The Amazon Bricks-and-Mortar Bookstore
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.
Why I picked it up: Philanthropy is changing rather dramatically, with more donors expecting evidence of impact before making (or repeating) gifts. One outgrowth of this shift is "impact investing," where a donor isn't a donor at all, but an investor … an investor that expects returns both mission-related and financial.
What you need to know: First, the terminology. The Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) defines impact investing as "investments made into companies, organizations, and funds with the intention to generate social and environmental impact alongside a financial return."
An impact investor would thus look at a for-profit company through the exact same lens as a nonprofit. The investment choice would be the entity that can return the most bang for the buck, via both impact and financial returns.
Now, to this particular report, The Center for Effective Philanthropy surveyed 64 CEOs of private US foundations that give at least $10 million/year. Note, this is not a big sample size, so a grain of salt is prudent. (And it only covers foundations; impact investing is on the rise among individuals with high net worth as well.)
That being said, 41% of respondents said their foundations were already practicing some form of impact investing. That seems like a lot, but when it comes to dollars, it is pretty tiny. The median amount going towards impact investing was less than 1% of program/grant budgets. The median amount of endowment funds being used for impact investing was 2%.
Are you confused now? I had to sort it out as well. The thing with impact investing is that it is malleable. The returns are both mission-related impact and financial. Thus, a proposal for an impact investment could be categorized as a program/grant expense because of the mission-related impact. Or it could be categorized as part of the endowment because of the financial return. Heck, I suppose some foundations could say their investment is in some part both.
The future of impact investing appears to be growth. Foundations practicing impact investing reported that it was a relatively new venture for them, but that they were seeking to increase their financial commitment to it. To date, however, the actual financial commitment of foundations to impact investing is small.
Note: the report also explored negative screening, or the practice of reviewing companies that endowment funds are invested in for red flags in conflict with their missions. Such as an environmental organization choosing not to invest in fossil-fuel companies. To be honest, I wasn't terribly interested in this part of the report and only skimmed it.
Implications for museums: Based on this report, this seems to be something to be aware of, and to consider if you have the right project. Impact investing may accelerate dramatically over the next few years … or stabilize at a relatively small portion of foundation allocations. I'll keep monitoring it and share new information going forward.
What concerns me more, however, is the bigger shift towards impact-based philanthropy. That's when foundations and donors expect far greater evidence of impact than museums have historically been prepared to supply (much less compete on). This trend appears to be accelerating much more rapidly, with far more dollars at stake. For museums to respond they need to invest more in measuring and understanding their lifelong impact on individuals and communities, and how they can deliver that impact more effectively than other choices.
Read or skip? Skip. Honestly, this report was difficult to read. While they took pains to define terms, it still ended up a being a bit of a muddle and I had to work to sort out what they meant. This may, in some part, be a reflection of how new impact investing is. But unless this is something you are seriously considering for your museum, skip. I'll keep looking for better resources.
Full citation: "Investing and Social Impact: Practices of Private Foundations." Research report published by The Center for Effective Philanthropy. Released 2015.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
Why I picked it up: I'm interested in why some people are connected to their community, and others are not so much. Does connection to community correlate with engagement with the broader world? Why might that matter? And how might museums help? I didn't expect this report to answer all of these questions, but instead shed some light from a very reputable source (I love the Pew Research Center, BTW).
What you need to know: Those who engage with their community more are also more likely to consume local news and more likely to vote. Or, in my words, the "do mores do more." The big concern I see coming out of this data, as well as my own and that of other sources, is that only a relatively small percentage of people are truly engaged with their community and/or broader world. Which means a rather big chunk of Americans have little or no external engagement or connection. That has some pretty big societal ramifications.
Implications for museums: This report doesn't mention museums, but based on my data (findings I am in the process of releasing over on The Data Museum), I think it is safe to assume a correlation between a high engagement with community and museum-going. The larger questions, however, are: how can museums help boost citizen engagement with community and the broader world; how may museum methodologies be particularly effective at this; and why does broader engagement matter in the first place?
Read or skip? Skip. It is a high-quality research project and a go-to report. But you get the gist of it from this review. The only exception might be if a museum was seeking a specific collaboration with a local media organization or if a grantwriter needed solid data points for a relevant community proposal (though it still would be of limited use since it does not include museum data).
The Nitty-Gritty (for those interested, my page-by-page commentary):
P. 3 - Starts off with some clear statements, noting that the civically engaged "play a key role in civic life" and are "more likely than the less engaged to use and value local news." Totally makes sense. But civic engagement is more than voting in local elections and consuming local news. What are the other factors of community engagement? How do they contribute? And, ultimately, what gives the civically engaged that outward view of life in the first place? That seems rather important to know (and, admittedly, out of the scope of Pew's report).
P. 5 - Pew characterizes about a third of US adults as more highly engaged in their community through perception or action (or both). This makes sense to me based on my own data sets as well, but that also means there are a lot of people who are only somewhat or not at all engaged in their community. In my data there is a very strong relationship between high civic engagement and museum-going. Museums are simply more relevant and useful to the engaged citizen.
P. 6 and P. 16 - The data shows that young adults are less civically engaged than older adults, and my data generally agrees. I find a general uptick in engagement begins in the 25 - 34 age band, while Pew notes it in the 30 - 44 band. The question that Pew doesn't raise is why. That is, is this a problem (and the current generation of young adults won't grow into civic engagement), will they transition into civic engagement with age, or did Pew not provide a broad enough range of answer choices in their survey?
I suspect it is a mixture of the second and third factors. Young adulthood is about establishing your life, so it makes sense that civic engagement happens a few years later. But I also strongly suspect Pew wasn't capturing the things young adults are more inclined to do. On p. 16 they note that they tracked "activity in seven different types of civic groups, from sports leagues to church groups to charity organizations, and six political activities." Since the report did not actually list all of those activities, based on this language my hunch is that it doesn't include newer, more informal, forms of engagement. To give one example, in my research I am finding that food is a catalyst for community engagement for a strong segment of young adults. While I can't be sure, I doubt that was on Pew's list.
P. 8 - People's interest in sports news has no correlation with other forms of civic engagement. This is what I expected to see as well (though I was surprised they noted it).
P. 14 - A frustration I felt throughout this report is that they did not distinguish between those who felt connected to their community by virtue of birth (and lifelong residency), and those who had moved in and worked hard to establish roots. While many lifelong residents work hard to keep their roots healthy, I suspect there are quite a few others who feel strongly connected by birth but are, in actually, not that civically engaged. I would have liked to have seen that broken out … especially since they asked the right questions to do so.
P. 21 - Political persuasion has little effect on local news consumption or attitudes. While national news may be rather polarized, local news seems to cross political boundaries.
P. 28 - Republicans are more likely than Democrats or Independents to say they know "all" their neighbors. This makes sense to me. According to my data, moderates and liberals are more likely to have moved away from their childhood hometowns, and that mobility would make knowing "all" your neighbors less likely. Conservatives are more likely to reside in their childhood hometown, and that lifelong residency gives respondents a whole lot more time to know "all" their neighbors.
P. 29 - Pew asked how respondents rated their community, and what leapt out at me was how differently white, non-Hispanics answered than people of color. Whites were 50% more likely to rate their community as "excellent" than people of color (who were, in turn, well over 2x more likely to rate their community as only "fair" or "poor"). That indicates to me some difficult divides based on lived experience. Do museums contribute to this, or can they be catalysts for change? Let's be honest that this is a more difficult question to answer than we would like it to be.
Final thoughts: The report backed up some of my assumptions with data, and had few surprises. The do mores do more. But I want to dig deeper into generational differences (as some of my tweets have indicated) and consider how museums can increase civic engagement among those who are not-so-engaged now.
Full citation: "Civic Engagement Strongly Tied to Local News Habits." Research report published by Pew Research Center. Released November 2016.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
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.