There was a time, several years ago, when the likes of Waterstones were on the verge of collapsing. The bookshop chain, faced with the interminable rise of Amazon that sold books for as little as £0.99, was forced to close down hundreds of its branches.
Skip to 2015, Waterstones has eventually manage to steady the ship, but even now they are only just about to break even, after years in the red.
Bearing all of this in mind, one can imagine the feeling at its head office when the recent Amazon-related news filtered in.
Amazon gets physical
Amazon is planning to open a physical store in its hometown of Seattle that will sell books the analog way. One can see the sweet irony of it all: an e-commerce giant that famously threatened the existence of bricks-and-mortar bookshops decides to open a bricks-and-mortar bookstore.
Even then, the store will retain some of the online features such as showing customer ratings of the books and using their data and ratings on Goodreads to inform what gets stocked, whilst the prices will be the same as they are online. The books will even all be presented face out, just like online.
“Amazon Books is a physical extension of Amazon.com. We’ve applied 20 years of online bookselling experience to build a store that integrates the benefits of offline and online book shopping,” said Amazon Books vice-president Jennifer Cast at the Seattle University Village on 3 November.
The shop will stock 5,000 books, most of which will have been selected using customer ratings, pre-orders and sales.
‘Hope it falls flat on its face’
The face-out presentation of the books particularly irked James Daunt, the Waterstones boss who said, “With only 5,000 titles in a space in which Waterstones would put over 10 times that number, it appears to be a tentative dip of the toe into physical bookselling waters.”
However, despite his questioning of the lay-out he was concerned by what Amazon’s foray into the offline would mean for traditional bookstores.
“Clearly, however, a skim of the bestsellers away from true bookshops would be very damaging: we very much hope that it falls flat on its face.”
Waterstones abandoning digital channels
Amazon’s foray into the world of physical stores, comes just a week after Waterstones revealed its intention to stop selling Amazon’s Kindle book readers. This appears to be part of a concerted effort by Waterstones to truly focus on what it believes its customers want: the experience of actually going to a bookshop. Dedicating the space that was taken up by the Kindles and other digital book readers to physical formats certainly will cater to that demand.
Why is Amazon experimenting with offline?
Tom Tivnan, features editor at the Bookseller magazine, was surprised by Amazon’s decision to enter the physical world of books.
“It goes against the Amazon model of being a never-ending bookshop that is not reliant on having books on shelves. It is unclear whether they will roll it out across the US. I can see it going to a limited number of cities like New York or possibly London, but I don’t think it will have a huge impact,” he said.
However, Peter Veash, CEO at The BIO Agency, believes there is method in Amazon’s madness.
“Most retailers move from physical stores to the online world to extend their reach. It will come as a surprise to some that Amazon has opened a physical store in the US. But it shouldn’t be,” he said.
He cites a YouGov study, which showed that 22 per cent of Britons shopped on the high street within the past day versus 18 per cent that had shopped online.
“The brand recognition of Amazon is massive and visiting its physical store will attract both book lovers as well as people that are intrigued by the move.
“I’m sure as time goes on they will be also utilising technology to enable in-store orders and deliveries enabling a seamless shopping experience marrying the online and offline worlds.”
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