June 2, 2017

EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN: Why Is Amazon Building Brick-and-mortar Bookstores?

There has already been some garment-rending from writers about the lack of literary sophistication on display at Amazon’s stores, and it’s a valid criticism. The Amazon Store is not like browsing your local indie bookstore, or even a Barnes & Noble. The “History” section didn’t have some standards like Battle Cry of Freedom or The Penguin History of the World, but it did have Bill O’Reilly’s Legends and Lies: The Patriots (4.6 stars!). And the store’s decision to display titles face out means it only carries about 3,000 titles, far less than it could if it displayed books more like a traditional bookstore with the same amount of space.

Still, my fellow browsers seemed to like the store. Carol Laskin, an attorney from Cherry Hill, was killing time before seeing A Doll’s House, Part 2. “This is fun,” she said. “I’m seeing books I wouldn’t normally see. When you buy a book on Amazon’s website, you see more book recommendations, and you’re like, ‘I’ve read these already.’”

But it wasn’t until I went to check the price on a book — you have to either use the Amazon shopping app on your phone to take a picture of the book cover, or bring it to one of the many scanning machines — that the store actually started to make sense. The app and the scanner will show you two prices: one for Prime members and one for non-Prime members. For The Devil’s Chessboard, this meant a discount of nearly 50 percent — $10.70 for Prime members, and $20.81 for schmucks without a Prime membership.

Amazon is selling books people actually want to buy, along with an inducement to join the company’s $99-a-year Prime program. If customers take the bait, the brick-and-mortar stores wouldn’t need to show a profit to become valuable assets to the company.

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