On Amazon’s move from clicks to bricks

Opinion by Ramya Balasingam
Nov. 10, 2015, 11:59 p.m.

Books — bound physical books — are something I associate with warmth, love and knowledge. So naturally I find myself most content when in a bookstore, browsing and finding by chance titles that surprise and intrigue me.

There’s something so wonderful about the sight of books laid out on aisles and aisles of shelves and tables. I love the feel of coarse pages on my fingers as I flip through books and magazines, absorbing knowledge and admiring not only the strings of words that come together to convey meaning, but also the way in which these words are laid out on a tangible page. It’s delightful not to have to scroll up and down a page — or switch between tabs or windows — to look at different chapters to see if a book captures my interest enough so that I would buy it.

But, unfortunately, this experience I speak of is becoming less and less common. This is especially so in Silicon Valley, a place that has played a critical role in the technological revolution that has essentially replaced hardcopy books with e-books. Around here, I often find myself in a minority when I voice my opinion about the beauty of real, touchable books. In recent years, most bookstores in the area have closed, leaving behind only a few Barnes and Noble stores, and one or two quaint neighborhood bookstores. I often long for bookstores to return, and for tangible books to return to their original status as cherished gifts and possessions.

Earlier this week, I was excited when Amazon opened a “brick-and-mortar” store in Seattle, giving me hope that actual bookstores might make a comeback. Amazon’s announcement was undoubtedly a surprising one, because the company was responsible in many ways for the closure of several bookstores — not just in Silicon Valley, but also around the country.  

Amazon’s decision to open an actual store is interesting because it was one of the first and most successful tech giants that developed an exclusively Internet-only retail business. It maintained this position, even as rivals such as Apple and Microsoft, which, in addition to being strong online, also opened actual stores. These stores, especially in the case of Apple, have been very successful because some customers are more comfortable making purchases after fully examining their products.

When retail stores such as Borders were struggling to compete with Amazon, they attempted to combine an online presence with their physical stores to stay in business. Unfortunately for consumers like me who are really keen on physical stores, this strategy was not enough to keep them in business. It’s arguable that Amazon never needed — and still does not need — a “brick” presence. As a company that functions mainly to help consumers purchase products online and have them shipped to their homes, there really was never a need to establish a physical presence in a shopping mall.

With its latest decision to go to “bricks,” will Amazon be able to leverage its online experience to improve on the traditional concept of a bookstore?

As the equivalent of “Google” in the online book industry, Amazon has data — and lots of it. It knows what the most popular books are at any given moment for each demographic. And given the amount of data it has collected about what arrangements of books appeals most strongly to certain demographics, Amazon probably has developed strategies about how to best organize books to make them enticing purchases to a customer that walked into a store, just to browse — but not buy — books.

But, it’s no secret that Amazon has engaged in corporate practices that have provoked controversy. From reports of difficult working conditions to a corporate culture that fosters confrontational conduct, Amazon has received strong criticism in the media. But, hopefully, the degree of transparency that comes with an actual “brick” presence will help infuse more worker-friendly practices into Amazon.

Without a doubt, Amazon’s addition of “bricks” to “clicks” marks an important event in the book industry. Whether or not Amazon’s “brick” experiment will be successful is a question we will have to wait to answer, but I am excited by the possibility that this could help revive interest in conventional bookstores, even the small neighborhood variety.


Contact Ramya Balasingam at ramyab ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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