Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Amazon Mobile App

Last week Amazon announced a mobile app (currently only available to US customers - because, yes, I tried to find it via my iTunes account the second I heard about it) that would allow a person to scan a barcode on a product in a physical location that would bring them to that item's listing on Amazon and they could easily check further info, customer reviews and, of course, purchase the item.

As the manager of a bricks and mortar bookstore, my first reaction was along the lines of "Oh great, now it's even easier for customers to come in, browse what we have, then go buy it elsewhere, yet again abandoning their local bookstore and sending their money not just out of the neighbourhood but all the way to the US."

But after less than a minute of thinking about it, I had to be honest with myself and admit it's a pretty ingenious application.

After all, let's be entirely honest here -- bricks and mortar bookstores have been physical showrooms for places like Amazon for over a decade. This new application just makes it easier for customers to make the purchase online at Amazon from their mobile device much more easily.

Again, I'll admit that it's a brilliant play by Amazon. Yes, just because they're a major competitor and their cut-throat tactics continually frustrate me as someone who is trying to keep a bookstore afloat doesn't mean I can't recognize and admit when they do something that's pretty darned shrewd.

But on the flip-side of that coin, I find it interesting that with the release this application, Amazon is admitting that, as good as the experience of browsing their online site is, nothing can come close to the experience of heading over to see your local bookseller and either being captivated by the unique merchandising display, or getting first-hand information about a title from a trusted curatorial source.  They're admitting that they kind of need phyiscal real-world locations to help them build sales.

I worked for an online bookseller for long enough to know that much of the merchandising and efforts made to run the website are all about trying desperately to re-create and one-up the experience of browsing for a title in the real world in a real bookstore.  And, while there are fantastic add-ons to the online experience, such as customer reviews, automatic "if you like A, you might like B" product suggestions generated on the fly and social-media styled online communities, like Indigo's Community, Goodreads or LibraryThing, there's still something ultimately unique about the serendipitous experience of walking into a physical bookstore.

What I'm talking about in terms of serendipity might not be that you spoke with a friendly and knowledgeable bookseller (which is usually what one talks about when they praise the benefits of shopping at your local bookstore), but of little things like the ultimate chance "encounter" with a book on a shelf in front of you that is noticed perhaps not the way it was purposely merchandised, but the way it's slanted slight because a customer or staff member, just seconds before you walked past, pulled out a book beside it.  It catches your attention, you pick it up, discover an author and title you'd never heard of before, and voila, quite by accident, another beautiful moment of serendipity is born.  Or maybe you're in there killing time when you overhear a conversation between another customer and a bookseller, and it leads you to check out something you hadn't intended to.

Those are the types of unique things (and there are literally dozens more different ways this could happen each and every time you set foot in a real live bricks and mortar bookstore) that make the physical experience so powerful and irreplaceable.

In a way, with this new mobile application, Amazon is fully admitting this very thing, and, in their bold and progressive manner, are capitalizing on it.

You can throw your hands up in frustration and complain that, yet again, a monolithic company is taking advantage of the little guys -- but what does that get you? More gray hairs? Another day older and deeper in debt?

I'd like to look at how, I, as a bricks and mortar retailer, can take advantage back.  And let's remind ourselves of two key things:

  1. Amazon has a pretty amazing catalog and one of the world's best search tools for books. Booksellers, as much as they hate to admit it, often use Amazon to quickly find and search for titles before ordering it through the publisher, wholesaler or distributor.
  2. Customers have always had the ability to find out about books in their local bookstores and then go to buy them on Amazon. Some just choose to support their local bookstore over finding the best/lowest possible price. This application simply saves those customers who weren't going to buy it in their local bookstore anyway time.

So, it's the second item I'm curious to exploit back. If the customer was coming in to my store to use me and my staff and my physical location that I pay rent for and sweat buckets over trying to keep the business open and be there again tomorrow to open the doors and continue to serve my local community, how can I at least get back some of what I'm losing when they walk in, use me and leave me to buy the book elsewhere?

The same way that Amazon allows for affiliate links to give a tiny percentage of credit back to the originating source, is there some way that I can sign up to get an affiliate fee for any sales I'm losing to Amazon through use of this app within my store (or even GPS-enabled, within the proximity of my store?) If one existed, I'd sign up for it. 

(And in full disclosure, you'll notice a whack of hotlinks to Amazon throughout this article -- they're all affiliate-embedded links - meaning, if you click the link and follow it to Amazon and then make a purchase from Amazon, I'll get a teeny tiny % of the sale to Amazon as an affiliate fee. And if the volume ever increases, I might actually make a few dollars. But if, as a bookseller, I was able to even get back a small percentage on 10% of the sales I've lost to Amazon over the years, it'd help pay many of the bills -- think about how that might add up over time, going from getting 0 to getting a small percentage of those lost sales.  Yes, it sounds like "deal with the devil" material, but the business is becoming less about margins, which are already razor-thin in the book industry, to being more about market share)

Remember, Amazon is pretty much admitting that they use physical bricks and mortar locations to build their sales.  A bizarre symbiotic relationship could be developed in which, rather than simply "stealing" those sales, they create a way to "give something back." It might, in the long term, be a better option to continue to allow customers the ultimate choice -- to always have the bricks and mortar plus online options available to them.

Can the folks behind IndieBound create a similar application so that as a customer I can have this wonderful convenience, but also the choice to support local and independently operated bookstores?  (I already use the IndieBound iPhone Application all the time and find it wonderful to merge convenience with supporting local businesses)

What other things might an independently operated bookstore do to try to take advantage back without removing the convenience and choice from the customer?

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