be different than other bookstores (and it was), and that Amazon would use its extensive knowledge about me to sell me more books (utter failure there).
I thought I might learn something new that museums could learn from as well. And perhaps that I didn't is a lesson itself.
Let me explain.
My expectations. I buy a lot from Amazon. And they have a 20-year-history of my book purchases. So I went into the Amazon bookstore curious to see how they would take that data and apply it to me in the store. I figured they would give me a reason to pull my phone out, which would then tell their big servers in the sky "Whoa! Big book buyer in our store now! Cha-ching!" I hypothesized my phone would give me suggestions for books in the store, and that I might use my phone to scan bar codes of interesting books in the store so that then the app would suggest other books I could also order.
My disappointment. None of this happened. Except for a sign saying that Amazon Prime members get the Amazon.com price (and I am obviously a Prime member), there was no reason for me to pull my phone out. Which all meant it was a rather mundane bookstore experience. (BTW - when I opened the Amazon app to see if it would trigger anything … the app failed. Twice. When I finally got it open nothing different happened.)
Meh bookstore. So what made it "meh?" At first glance, it looks a lot like a Barnes and Noble. Bigger tech area (for selling Fires, etc.) Far fewer toys and arts and crafts supplies than B&N. Lots of shelves with books. But look again. Those shelves are not loaded. All books are presented cover out. It looks cool, and it is a lot like a virtual bookshelf you could swipe through, but it also means that the selection is very limited. B&N would fit 20 titles in the space Amazon fits 5.
The limited selection was presented, then, for browsing. Books were roughly organized by category, but not alphabetical by author. So if you were looking for something in particular, it likely wasn't there (and if it was it wasn't necessarily easy to find). Just browsing aimlessly? Sure, it's pleasant.
Actual selection and data. Where they did use data was to drive the selection they had and to make recommendations. Books were tagged with their Amazon rating and sales information, leading me to believe that Amazon uses sales data to place best-selling books in the store. I suspect they also overlay Seattle data onto this specific store, as there were local titles as well as some quirky titles that likely spike here in this techy/geeky culture.
Data was also likely used to make recommendations. No staff recommendations here. Instead, it was "like this, you'll love this." Which I took as "people who buy this book also buy these books."
Staff. There was staff there, sure. Mostly around the electronics. My presence was never acknowledged.
Ambiance. It was clean. Very clean. Jazz music an innocuous choice, but while it was conducive to browsing, it was too loud to encourage reading. No comfy chairs like a B&N might have (and that would signal reading is OK), but a long bench with attached Kindle Fires. It didn't look terribly comfortable. So clearly they want browsers, but not for customers to really settle in. Reinforcing that message was the lack of café.
Did I buy anything? It is hard for me to walk out of a bookstore without a book. I love books sooooo much. So it is pretty stunning that I was not inspired to buy anything. (If you are curious, see below for where I tend to buy books.)
Takeaways for museums. If Amazon, and all of its resources, hasn't figured out how to integrate their app into a bricks-and-mortar experience in a way that is seamless and gets more money out of customer wallets, is it any wonder that so many museum apps fall flat too? Maybe Amazon wanted to focus on the real-life experience. But if that was the case, they would have designed the store to encourage more lingering.
Amazon's plans. Amazon just opened a convenience store in Seattle that uses “Just Walk Out technology," eliminating cashiers. Right now it is only open to Amazon employees, but when it opens to the public (soon), I'll check it out and share my thoughts.
My favorite places to buy books. Yes, I buy a lot of books from Amazon. They make it too convenient. But when I lived in Massachusetts, the Museum of Fine Arts essentially served as my favorite local, and independent, bookstore (for both me and my kids). I often buy books at other museums I visit as well. I'm finding that Seattle has a robust independent bookstore culture, which we are exploring.
I respectfully acknowledge that I live and work on the lands of the Duwamish people, whose ancestors have lived here for generations. I thank them for their ongoing care of this land, and I endeavor to help museums bring forward a more complete and inclusive history and culture in their work.