September 16, 2016
Amazon’s assault on the galaxy continues; indies in Chicago land a counterassault
by Ian Dreiblatt
As we’ve written many times before, there is a dark force sweeping through our universe. Capable of destroying entire local economies, and organized around the despotic whims of a single, nefarious overlord, this creeping e-menace has a name: Amazon.
In Seattle, almost a year ago now, Amazon raised its already high profile by coalescing into physical form to create Amazon Books, a brick-and-mortar store that doubled as a collection point for the one nutrient that gives Amazon life: massive quantities of consumer data. Rumors have since swirled—rumors nasty enough to produce such terrifying clumps of language as “move into omni-channel retailing by e-commerce giant”—and gradually crystalized into concrete news about at least a few more stores the company planned to open, with still more looming farther up the horizon.
This week, a demonic news-egg that was laid back in March has finally hatched: Amazon has opened its second store, in San Diego, California. To the noble humans of that proud settlement: our prayers are with you.
In a story for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Jennifer Van Grove writes that when the store opened Wednesday of last week, it did so “with little fanfare.” The new Amazon Books is substantially smaller than the first one, and more densely packed — it houses about one book per each of its 3,500 square feet of retail space, compared with the Seattle location, which houses about .91 books for each of its 5,500 square feet. If that manner of description seems totally inane to you—.91 books?—consider that that’s just how Amazon aims to define the books it sells, as blankly quantifiable nubs of infinitely swappable content. That content is cheap—Amazon Books offers the same market-eviscerating discounts as Amazon.com—in part because the act of purchasing it parasitizes the buyer, reducing human customers to goopy sacs of the consumer data on which Amazon feeds.
Quoting San Diego State marketing professor Miro Copic, Van Grove makes a similar point:
Despite its name, the venue isn’t really a bookstore — at least not in the familiar sense. Here, books act as a vehicle to drive consumers deeper into the Amazon system, Copic said. Books, he said, are small but browsable, don’t have a shelf-life and, more importantly, can act as conversation starters with staffers, who can then teach customers about the benefits of Prime membership.
In fact, Prime, the company’s $99-per-year membership service that includes two-day shipping and streaming video, factors heavily into the store experience. Staffers and in-store signage remind patrons at every turn that Prime members often pay less than retail prices for books, a point that is reinforced with each smartphone price check….
San Diego shoppers will indeed find that the store is designed to funnel them into Amazon’s broader e-commerce marketplace. Sales associates’ most frequent refrain — the question: “Do you have the Amazon app on your phone?” — is a constant reminder that something larger is at play.
Oh yeah. Something larger is most definitely at play.
Thankfully, there is a group of people who have dedicated themselves to the struggle against this tentacled monster.
In response to the news broken late last month that Amazon plans to roost in yet another physical store next year in Chicago (on the ashes of a bar called The Mystic Celt, which sounds like it was a fun place to hang out and probably never hoarded the consumer data of its patrons), sixteen Chicago indie booksellers and the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association have teamed up to release a statement, published this morning at Shelf Awareness. Among other things, the booksellers note:
Whereas Amazon’s initial choice to sell books was largely for the purpose of collecting customer data, independent bookstores pride themselves on serving customers who read voraciously and eclectically and on using books to create a conversation with customers and their communities. Booksellers get to know their customers so that they are able to make personal recommendations that enrich and sometimes change people’s lives. In addition, independent bookstores collect—and have always collected—full sales taxes as required by law, thereby supporting schools, fire and police departments, and state and local governments generally. Amazon has also begun collecting and paying sales taxes, after being forced to by lawsuits and negative public opinion.
Industry experts speculate that the purpose of brick-and-mortar Amazon stores is to continue to collect information that would aid Amazon in future non-book sales endeavors. To Chicago’s independent bookstores, customers are not just instruments for data collection to enable future sales; rather, customer support is the lifeblood that helps sustain both the stores and the vital communities those stores create.
That is, in bookselling parlance, “one sick burn.” Here’s to the passionate and courageous booksellers of Chicago — a grateful planet applauds your quest to stop the Monster.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.