There’s a lot to unpack when you visit the 3,500 ft² (325 m²) Amazon 4-star store in the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent in the UK.
The store opened in October, with plans to showcase the internet giant’s most popular products, all of which have been rated four star and above by Amazon UK customers.
Currently, the shop offers around 2,000 items ranging from its top-selling electronics, books, toys and kitchen gadgets to Amazon’s own merchandise such as Kindle e-Readers, Fire tablets, and Echo speakers. The store is the first of its kind in Europe, with further branches expected to follow in the coming months.
in line with the 4-star stores in the US, which are located in cities including New York, Berkeley and Denver, the items in store have collectively received almost 4 million four-star reviews. Some 20% of all items are swapped out with other highly-rated products on a continuous basis, to pique customer interest and keep the experience fresh.
The project to replicate Amazon’s internet store is faithful down to its digital price tags, which update to match offers on the e-commerce platform in the blink of an eye – and even change per customer. It’s an almost perfectly translated experience of internet shopping, I discover – and slightly unnerving.
A source close to the new store, not authorised to speak on behalf of Amazon, tells me that as it has just opened, most customers at the moment seem focused on browsing. However, peak time is on Saturdays, when six counters open up and shoppers can expect to encounter queues.
Will it survive, Alexa?
The store has been described as a ‘mini-department store’ due to its layout and sections, although it will hope for a rosier future than recent high street casualties ranging from Debenhams to House of Fraser. Even the sector’s survivors – including retail giant John Lewis – have shuttered numerous shops in the last 18 months, choosing to focus increasingly on online strategy.
Traditional retailers will be watching with interest to see how Amazon’s bricks-and-mortar venture fares – and what merchandising innovations it introduces. For example, the 4-star store’s ‘Most Wished For’ section showcases products from online consumers’ Wish Lists; there’s also a ‘Trending in Bluewater’ area with the most popular products that local consumers are buying. Finally, the ‘Most Gifted’ department features the top products that are ordered online as gifts.
Retail experts suggest that Amazon has opened a physical store because it wants to connect with its customers, and finally give them the ‘human’ experience. And indeed, if you have a question about your Amazon account, Amazon Alexa or Echo, in-store staff can help with any questions or concerns. This recalls Apple Stores, whose employees are authorised to fix gadgets on the spot if they can.
You don’t have to be an Amazon account holder to shop at the store. Nonetheless, if you’re a Prime member, you can benefit from 50% off for some purchases. It’s important to note that this store does not have the ‘just walk out’ technology of Amazon’s supermarket concepts in the UK. Therefore, you have to pay for your item before leaving the store.
To say that Amazon is more accustomed to designing algorithms than store interiors, the store has an elegant look and feel. Its open-plan design means that you can see the entire store at a glance, and it’s as neat and organised – well – as a website.
But when it comes to customer service, it’s not so far from the experience that retailers such as John Lewis have honed over the years. Furthermore, some retail experts have questioned whether the algorithm-selected products and layout work just as well in a physical store, compared to online.
Keeping things fresh
Ever since acquiring US grocery chain Whole Foods, the e-commerce giant has continuously invested in bricks and mortar stores. Its new concepts and formats have been further tested in the UK and Europe. While the UK’s grocery sector is highly competitive, some of its biggest players have welcomed Amazon’s initiatives.
Morrisons for example has inked a deal with the internet player to provide supplies for delivery services Amazon Prime Pantry and Prime Fresh. In London, the first Amazon Fresh store opened in Ealing
Broadway Centre on a site previously occupied by clothing retailer Monsoon Accessorize. In taking over store spaces from retailers that have moved online or collapsed, the grocery format has gained ground in affluent and densely populated areas.
Amazon Fresh shops are even more tech-heavy that the 4-star store, due to their till-less innovation. Glance at the ceiling in-store and expect to see cameras and motion sensors pointing in every direction. Every time you add an item to the bright green shopping bag, it simultaneously appears in your virtual cart. Customers are required to have the app to shop.
Another reminder that you are only one dimension away from the internet is the presence of employees on the shop floor, busy filling baskets to fulfil online orders. It’s a sign that Amazon, like its grocery peers in the UK, partly views supermarkets as last mile delivery hubs. Nevertheless, if Amazon has decided that it can’t survive or thrive without physical stores, it’s a reminder to the rest of the industry not to give up on bricks-and-mortar – just yet.