The offline and online worlds collide at Amazon’s bookstores

 In Blog, Featured

This place is weird.

That was my first thought as I walked around one of Amazon’s new bookstores. The company recently opened one in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood and I was eager to visit it for a couple reasons, mostly because I wanted to see what made it different from your typical bookstore.

What I found was an experience that partly leans on mobile technology, but could use some improvements with something like beacons.

The first thing you’ll notice while shopping is the lack of prices on the book description tags on the shelves. Of course, you’ll find the suggested retail price on the book itself, but the lack of a price on an actual tag is deliberate, though the reason is not immediately apparent.

Then, as I walked around the store, I noticed a price scanner on the wall. Strange, I thought. But after I scanned a book, the purpose became clear.

This is an Amazon bookstore after all, so there are Prime prices for almost every item. When I scanned a book, the screen showed the Prime price as well as the regular price. I then wondered how I could get that Prime price in an offline environment.

When I first walked into the store, I had noticed some signage about how to pay for a purchase with Amazon’s mobile app. You scan a QR code with the Amazon app, which then generates a QR code within the app, which you then show to the associate at the POS when it’s time to pay for a purchase.

Once the QR code is created within the app, you can link to a previously used payment method stored with your Amazon account. This is how Amazon determines whether you’re a Prime member. The system recognizes a card that’s been used to make an online Amazon purchase. However, you can’t use Amazon’s own private-label credit card at this time in the bookstore.

If you want to use a payment card at the register, you need to use one associated with your Prime account to receive the discounted price. When you use the card, as some customers did on my visit, you swipe to pay. The bookstore doesn’t accept EMV.

“Amazon is not using EMV at its checkout in physical stores because the dynamic encryption used in EMV transactions would make hard to identify which cards are connected to a Prime account,” Ben Jackson, director of the prepaid advisory service at Mercator Advisory Group, told me in an e-mail. “With a swipe, Amazon can recognize the card number in its system and make the connection and provide the discount.”

Jackson provided me with that insight after he saw my tweets sent from inside the store. He said his sister had recently visited the Amazon bookstore in Boston and he wanted to know about my experience.

One aspect of my visit that was not immediately clear to me was the role the Amazon app plays in the store — aside from the payment part, that is.

You can use the showroom feature in the app to scan a book cover and get pricing information. I only learned this after an associate told me. Well, at least that little tidbit saved me additional trips to the price scanner.

Amazon’s bookstore screams for some kind of beacon or geolocation integration. The Amazon app should alert me when I’m in the vicinity of the bookstore. It should also send notifications from the app while I’m in the store with Bluetooth turned on. Let me know that I can purchase an Amazon Fire Stick from the bookstore.

Overall, the bookstore was a cool experience. I liked the limited inventory, especially as someone who gets overwhelmed at giant bookstores such as the Strand in New York City. In case you’re unaware, Amazon stocks only those books that receive a high online rating.

I don’t think Amazon is a threat to mom-and-pop bookstores, but its use of technologies such as mobile app integration and offline Prime prices will appeal to many people. It makes me wonder whether Amazon would ever open stores that would specialize in something other than books or groceries (see Amazon Go). Traditional retail is in a freefall, but physical Amazon stores could thrive in certain areas of the country. That’s an idea worth keeping in mind.

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