Amazon's New Bookstore Is About Customer Service, Not Sales

To the surprise of many, the company that all-but demolished the brick-and-mortar book business debuted its first brick-and-mortar book store earlier this week. With the opening of Amazon Books in Seattle, the e-commerce behemoth is redefining the in-store experience, and it's all about personalized service. On the surface, the store is a condensed, limited version of the online business; digging deeper into its shelves, however, reveals a much more nuanced business model.

One of the most unique aspects of the store is that there are no prices on any of the products. In lieu of a price sticker, bookshelves are labeled with barcodes, which shoppers can scan with the camera function inside of the Amazon mobile app. This is where the self-service journey originates—by scanning the barcode, shoppers immediately launch the Amazon online world which provides pricing information, customer reviews, and related product recommendations. The pricing fluctuates and updates in real time, so the price that consumers get is the best price available.

As for shoppers that prefer not to download the app, there's another route to in-store support. Store employees can also scan barcodes for shoppers, and provide service via their devices. The pricing and product information is visible, and if the consumer chooses to provide his or her login information, the employee can make personalized suggestions based on the shopper's history. Furthermore, the employees aren't just standard salespeople—they were hand-selected by Amazon from libraries, book stores, and from within Amazon itself. The folks on the floor are product experts, and armed with insight from the online environment, they're equipped to deliver an unprecedented level of support.

"If you want to deliver deeply personalized service, you can't forget about the in-store experience. In-store support is important,” Forrester analyst Kate Leggett says. Increasingly, the traditional brick-and-mortar sales model is being replaced by e-commerce—prices are lower, shopping is more convenient, and reviews make purchasers more informed. Where e-commercecan't compete yet, however, is in service. There's nothing like an in-person consultation from an expert, according to Leggett. "Look at the Apple Store. It's the best example of how important brick-and-mortar [still] is. That's where shoppers come for service and advice," she says.

Other companies are also seeing the potential of a service-oriented approach to brick-and-mortar locations. Some, for example, are positioning physical locations as extensions of the e-commerce experience. "Stores can be mini-fulfilment hubs, offering ultimate flexibility when it comes to delivery choices and saving a potentially lost sale," Anitha Rajagopalan, retail and omnichannel consultant at Happiest Minds, wrote in a post for Data Informed.

While the term omnichannel service often gets tossed around and used interchangeably with multichannel service, customers now more than ever expect it to be implemented in a literal way. Channels and customer touch points, including brick-and-mortar stores, have to be tied back to an overarching service strategy, and channels must be integrated to ensure seamless experiences regardless of where interactions take place. "Omnichannel service is an absolute must-have. That includes all channels—digital and physical," Leggett says.

As for Amazon, the store may provide only a drop in the bucket when it comes to overall sales, but it's changing the way companies will offer in-store support. Whether it's through self-service or with the help of employees, consumers are going to be getting a different level of in-store support and service than what they're used to. Amazon is a trendsetter, and is blurring the linesbetween marketing, sales, and service with this new endeavor. It's only a matter of time before other retailers catch on, experts agree.

"It seems clear that the shelf pricing model in the Amazon store isn't a feature—it's the product," Rob Salkowitz, founder of MediaPlant, a communications firm, wrote for Forbes. "By pushing pricing to the app, Amazon enables every offer, every recommendation, and potentially every price to be personalized to each customer and timed to optimize every transaction. You know who'd like to be able to do that? Every retailer everywhere."

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