That’s right. Stores -- actual buildings -- with stuff in them.
What’s more, this has been “on the books” at Amazon for a while. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was asked by Charlie Rose in 2012 if the company would ever open physical stores. Bezos replied, "We would love to, but only if we can have a truly differentiated idea. We want to do something that is uniquely Amazon. We haven’t found it yet, but if we can find that idea … we would love to open physical stores.”
With that background, the speculation makes sense. If Amazon is pulling the trigger, it must have “found the idea.” So what might that idea be?
Amazon does have a test store in its own backyard of Seattle. What the company has chosen to do there, in a footprint about the tenth of the size of the former Barnes and Noble store that was there, is present a “highly curated” store that caters to “local interests.”
Most of the speculation about the new Amazon experiment in “back-to-the-future” retail centers around potential new supply-chain management technology or payment methods. But there was one quote from Amanda Nicholson, professor of retail practice at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management, that caught my attention. According to the podcast write-up, “she said that space represents ‘a test’ to see if Amazon can create ‘a new kind of experience’ using data analytics about customers’ preferences.”
This becomes interesting if we consider the purchase journey we typically take. What Amazon had done online brilliantly is remove friction from two steps in that journey: filtering options and conducting the actual transaction. For certain kinds of purchases, this is all we need. If we’re buying a product that doesn’t rely on tactile feedback, like a digital file or a book, Amazon has connected all the dots required to take us from awareness to purchase.
But that certainly doesn’t represent all potential purchases. That could be the reason that online purchases only represent 9% of all retail. There are many products that require an “experience” between the filtering of options available to us and the actual purchase. These things still require the human “touch": literally. Up to now, Amazon has remained emotionally distant from these types of purchases. But perhaps a new type of retail location could change that.
Let me give you an example. If you’re a cyclist (like me), you probably have a favorite bike shop. Bike stores are not simply retail outlets. They are temples of bike worship. Bike shops are usually an independent business run by people who love to talk about their favorite rides, the latest bikes, or pretty much anything to do with cycling. Going to a bike store is an experience.
But Trek, one of the largest bike manufacturers in the world, also recognized the efficiency of the online model. In 2015, the company announced the introduction of Trek Connect, its attempt to find a happy middle ground between practical efficiency and emotional experience. Through Trek Connect, you can configure and order your bike online, but pick it up and have it serviced at your local bike shop.
However, what Amazon may be proposing is not simply about the tactile requirements of certain types of purchases. What if Amazon could create a personalized real-world shopping experience?
Right now, there's a gap between our online research and filtering activity and our real-world experiential activity. Typically, we shortlist our candidates, gather required information, often in the form of a page printed off a website, and head down to the nearest retail location.
There, the hand-off typically leaves a lot to be desired. We have to navigate a store layout that was certainly not designed with our immediate needs in mind. We have to explain what we want to a floor clerk who seems to have at least a thousand other things he'd rather be doing. And we are not guaranteed that what we’re looking for will even be in stock.
But what if Amazon could make the transition seamless? What if it could pick up all the signals from our online activity and create a physical “experiential bubble” for us when we visited the nearest Amazon retail outlet?
Let me go back to my bike purchasing analogy by way of an example. Let’s say I need a new bike because I’m taking up triathlons. Amazon knows this because my online activity has flagged me as an aspiring triathlete. The company knows where I live and it has a rich data set on my other interests, which includes my favored travel destinations.
Amazon could take this data and, under the pretext of my picking up my bike, create a personalized in-store experience for me, including a rich selection of potential add-on sales. With Amazon’s inventory and fulfillment prowess, it would be possible to merchandise a store especially for me.
I have no idea if this is what Amazon has “in store” for the future, but the possibility is tantalizing.
It may even make me like shopping.