Amazon has a massive customer base. It also has endless amounts of data on what people buy. Now the e-commerce giant is leveraging the two with a new store concept, Amazon 4-Star, that opened in New York City on Thursday.
Located in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, Amazon 4-Star is packed to the gills with products that are — you guessed it — rated 4 stars or more on the Amazon website. The store also sells items that are best-sellers or are trending on Amazon, with the idea being that the store mimics “not just what customers are buying but what customers are loving,” Cameron Janes, Amazon’s vice president of physical retail, tells me during an early store tour.
The name of the store refers to Amazon’s rating system, which lets customers review a product from 1 to 5 stars. The company went with 4 and not 5, Janes says, because even the best-selling products on Amazon can garner complaints from disgruntled shoppers, and a 4-star review is actually a pretty high score.
Amazon 4-Star is Amazon’s third store in New York City but its first with this new concept. It’s the latest example of Amazon’s eager efforts dive into retail; in addition to buying Whole Foods last summer and opening stores in other states since 2015, the company reportedly has plans to open 3,000 cashier-less stores by 2021.
The sheer breadth of product and customer integration inside Amazon 4-Star speaks to Amazon’s dominance in shopping — and could provide a blueprint for how other retail companies can leverage data for brick-and-mortar.
Amazon 4-Star sells tons of products — as well as Amazon itself
The Amazon 4-Star store currently carries about 1,800 curated products. When you enter the store, the right wall has an assortment of office supplies, gift wrap, greeting cards, and books. The left wall holds travel essentials, like Herschel backpacks and Swell water bottles, gifts for dogs, and home decor like luxury candles and wall plant hangers.
Further into the store, there are sections like bar essentials, quirky kitchen gifts, and small cooking appliances. The back of the store features a baby and kids’ section, with toys arranged by age group, and right around the corner are shelves of smart home devices and video games.
Janes says the categories of product will rotate, but for now, they represent the most popular sections on the site — consumer electronics, kitchen, home, toys, books, and games.
What makes this Amazon store different isn’t its number of products, or the store layout; rather, it’s Amazon’s ability to highlight shopping trends that it is uniquely qualified to spot, as it’s where 75 percent of Americans do most of their online shopping.
At the entrance of the store, for example, is a table of products that appear most frequently on Amazon wish lists: on this table are products like the Fuji Instax Mini camera, the Crazy Rich Asians book, and a Harry Potter Lego set. There’s a Popular Home Gifts table that features sous vide gadgets, and a Trending Around New York City table featuring yoga mats, Fear by Bob Woodward, and the NutriBullet — items that are popular among New York City dwellers.
But what Amazon 4-Star is really selling is Amazon itself. On the Deal of the Day table, for example, Amazon is offering its Fire TV and Fire tablets for almost half off. There’s also a table of Amazon Basics-brand baking supplies and a wall of Amazon-branded cables. There’s a long table dedicated entirely to Amazon tablets.
Naturally, the store also shills for Amazon Prime, the company’s secret weapon that turns shoppers into Amazon evangelists and now has more than 100 million subscribers. Peppered throughout the store are products with discounts for Prime customers, and at the cash register, store associates offer you a quick and simple way to sign up and get you the savings. The store doesn’t take cash, but you can pay with a credit card or by using your Amazon Prime account info.
Amazon leans on its customer base to do the selling
Amazon 4-Star’s business model is rooted in the company’s massive customer base. The price tags, for example, are digital, and the number of their reviews and star ratings are updated in real time. Printed customer reviews also appear underneath many products.
On the Fuji Instax: “This camera was an instant hit at my sister’s engagement party” from an Amazon customer named Mariana. Near a hanging planter is a review from Carla V., who says its “gold detail is very charming and the ceramic container is elegant and well made.”
This technique works especially well in the kids’ section, which is where I beelined, eager to look around for new toys for my curious 10-month-old. Parents are a skeptical yet time-crunched shopping demographic, and when it comes to the sea of baby products available for purchase, we are constantly looking for things that other parents recommend.
My strategy for shopping for my baby has been to buy Amazon best-sellers, and so it felt a little bit like the Twilight Zone to peer at the shelves of the baby section at Amazon 4-Star and spot nearly every product I already own, down to my baby’s favorite book (it’s Peek-a-Who, by the way).
Upon browsing, I spotted a book we do not own, Baby Touch and Feel Animals. It was displayed with this review: “Designed to be very easy for baby to handle … pages are thicker than other board books and they don’t seem to stick together as much so that it’s easier to turn the pages, making it my baby’s favorite book to sit with and flip through.” Uh, sold!
This display of customer reviews and ratings alongside the store’s inventory of top-rated products is the biggest value-add. Shopping online is convenient, but many people still prefer to look at products IRL to decipher details like quality and color.
Some baby books, for instance, might great reviews, but they don’t always have the best-quality pages to withstand the furious page-turning of little creatures developing fine motor skills. Being able to see a best-selling baby book up close before shelling out for it made the choice to buy it much easier.
Shopping here is product overload — which can be good or bad
The style of the Amazon 4-Star store is the exact opposite of the sterile, minimalist Apple store concept that a lot of fashion retailers like Nordstrom are now mimicking. Rather than opt for a sparse, airy, and boutique-like atmosphere, Amazon has decided to pack in all its best-sellers — lining shelves, sitting on tables, stacked in bins — to mimic the feeling of choice overload its website is so known for.
The chaotic browsing experience is something Amazon knows it needs to improve on (which is also why the company recently launched a visual search tool, Amazon Scout).
“We designed this store to create an experience where customers can have a lot of fun and discover products they are going to love,” Janes says. “In a store like this, it’s impossible to come in and not discover something you didn’t know about or find something you love.”
Whether or not this makes for a pleasant shopping experience, on the other hand, is up for debate. During the store opening, amid a swarm of reporters and camera crews, a few shoppers who were browsing had mixed reviews about the store.
A family of five was on vacation from London, and while the parents wanted their three kids to browse for toys, they were dismayed when the trio headed straight to the tablet table, set up directly across from the games and toys section. One couple from Sweden said they were thrilled to be able to test Alexa (although they were disappointed to learn it doesn’t speak Swedish). A Soho dweller, on the other hand, who was about to take a trip to Italy, said the shopping experience was overwhelming and left empty-handed.
But whether people visit the new store or continue to shop from the convenience of their homes, one thing is for certain: Amazon will continue to rake in the sales.