I hear people talk about how it’s ironic that Amazon.com started off as an online bookseller and now, having grown into the largest retailer/distributor of merchandise on the planet and putting many bookstores out of business they are opening Amazon bookstores. Real ones. Yes, at first glance it’s counter intuitive, but these are not, as they say, your father’s bookstores.
At the time that Amazon first arrived on the scene I worked for one of the largest distributors of medical books in North America. There was a great deal of concern that Amazon would squeeze out the retail bookstores that we supplied, leaving only textbook business. And there was nothing to stop Amazon from deciding to act as a distributor and cutting us out of the picture.
We now know that Amazon did disrupt the bookselling industry along with the book distribution and book publishing industries. It does seem odd at first glance that Amazon wants to move to physical stores but these Amazon stores are much less of a traditional retail environment and more of a showcase.
First, the selection of titles is limited. Most of the titles you see on the shelves are either bestsellers or they are trending books that dominate an Amazon subject area. There’s a small selection of magazines. There are children’s books. There is a section devoted to Amazon products such as the Echo line of products that use Alexa, as well as Kindle and Fire TV. There are staff members available to help you with these things and answer your questions.
If a book you want is not on the shelf for sale, it can be ordered, just like in the old days. But Amazon brings its weighty online catalog of books along with its assortment of warehouses sprinkled from coast to coast. If you’re an Amazon Prime member (and it’s easier to be one than to continue fending off offers to be one) you can likely have the book the same day or maybe within 24 hours. There’s no waiting for weeks for the book to come in and then having to return to the store to pick it up.
The Amazon bookstore is a branded store. It’s a curated store. It’s the physical embodiment of the website, and that’s Amazon’s brand.
In short, it’s not all about books.
But it points the way toward the future of retail. It demonstrates that Amazon has learned the lesson from its own assault on retail bookstores that most of those business owners still don’t get: it’s all about serving a niche in such a way that you own the niche rather than the product.
Deep Niche, Long Tail
The bookstores that survived and even thrived in the initial onslaught of Amazon and other online retailers were frequently those that served a niche market — mystery bookstores, spiritual stores, children’s bookstores, music bookstores. Many of these stores were focal points of their communities and they likely had community space and some comfortable spots for sitting and reading. They maintained mailing lists and sent out frequent information, printed and digital about new titles, author appearances, sales, and community events.
With today’s shoppers looking for more immersive retail experiences, it makes sense to create a store that caters to the very specific desires of a small but devoted niche. You don’t want to open a music store or a bookstore — you can’t compete on price with the big stores, or on title selection with the online sellers. Instead, you work it down to the long tail searches, the people you would think there aren’t enough of for your business to possibly work.
It’s all about serving a niche in such a way that you own the niche rather than the product.
You don’t have a bookstore at all. Instead, you curate a book selection that changes and evolves over time. The same with music. You sell a curated selection of vinyl, CD, digital, whatever format works for your audience and your environment. You find artists in the community and you display and sell a curated selection of their work. Your customer loves music, but they also value convenience and use technology to enhance their enjoyment of music. So you sell a small selection of music tech: a specific set of headphones. Maybe two. Some speakers, USB turntables, little electronic gizmos that create music or help record or manipulate recorded sounds. Throw in some live performances or a DJ Night.
You’d have a store like Chicago’s Transistor. They sell a curated set of products for a specific audience with certain interests. They provide a unique, gallery-like retail experience and they offer community space as well. It’s a great store that’s fun to shop in, but when I don’t really need or want to buy something, I might still pop in just to say hello or see what’s new or just because I want to be in that environment. In case you’re wondering, I don’t have any financial interest in Transistor. I just happen to be part of the niche they are so successful at marketing to.
One local commentator said that “browsing at Transistor is like hanging out in your hippest friend’s living room.”
I mean, what better comment can you ask for? It’s somewhere you want to be, to hang out. You’ll be talking to people, sharing ideas, and you’ll buy something when you want it or need it or the time is right.
The key here is that you are selling to a small, well-defined niche. You can find out a lot about their lifestyles and hobbies and then instead of selling a particular line of products, you are selling to that niche. Your products are no longer defined by a physical description (books!) but by your niche: ‘history buffs who surf’ or ‘progressive rock fans who cook Mexican food at home’. You are free to sell anything that is of interest to this group of people.
This same approach can be used with record or music stores, and there is a lot of synergy between the two. And you can be a niche music store with auxiliary accessories quite easily. I’ve seen EDM and dancefloor stores, jazz niche stores, and others.
You want to be a yoga store? Sure, sell a couple of nice mats, maybe some activewear you particularly like (try to find some local brands) but don’t forget to include nifty items like meditation cushions, nice blankets and bolsters, artwork and jewelry by local artists, a nice line of journals (like Moleskine) and pens, a rotating selection of books and music, incense and candles.
Pop Up To Find Your Tribe
Another way to approach the retail angle is through pop up stores or events. A well-planned pop up store can accomplish two things. First, it gives you a chance to test market to your niche. Second, it alerts your niche that you exist and it creates face-to-face contact with people who could well be not only your initial customers, but proselytizers as well.
You can collect email addresses, useful because your marketing efforts online will help keep you in touch with your customers between visits and it will help spread the word.
Another great thing about organizing pop up store actions is that it gauges your own level of commitment. Pop ups are not simple. They require planning, finding and renting space, dealing with a budget, building out your pop up, figuring out your collection processes, making sure you have the needed software/apps working . If you’re balking at doing all that work to set things up, maybe you don’t have what it takes to run a successful small business retail store.
Obviously it is a lot of work and you’ll be tired and overwhelmed, but ultimately your passion for this project needs to come through if you’re going to make a go of it.
Retail can still be a good small business endeavor. But it takes a great deal of research and a lot of creativity and passion. You may not have Amazon’s warehouses or budget, but if you’ve got a healthy dose of those two ingredients and the ability to look at your business from different angles, you can be successful.
Marshall Bowden is a freelance blog and social media writer for hire who lives in Chicago. He tells stories about innovative music at New Directions in Music and investigates mindfulness and our inner worlds at Eat a Tangerine.Follow him at Twitter.