A recent Re/code piece tries to explore the motives behind Amazon’s physical bookstores. The author tries to make several assertions that the Amazon spokesperson refutes as the primary motive. Maybe, just maybe, Amazon is doing this simply because they can?
Looking For The Conspiracy
Let’s face it, we humans are easily seduced by conspiracy theories. It isn’t hard to find people who buy into all kinds of crazy notions, even when the truth is actually the simpler answer, and backed actual evidence. I suspect this comes from our brain’s burning need to identify patterns and solve puzzles, and when our brains aren’t otherwise engaged in something worthwhile, they start to manufacture patterns or eke out “solutions” to questions out of boredom.
The Re/code author wants to try to prove that Amazon’s physical stores are more than what they are on the surface: a place for people to buy books in person. They try to assert that they’re really a way to sell Amazon hardware, particularly Alexa. They explore the idea that stores are a way to generate more Prime revenue for the company. There must be something more than just a way to sell books to people. Right?
The whole search for “something bigger” falls apart when the Amazon spokesperson points out a pretty big fact: Amazon has all of 7 stores across the US. Yes, that’s right, 7. As in one more than 6. One less than 8.
Yes, there are plans for a half dozen more. All of them are in the United States. Maybe they have designs for hundreds or thousands scattered around the world. Who knows. Perhaps there is a bigger and more nefarious point to these things. But maybe, just maybe, it’s because they want to sell some books.
Sometimes It’s Because You Can
Jeff Bezos is a book nut. That’s his primary motivation behind Amazon in the first place. That it has grown into a giant retail empire is simply because the concept appears to scale, and the guy wanted to make a lot of money. And it has also spawned a massive technology infrastructure company that makes them even more money. But not everything Bezos has done in the past few years has been about chasing the almighty dollar.
He bought the Washington Post, a dead tree publication that is one of the giants of a dying business. Did he buy it as a profit opportunity? No, clearly not. This is not a business that has any immediate opportunity to turn around. His motives appear to be more about wanting to preserve something he felt was important. Sure, it also gives him a vehicle to advance any opinion or agenda he might have. But so far, he doesn’t appear to be meddling in their editorial direction. He also hasn’t morphed it into another type of digital content for Amazon (the way that ebooks, TV shows, movies and music have become). Maybe that will change in the future, but for now, it appears more ‘hobby’ or ‘passion’ than ‘business opportunity’.
Bezos also founded Blue Origin, a space transportation company. They haven’t been getting the same coverage as Musk’s SpaceX. But they have been quietly working toward similar goals. And it may be years, if not decades, before space transportation companies make any serious money. This is as much about a combination of “because he wants to mess about with rockets” and “because he can” as anything else.
So why wouldn’t he also want a chain of real, physical bookstores? Because, if he is truly a book lover, the bookstore was more than just a building full of books. There was something special about a smaller bookstore (particularly the non-chain stores, and not necessarily the big-box monsters) that was a joy to browse. Sometimes you’d find some special surprise, some book you wanted or heard about, and now here it was. And the icing on the cake was you could have it now. You could buy it, go outside, find a park bench and start to enjoy it immediately. No need to wait a day or two. Even “same day” means you have to wait an hour or more to have it in your hands.
Billionaires and Toys
Some billionaires wants toys of some kind (not all of them, though. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett don’t seem to get into that sort of thing). The stereotype is for a billionaire to buy some kind of sports team. In the US, it’s typically football, baseball or basketball. Canadians typically buy hockey teams, and a tiny few get into football via the CFL. Some wealthy people are now getting into MLS soccer teams. Other countries see the rich buy football (soccer) teams, cricket teams, and even hockey teams. But it’s almost a cliche for a billionaire to buy a sports team.
Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk (and Richard Branson even) don’t buy sports teams. Musk has SpaceX. Bezos has Blue Origin, The Washington Post and Amazon Books. Branson has Virgin Galactic. Some of these are about the future. I suspect part of it is that these guys want to go into space themselves, and the easiest way to get there is to build your own ride. But things like owning newspapers and bookstores is as much about nostalgia, about preserving the past, as anything else. This is being done for the same reason that billionaires buy sports teams, or marginally profitable resorts and golf courses, or other ventures that will clearly never be massively profitable: because they can.
Okay, so maybe Amazon Books is a long game to expand Amazon’s retail empire, to reach the so-called “laggards” (to use parlance coined by Everett Rogers when describing diffusion of innovations) that they wouldn’t otherwise get via their web presence. But until they have stores numbering in the hundreds or thousands, these things look more like a hobby and less than a serious way to expand the business. And there’s nothing wrong with doing that.