Amazon goes analog: Can e-retail giant change the way we buy books – again?

Online giant Amazon is opening a 'real life' bookstore, hoping that its e-commerce data can improve on the neighborhood bookstore experience. 

Ted S. Warren/ AP/ File
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos greets a crowd at the launch of the Amazon Fire Phone in Seattle, June 2014. The online company is opening its first ever bookstore in Seattle on Tuesday.

Remember when Amazon was a bookstore?

Although today CEO Jeff Bezos is making waves with rockets, drones, and even Flex, an on-demand delivery service, the online retailer got its start 21 years ago by betting that Americans could learn to love buying books online. And did they ever: today, the company is worth $250 billion.

But today, Amazon is unveiling one of its most surprising creations yet: a real, walk-right-in, brick-and-mortar bookstore.

Amazon Books opens in Seattle at 9:30 Tuesday morning, setting up shop in the city's University Village, where big-tech companions Apple and Microsoft also have retail locations – and where Barnes & Noble closed a 46,000 square foot store in 2011.

But the "Everything Store" is hardly turning its back on web readership. Customers' ratings, as well as Amazon bestseller lists, will inform which titles make the cut to end up on Amazon Books' shelves, where each title will face out: a tactic that drives sales by encouraging shoppers to browse and linger, but limits overall supply. 

"It's data with heart," Amazon Books Vice President Jennifer Cast told the Seattle Times. 

If a book jacket description isn't enough, customers will be surrounded by e-readers, Fire tablets, and other digital devices to help them get a 'data boosted' shopping experience – not to mention, $18-per-hour employees, who were carefully wooed from local bookstores, industry newsletter Shelf Awareness reported back in early October, when word of Amazon's newest venture was still hush-hush. Summaries of online buyers' reviews will be available beneath each title.

The company may feel that it needs a bit of "heart" after recent PR crises: a much-publicized feud with publisher Hachette, which finally ended last November after 909 writers signed a letter in protest, and an in-depth New York Times investigation that portrayed Amazon as "a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard," in the words of Mr. Bezos himself. Bezos disputed the Times' account of Amazon's work culture, but insisted the company would not tolerate the kind of overly-demanding management practices employees described to Times reporters.

Earlier this week, Bezos announced a series of HR changes, such as improved maternity and paternity time. 

But Amazon Books is also a new technique for profit-making: can big data help in-person bookstores tailor their stock to local customers? Although Amazon has been independent bookstores' favorite scapegoat for years, and is credited with helping bring on former giant Borders' demise, off-line books, and bookstores, seem to be resilient

Should they be nervous about a future Amazon Books expansion?

"We hope this is not our only one. But we’ll see," Amazon's Ms. Cast told the Seattle Times. 

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