Zeenat Moorad Associate editor: Financial Mail
Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Never has there been a more greatly exaggerated narrative than that of the death of the bookstore. Amazon, in something of a paradox, will open a 372m² store in Manhattan.

It will bring to eight the number of physical bookstores either opened or announced by the Machiavellian retail gorilla, which, for the better part of two decades, has put to use its sprawling economies of scale to slash prices and put out of business, well, physical bookstores.

The trudging along of Barnes & Noble and the meltdown of rival Borders (which was losing US$1bn in annual income before it shut down) seemed, if only briefly, to signal the end of nostalgia, the art of the browse and the serendipity of book shopping.

So began the dawn of a new age in bookselling, with Amazon in all its efficient glory offering better deals, and by extension cultivating trust.

It would seem now that in the US, at least, e-book sales have actually plateaued and the sales of physical books (particularly from independent bookstores) have increased steadily over the past four years. There has also emerged a (rather) rich, erm ... new role of the physical bookstore: to showcase books and reignite the intimacy that bookselling (and book buying) invokes that cannot and will not be replicated online. Imagine that. What the closure of national chain stores actually did over time was leave a void for those partial to paper, ink and coffee.

Independent bookstores became the sanctum for purists, perusers and those who go where the free Wi-Fi is. Interestingly, the number of independent stores has increased 30% since 2009, according to the American Booksellers Association.

As strategy goes, Amazon remains its gingerly self, saying only that its network of physical bookstores remains an "opportunity".

With the data it has corralled from online retailing, it has a wealth of insight into the flow of product across markets and consumer segments. I say this because it is also testing Amazon Go — a brick-and-mortar grocery concept, after a few years of next-day and early-morning delivery on fresh grocery and household products through Amazon Fresh.

The nuts and bolts of Amazon Go is that customers can — without queuing or paying at a checkout counter — shop for staples like milk, bread and chocolate (because you can’t get more elemental than chocolate).

Sensors record items they pick up and they’re charged to an Amazon Prime account.

Now, the Great Disruptor (as with most things) has opted to do things its own way when it comes to bookshops: for easier browsing, books at its stores face cover up instead of spine out. For the tech celibate who might view buying electronics online a sacrifice of virtue too far, devices are spread out on a table in the centre of the store (à la Apple) for fiddling about — and ultimately purchasing (we must not forget that Amazon is chiefly a digital brand).

Also there are fewer books than you would find at a typical big bookstore, with titles guided largely by staff picks, ratings and the number of preorders. With this more curated touch Amazon is shifting, I think, from the impersonality of the digital shopping experience.

Ultimately (and I think this is important) shopkeeping through physical stores is a data play for Amazon, whose uncharacteristically obtrusive aim is a perfected shopping experience, tactile or not.

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