For years, retailers have been haunted by the thought of Amazon using its technological prowess to squeeze them into powder. That battle has mostly played out on Amazon’s home turf, the world of online shopping.
Now the fight is coming directly to retailers on actual streets around the globe, where Amazon is slowly building a fleet of physical stores. And while most of the attention has been focused on Amazon’s grocery store dreams, the company has a more ambitious collection of experiments underway.
If those experiments work — and there is no guarantee of that — they could have a profound influence on how other stores operate. Over time, they could also introduce new forms of automation, putting traditional retail jobs in jeopardy. At the same time, locating those stores close to customers’ homes could also help Amazon further its ambitions of delivering internet orders within hours.
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The company is exploring the idea of creating stores to sell furniture and home appliances, like refrigerators — the kinds of products that shoppers are reluctant to buy over the internet sight unseen, said one of several people with knowledge of the discussions who, in conversations with The New York Times, spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans were confidential. The stores would serve as showcases where people could view the items in person, with orders being delivered to their homes.
These would not be your average Home Depots: Amazon has considered using forms of augmented or virtual reality to allow people to see how couches, stoves and credenzas will look in their homes, the person briefed on the discussions said.
Amazon is also kicking around an electronics-store concept similar to Apple’s retail emporiums, according to two of the people familiar with the discussions. These shops would have a heavy emphasis on Amazon devices and services such as the company’s Echo smart home speaker and Prime Video streaming service.
And in groceries — a giant category in which Amazon has struggled — the company has opened a convenience store that does not need cashiers, and it is close to opening two stores where drivers can quickly pick up groceries without leaving their cars, all in Seattle. It has explored another grocery store concept that could serve walk-in customers and act as a hub for home deliveries.
Overseas, Amazon is quietly targeting India for new brick-and-mortar grocery stores. It is a vast market, and one still largely dominated by traditional street bazaars where shoppers must wander from stall to stall haggling over prices and deliberating over unrefrigerated meat sitting in the dusty open air. Amazon’s internal code name for its India grocery ambitions: Project Everest.
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Despite Amazon’s internet retailing success, over time it has become clear that there is a lot of shopping that people prefer to do in person. The most glaring example is groceries — the mother of all shopping categories, with about $770 billion for the supermarkets represented by the Food Marketing Institute, a nonprofit group that includes the majority of such stores in the United States.
After pouring resources into an online grocery service, AmazonFresh, for almost a decade, the company has made only modest progress. According to people familiar with the workings of the company’s grocery business, it has struggled to operate it profitably, leading to a slow rollout of the service in new locations.
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Online grocery delivery accounts for only about 3 percent of the market in the United States, though it is closer to 10 percent in Britain, said Randy Burt, a partner in the food and beverage practice of A. T. Kearney, a strategy and management consulting firm. Mr. Burt said Amazon’s growing interest in stores mirrored the conclusion that other online merchants with physical stores — the apparel seller Bonobos and the eyewear seller Warby Parker — had come to.
“I think they are recognizing, for certain things you can’t digitize and replicate online all the experience one has in a store,” Mr. Burt said. “The ability to create experiences is going to be critical for them to continue to get share.”
Joe Thompson, a former general manager in Amazon’s retail business, sees physical retail as key to Mr. Bezos’s outsize ambitions for the company. “I can’t help but feel that, in Bezos’s mind, he wants to be the first trillion-dollar valuation company,” said Mr. Thompson, who is now an executive at BuildDirect, an online home improvement store. To do that, he said, Amazon would have to “crack” a couple of “completely underpenetrated markets online.”