Amazon rediscovering department stores?

Amazon’s online empire is vast but it is also expanding its brick and mortar operations with plans to open department stores:

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

What solves all of these problems—the high return rates, the cost-prohibitive last-mile freight, the logistics nightmares, the buyer frustration, and the monumental volume of consumer waste it all sends to landfills—on some level? Stores. Going to a store. In America especially, this notion was obvious for more than a century. Department stores were actually such a good idea, something that people like so much and that works so well, that the Gilded Age barons who invented them used their stores to create middle-class identity from near whole cloth and keep it going for generations.

Amazon helped kill most of those stores, but that has only created a vacuum into which more Amazon products and services are ready to be inserted. If Silicon Valley has taught us anything in the past two decades, it’s that if you have a bottomless pit of money, you can remake an industry in your image. You can acquire customers so quickly that they might not realize they don’t totally love everything you’re doing, and you can embed yourself in their lives in ways that would be tangled and inconvenient to remove, largely by snuffing out competition. Which leaves the retail industry in a precarious position: Amazon, and maybe a handful of its largest competitors, will go about deciding how you get to buy the things you need, with very little meaningful pushback. They’ll set prices, they’ll set labor conditions, and they’ll decide which things are too inefficient for you to buy online. Apparently, those things will go into a store.

Amazon and the companies like it invent the solutions to the problems they created, and you pay for them to be implemented. At least in some cases, physical stores may ultimately win out. You can try on your new pants, sit on your new couch, and leave with the thing you wanted immediately, which, it should be noted, is considerably faster than two-day delivery. Yes, you have to go to the store, but doing so will likely obviate the need for you to go to the post office—the dreaded post office—next week. Work smarter, not harder. It’s what Amazon would do.

A physical location offers certain conveniences. But, do not discount the embodied experience of shopping compared to online shopping. In a building, you can:

  1. See and possibly touch the item you want to purchase. This may matter more for some consumer goods than others.
  2. Browse and bump into things – literally. You can end up following rabbit trails online but this is different than seeing something unexpected or just look around.
  3. Be around other shoppers and enjoy the atmosphere. I wrote about this at Christmas; part of the fun is being around people and activity.
  4. Physical spaces can project status and emotions in ways that online portals cannot. The size and layout of department stores can impress and invoke particular feelings. Would you rather think about a soulless and endless Amazon warehouse or a fashionable and high-tech store?

Of course, some of these things can go awry. The item might not be in stock, you do not find what you are looking for, you have negative experiences with other patrons, and the experience is off-putting rather than exciting. But, Amazon might be at the point where they can offer compelling experiences in both realms in ways that others could not.

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