Home » Amazon, Bookstores » Powell’s Books CEO dishes on Amazon’s threat

Powell’s Books CEO dishes on Amazon’s threat

17 February 2016

From CNBC:

After Amazon opened its first physical bookstore in Seattle last year,reports surfaced that the Internet giant could potentially be opening hundreds of brick-and-mortar bookstores throughout the country.

Though this possible move, which has not been confirmed by Amazon, could be deemed a threat to existing chains and smaller bookstores, Miriam Sontz, Powell’s Books CEO, sees it as a nod to the physical-bookstore-business model.

“I thought it was a great acknowledgement of something that independent brick-and-mortar stores have known for the past few decades, which is there is something special that occurs at a physical bookstore that is not replicable on the Internet,” Sontz told CNBC’s”Closing Bell” on Friday. “People have tried, and it’s just not the same experience. It doesn’t have the same serendipity. It doesn’t have the same sense of community.”

. . . .

She was also doubtful that Amazon would be able to expand successfully, since one Amazon store may be considered a novel concept, but opening 200 of the exact same store is “less exciting.”

. . . .

“I think it’s pretty incredible that there is a major online realtor who is making this kind of bid to work in the brick-and-mortar environment,” Sontz said.

Link to the rest at CNBC

Amazon, Bookstores

38 Comments to “Powell’s Books CEO dishes on Amazon’s threat”

  1. Amazon doesn’t make threats, though they do make (and often keep) promises …

  2. She was also doubtful that Amazon would be able to expand successfully, since one Amazon store may be considered a novel concept, but opening 200 of the exact same store is “less exciting.”

    But it will be new and exciting to the residents of the spot where one of those two hundred stores opens. It’s been years since I’ve stepped inside the local B&N, but I’d definitely visit an Amazon Bookstore. And, if I liked what I found, I’d probably come back.

  3. Got to love those headline writers. Sontz clearly does not see Amazon as a threat, based on the quotes in the article.

    • Powells fended off Barnes & Noble and Borders in the Portland area. A Powells store is basically what both of those aspired too, but failed.

      There are a few B&N stores around the periphery of the PDX metro area, but any where there is a Powells their is no big box bookstore chain.

    • Powell’s is fairly unique. I suspect that even Jeff Bezos would laugh at the idea of opening an Amazon store anywhere near Powells. Though they could take on Powell’s airport store. Hmm. Amazon opening a chain of airport bookstores… Anyone know how many titles an airport bookstore carries?

      • I like the idea, but I think the problem would be the cost per square foot for the real estate–particularly at airports.

        With lots of foot traffic, they are able to command exceptionally high rents.

  4. “I thought it was a great acknowledgement of something that independent brick-and-mortar stores have known for the past few decades, which is there is something special that occurs at a physical bookstore that is not replicable on the Internet,” Sontz told CNBC’s”Closing Bell” on Friday.

    Of course it isn’t the same. That’s why zillions of people moved online to buy books. The last thing they want to do is replicate the bookstore experience.

    The folks who prefer bookstores are still there, chatting away with the friendly clerks, and striking up conversations with lurkers in the aisles.

    • I’ve been an avid reader since childhood. For me, the “something special” that always happened at a physical bookstore was leaving with a very sore back and neck from the bent posture needed to clearly read the titles on the spines (same thing happened at the library), and then more pain from carting one or more heavy bags of books home.

      As a person with lifelong fibromyalgia and chemical sensitivities, the “bookstore experience” was always a painful and irritating one. Used bookstores were only slightly less so, as most of the books had already “off gassed.”

      I will be eternally grateful to Amazon and its lovely Kindle for making my reading life immensely more comfortable and pleasant. Oh, and it’s also much easier for me to hold a Kindle and click on the page turning buttons (I have an old one) than hold and turn the pages of a dead tree book, even a lightweight paperback. I can use my Kindle with only one hand, and trade off when I need to.

      Amazon’s new bookstores may be lovely and easier to peruse, but I won’t be visiting any of them, either.

    • As I read it I was thinking that while it might work that way for her, for Amazon and other mainly internet giants like Apple it’s not a nod to the brick and mortar experience.

      Instead it is them checking if there’s money being left on the table. If they can offer a superior store that brings in money directly or indirectly they will do it, if not then they will just close them.

  5. I’ve never been to a Powell’s, much less a brick-and-mortar Amazon bookstore, so I can’t compare the two.

    However, the way the Amazon store was described – a cultivated selection of books, shelved face-out, with little screens in front of them to help with scanning/pricing, is just that: a small, cultivated list of suggested reads, like an airport bestseller-laden kiosk only much fancier.

    Places like Powell’s are for a different sort of reader, so I wouldn’t think having an Amazon bookstore down the street would hurt them much.

  6. I would be surprised if Amazon opens many “book only” stores. What I can see them doing in the future is opening warehouse stores, where they sell EVERYTHING and also use them as distribution centers, complete with drone deliveries and the whole shebang. They would only work in larger markets probably, which means I won’t be seeing one near my home any time soon, but to me, that seems like a logical direction to take. Bezos hates middle men and UPS et al are just one more in the line from Amazon to customer.

    • People keep saying that. However, you’ll notice a warehouse store isn’t what Amazon opened. It opened a books-only store. Why would they do that if they would then, as a follow-on, open warehouse stores? Why wouldn’t they have opened a warehouse store in the first place?

      • It’s a whole lot cheaper, to dip your toes in the water than cannonball in. With the bookstore, they’ll have the opportunity to match their online data with store front data in a market close to home and a product they are most familiar with. I imagine there will be a handful more books-only stores in select markets, but I think this is only a test for a larger piece of the pie down the road.

        • Don’t forget: the first Amazon bookstore is also selling Amazon hardware. It’s a good solution for folks who want to try before they buy.

      • @ DaveMich

        I think Costco and Sam’s Club pretty much have the mega-warehouse thing sewed up. And I agree, I don’t see Amazon trying to compete with them B&M. Amazon’s forte and strength is their online shopping presence.

  7. Amazon’s next store is coming to San Diego soon. They are already running ads for new hires in the La Jolla- San Diego area.

    • So the next Indie big shot facing danger isn’t Powell’s, but more likely is Mysterious Galaxy’s San Diego store.

      • Does Mysterious Galaxy carry Apub titles? How about indie titles? A few? Many?

        To be direct competitors they have to sell the same books to the same customers.

        If Powells (or Mysterious Galaxy) are meeting their customers’ needs fully, they have nothing to fear.

  8. “She was also doubtful that Amazon would be able to expand successfully, since one Amazon store may be considered a novel concept, but opening 200 of the exact same store is “less exciting.”

    Does she think opening and running new warehouses is exciting? Or negotiating with UPS and Fedex? Or writing and delivering on yet another cloud computing contract? Yet, Amazon seems to do all those things well on a continuing basis.

  9. It would be exciting here, a town of 60,000 that only has a used bookstore.

  10. My wife and I stopped into our local B&N a week ago. It was the first time either of us had been there in years. What a surreal experience. I browsed the magazine rack and looked at the various tech and trade magazines I had not bought for years due to belonging to those types of online forums. I browsed the historical and reference books but found they did not stock the level of detail and specialties I’ve come to purchase online. Next, I browsed the new release section of my favorite genres. Here I saw books I’d already read in E-form back on the day of their release as well as the latest overpriced trad pubs stand by authors who I’ve long since stopped following. Seeing half the store devoted to tech products… power cords, earbuds etc, toys and games, and puzzles was interesting. I finished by looking at the bargain books but after all that, we just had coffee and left. It was a saddening experience.

    • *nods* Yes, this.

      I love books. Like everyone here, probably, going to the bookstore was my FAVORITE thing for as long as I could read. I would save up my money for weeks so I could go binge-buy novels in the SF/F section when I was in junior high. (And before that, it was either the library or the kids section.)

      These days, I never go to the bookstore for myself. Their cafes don’t serve good coffee, and there are only two plugs in the entire area for people to use laptops. The only reason I go now is to take my daughter to get a book… and even then, it’s only rarely. Why? Because I want her to buy a book, but the store is half full of toys. She will ignore the books and go straight for the plushes and Mindcraft things. If I’d wanted her to get a toy I would have taken her to a toystore. So what should have been a fun bonding experience (“Let’s get a book together!”) turns into a fight (“But I’d rather have the stuffed animal, Mommy! Do I have to get a book? Why can’t we spend the money you have on this plush?”)

      The bookstore experience, y’all. :/

  11. Not exactly a retail expert but I think smaller format bookstores like what Amazon is doing will help keep them profitable. Barnes and Noble are way too big and was built from a past era before the internet.

    • The small store format critics keep harping on reminds me of the similar criticisms of KU over their limited-to-non existent BPH title offerings.

      “It’s a feature, not a bug!”

      The intent is to help readers find their way to books they might like, not hide them behind walls of payola-supported BPH titles.

    • Totally! I’ll bet they don’t even need the bookstores to be profitable 🙂 Amazon likes to sink its profits back into the business and this is a great way to do it. Instead of siphoning all excess for execs and shareholders, they’re putting it back into the American economy by creating jobs and increasing local commerce.

  12. Powell’s is absolutely awesome. Always spend considerable time there whenever I’m in Portland. The satellite tech bookstore next door to the main bookstore is a techie walk down memory lane.

    Going to Powell’s is THE bookstore experience that bibliophiles dream about — and one that Borders and B&N tried to ape but couldn’t. It’s the real thing; I don’t think it can ever be duplicated, even by Amazon. And I don’t see it going away, either.

    • Just want to say YES to this, James. Powell’s is an amazing store. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Portland, but when I go, Powell’s will definitely be on the agenda.

    • They have a tech bookstore next door!?! Son of a …! My one trip to Powell’s and Portland and I missed that. Shoot. Though, after spending most of the day in the main store, I was pretty fried. One of my favorite parts was walking out the north(?) entrance and checking google maps for a coffee shop: the Powell’s *in-store* cafe was a 1000 yards away on the far side of the store.!

      • They closed the tech bookstore about year and a half ago and merged it into the third floor area.

      • @ Chong Go

        Just discovered the separate tech bookstore has closed and been integrated into the main store as a dedicated section.

        Hope they still have all the old computers: IBM PC, original B&W Mac, Trash 80, and — IIRC — an Altair, among other computers and peripherals! It was great to see them, and a bit of a shock to realize how much time has passed, and how the state-of-the-art has progressed from the 70’s and 80’s. Doesn’t seem that long ago to me. 🙁

        Powell’s also has an Espresso Book Machine in — IIRC — the Purple Room. An EBM tech runs it (it’s not self-service) and demos how it works and answers Q’s about it. Fascinating to watch it.

    • I also love Powell’s and, if I lived in Portland, I would certainly visit the store from time to time.

      But I would still buy the large majority of my books from Amazon because I seldom buy physical books any more. Books=Paperwhite for me these days.

      • I would agree and have visited Powell’s as a business traveler many times. They are known particularly for their vast selection–because they carry used books as well as new and do a great job of merchandising both… by mixing them together on the same shelves.

        Normally that beats the competition and without too much pressure on price… but, of course, Amazon’s a whole ’nother story as it offers its own version of plenty of selection….

  13. I think the only thing B&M book stores have to fear is Amazon’s prices. I don’t think places like Powell’s in Portland or Elliot Bay Books in Seattle compete on price. I go their stores and to find a book I wasn’t expecting; I go for the chance to wallow in old and new books and see what I end up with. I can’t get that experience from Amazon, but I still buy most of my books from the zon because it is easy to get the books I know I want at a great price.

    A bookstore that aims to sell books to people who know approximately what they want competes with Amazon on price and convenience– a tough fight except perhaps on the rare occasion when a customer must have a paper book instantly. Those rare occasions will not sustain a viable business plan. Powell’s and Elliot Bay class stores will survive. My town has a store called Village Books that has a fighting chance, but the witless Walden Books clones are coming on hard times.

    Maybe Amazon is trying to determine if there is anything valuable in a B&M presence that they can leverage.

  14. It’s funny that Powell’s is being held up as an example of the old ways of doing bookstore business. Powell’s actually was a tech-savvy innovator in many ways.

    – It was, and continues to be, the bookstore with the largest inventory I have ever known. Powell’s Bookstore is not located in a mall or an expensive part of town, but in what would be considered the Skid Row area of Portland. It wasn’t a pretty store– more like a wonderful warehouse– and did not have any seating other than a bench by the restrooms. Uncarpeted concrete floor. It wasnt a comfortable place to shop for the elderly or the pregnant. Now there’s a cafe, but it was a controversial decision at the time. It didnt use to sell non-book items either, but now they have tchotchke islands.

    – It was the first bookstore I knew of that sold both used and new books.
    – It was the first bookstore to computerize inventory of used books
    – Which enabled it to sell used books online and via phone order efficiently before anybody else did.
    – Author biography and criticism are shelved next to their works
    – Extensive Science Fiction and Fantasy inventory before those genres became big. In comparison, the Horror section has been weak.

    You’d later see these practices picked up by Amazon. Oh, and Powell’s was an early adopter of selling via Amazon.

    • They also sold ebooks during the PDA era. Mostly MSReader format, which was my preferred format.

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