retail news in context, analysis with attitude

This commentary is available as both text and video; enjoy both or either ... they are similar, but not exactly the same. To see past FaceTime commentaries, go to the MNB Channel on YouTube.

Hi, Kevin Coupe here, and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy.

I’m reporting this week from the GMDC Retail Tomorrow conference in New York City, where one of the features is a visit to the Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle to look at some of the retail innovations on display here. This continues to be one of the most immersive and effective conferences of its type, and I’m thrilled to be here.

One of the newer stores in this center is an Amazon Books store up on the third floor, which is sort of interesting since Amazon-owned Whole Foods occupies the entire basement. It is worth noting that a friend of mine, a lifelong New York City resident, points out that while there’s a lot of retail here, real New Yorkers actually hate the place, thinking it seems more typical of Las Vegas or Beverly Hills than of the Big Apple. I must say, I agree with him on that.

I was talking to my friend about Amazon Books, and he observed that he didn’t like the concept because it seems largely aimed at putting independent bookstores out of business; while he acknowledged that Amazon tends to act out of enlightened self-interest, he said he wishes Amazon would be a little more enlightened about the value of independents in this sector.

I get his point, but I’m not sure I agree with him on this one. First, just because you are independent doesn’t mean you have a right to survive, nor that you are somehow morally superior to bigger companies. It is a jungle out here, and it is survival of the fittest.

My friend, wanting to make his point, took me to an independent bookstore in Soho, McNally Jackson. When we got there, I found it to be cozy and crowded, both of which are good signs. However, when he started looking for a copy of Scott Galloway’s “The Four” - the book Tom Furphy and I discussed here yesterday, which I’d recommended - we couldn’t find it. My friend went to the help desk and asked about it, and the very nice young woman behind the counter said they had it, that it was in the business section, and then offered to walk us downstairs to find it.

Those are all points for the independent.

However, when we got downstairs, we couldn’t find it until another customer saw the title on the book spine peeking out from among a bunch of other books.

They lose points on this one - no use having a book if it is hard to find. (Especially since the book came out on Tuesday … it was not like this was a backlist title.)

I just went into the Amazon Books in the Time Warner Center, and they have one copy left - the rest had sold out - and it was really easy to find because all books in this store are stocked with the cover facing out. They don’t have nearly as many books as the independent, but what they have is highly accessible.

The other interesting thing about the Amazon Books store is the degree to which it is featuring various technological devices - Kindles, Fire TV, and Alexa-powered speakers - that the company is using to create a smart home footprint, one that it hopes will give it a sustainable advantage long-term. As Amazon becomes more invested in these kinds of technologies, physical facilities become more important.

The point is, both stores have a role. One is not necessarily better than the other - just different, with advantages worth pressing and defending. But it is is in how they offer compelling experiences - different, but definable - that they offer a compelling bricks-and-mortar alternative to the online experience.

Which every bricks-and-mortar retailer has to do.

Or die.

It’s that simple.

That’s what’s on my mind this morning, and as always, I want to know what is on your mind.

KC's View: