7 Strategies Retailers Can Borrow from the ‘Amazon Books’ Store

Depending on whom you ask and what you read, Amazon Books, which will have 13 stores by the end of the year, represents the future of retail or the death of retail. Or, it’s not evil, it’s just dumb.

I can’t count the number of retail meetings or conversations I’ve been in when someone inevitably said, “Well, Amazon does XYZ.” It’s now commonplace for presentations to include a slide on how one’s organization stacks up against Amazon on various dimensions and another slide on how the organization will compete with or differentiate itself from Amazon.

Among the many retailers who will "competitive shop" Amazon Books, I think most will say they don’t want their stores to look or feel like Amazon. But, taken more granularly, some of Amazon's individual tactics can provide inspiration.

1. Popularize what’s already popular 

One of the first principles taught in merchandising a store or department is to place what’s selling well up front. The idea is that what’s already proven to be popular will draw in more people than an average performer will. 

While Amazon Books calls out “Best Sellers” at the front of the store, visitors to other stores are unlikely to realize this is why certain product is where it is. We know customers respond well to “social proof” online, but it’s rare to see “best-sellers” or “5-star reviews” promoted in stores. Not every store wants to approach the amount of stark signage Amazon has, but it can be done in on-brand ways.

Amazon Books also weaves in the promotion of online product features by, for example, showing off a table of books that are “most-often added to Wish List”. This could be an effective way for a different type of retailer to tell shoppers which items are desired but aren’t being self-purchased, suggesting they’d make good gifts.

2. Offer user-generated content

Online, retailers do everything from highlighting helpful customer reviews to sharing real-life tips from buyers of a certain product. This information gives a potential buyer confidence the mascara really will stay put for 12 hours or a certain top can be dressed up or down for various occasions. Amazon Books seamlessly brings this information into the store by including excerpts from customer reviews beneath items, helpfully explaining the usefulness of a product.

3. Design for people who aren’t familiar with what you’re selling

While Amazon Books has been criticized because it allegedly isn’t built for people who actually read, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Many people who enter any given store aren’t aficionados of whatever’s being sold. Whether it’s through layout, signage, technology, or service, stores should be easy to shop upon entry. In fact, Amazon Books breaks with this by lacking an upfront explanation for how there are no prices on books because customers need to scan them.

4. Be a little random

Amazon Books mixes things up in two ways I like. First, the store has tables for a strategically important category – Amazon’s electronic devices, including Kindle and Echo – adjacent to well-trafficked tables of books. Because Amazon doesn’t constantly release new electronics people need to touch and feel, this layout allows the customer who actually does need to discover a Kindle to do so without being the only one in a quiet section of the store – a feeling many customers don’t like.

Second, the store has displays of largely unrelated items – think: electronics cases, games, Bliss skin care (?) – that led one customer to exclaim, “this is a little random, like T.J.Maxx”. Well, customers are open to random when it means a fun discovery, and T.J.Maxx does better than most retailers. That said, some element of storytelling is nice and the skin care felt a bit too accidental.

5. Lead with what’s strategic

Maybe more than ever before, retailers have so much pressure to meet sales expectations for this quarter, this month, this day. It’s easy to focus just on what will help meet near-term numbers even – often – at the expense of long-term brand and strategy. Although this is a book store, the most common path to entry takes visitors past a massive Echo advertisement. As usual, Amazon is playing the long game and emphasizing an important tool in its strategy tool box.

6. Be your own ad

I’ve written before about how stores themselves are advertisements for a given brand. More and more, I see stores doing a good job of highlighting certain services in-store. Often they’re free services, like alterations or ship-from-store.

Amazon is pushier, requiring customers to be Prime members for preferred pricing and to download the Amazon app for other benefits. While I appreciate the boldness, it helps that Amazon has 85 million Prime members (about two-thirds of its U.S. customer file) and infinite reasons customers would download and keep the app. Without metrics like these, I’d recommend retailers think about other attributes to promote.

7. Know your in-store shoppers

Is there any data Amazon isn’t collecting about its online customers? While I don’t know whether Amazon is doing any geo-tracking within stores, we can get bet they’re looking at in-store app downloads and app usage, which tells them a lot about who’s shopping even if those visitors aren’t checking out at the physical POS. Of course, they’re also seeing transaction data and what’s being price-scanned. Don’t you want to know just as much about your store shopper as Amazon does?

My conversations with retailers suggest many people are visiting Amazon Books out of appropriate curiosity. At first glance, the store may seem ugly, unexciting, and specific to Amazon. But it won’t take a lot for Amazon to make its stores better and better. And while it does, other retailers can make some of it their own.

Note: I guest-wrote a similar version of this post for my consulting client, Euclid Analytics, which published it on the company blog earlier this month. I love seeing B2B tech companies investing in quality industry content that's not just about selling their own product.