This holiday season, I went down to Fourth Street in Berkeley, which is an upscale shopping district that happens to have a great greeting card shop. There are the other usual “mall” suspects, like an Apple store, MAC makeup, a recently-added Sephora, a Sur La Table, Paper Source, Lululemon, in addition to a few coffee shops and restaurants and locally-owned gift and clothing retailers.
There’s also a lovely little whimsical store called Castle in the Air, which is fashioned like an Old World fairy tale. Faux trees covered in tiny lights arch over a hard-wood floor, glass cabinets hold sparkling jewelry, and shelves are artfully stocked with handmade cards, papers, ornaments, home decorations, and art books.
But what I’m really here to write about is a new addition to Fourth Street: the Amazon 4-Star store.
Put on Your 3-D Glasses
Generally, we’ve only interacted with Amazon as a retailer through a screen. The entire experience is basically 2-dimensional.
Most of the time, we just type a term into the search bar and hit “Enter.”
We don’t visit Amazon.com to browse. We get in and get out. Sometimes we’ll click through the recommended products, but we hardly window shop. Or at least, I don’t. (If I go there at all anymore, because apparently a company worth billions of dollars can’t pay its warehouse workers a living wage or treat them with dignity.)
And when we interact with an online store, there is a kind of order behind the scenes. We use a drop-down menu to the section of the site we want to visit. We can search for exactly what we’re looking for, or we can scroll through the site’s recommendations, which are based on our purchase history.
Part of what makes Amazon.com successful is its convenience, personalization, and, to some extent, its organization.
None of which is a feature of their brick-and-mortar store.
Nothing Makes Sense Anymore
Amazon’s blog says that the 4-Star store approach is “fun” and makes it “easy to shop.”
Apparently they have different ideas of fun than I do.
While the items themselves were neat and orderly, the store itself was cluttered, and the sections had little flow or order. A table of best-selling books was separated from a wall of book recommendations of “if you loved this title, then you’ll like these similar titles.” Pet supplies hung next to holiday decor. There were toys at both the front and the back of the store, including the YouTube unboxing video-inspired “LOL! Surprise” dolls. So meta.
The Amazon branded electronics, such as the Echo, Kindle, and Alexa products were haphazardly situated on tables between kitchen appliances and charging cables.
And it all catered to a kind of generic customer, like a Dollar Store for rich people.
Turning Inside Out
The weirdest part for me, though, was that it felt as though it had been laid out by people who had forgotten that human bodies would be entering a 3-dimensional space and interacting with the merchandise in person.
And that’s probably exactly what happened.
I felt like I had been turned inside out. Or maybe the computer screen had become real, tangible, but not in a cool VR or AR kind of way.
As a dancer, it was a jarring experience.
I wondered how many people in there were thinking the same thing I was.
How weird it was to be interacting in time and space with this retailer that I had only ever experienced in a 2-dimensional plane. Or how we were bodies walking through a space that had previously been reserved for only our eyes. Or how disorganized it was, that it didn’t encourage any kind of bodily interaction with the merchandise, like, say, the Apple Store does with its sparse design and clean spaces between tables and even between the devices themselves.
Or maybe it was just me.
Shopping As a Corporeal Experience
Now, I admit that I am a child of the 80s and 90s, the great mall heyday. But for me, particularly as a teenager, the mall was a place of magic and inspiration. Hear me out.
There were at our local malls, at the time, The Museum Store, The Nature Company, an amazing science and technology-focused shop called The Scientific Revolution, HEAR music (where you could listen to any CD in the shop before buying it), little gift shops selling pens and hand-blown perfume bottles, art supply and stationary stores, and book stores.
Walking through these shops was a truly a full body venture. All my senses were at work. I’d smell each perfume at the Body Shop. I’d test out pens at the stationary store. I’d flip through coffee table books. I’d gaze through the cabinets at jewelry reproduced after ancient Roman and Egyptian artifacts. I’d select a CD from the shelf and perch on a stool and listen to each track on giant can headphones deciding whether or not it moved me enough to bring it home.
And we don’t get those experiences when we shop online. We shop online because it’s convenient, cheaper, and faster.
They Say Millennials Want Experiences
So, what this leads me to is… why did Amazon just not seem to care about creating a storefront that was enjoyable to visit? Why create a physical store at all?
Well, it’s Amazon. They just want to make more sales and claim more market share.
But it points to a wider issue. As retailers struggle to draw shoppers into their physical storefronts, they’re missing a huge part of what can make shopping enjoyable. The act of actually going into a store and interacting with the products with our whole bodies.
Major publications claim that Millennials prefer to pay for “experiences” rather than things, and then turn around and lament that “Millennials are Killing Everything.”
It’s a given, of course, that wages have stagnated, and Millennials are burdened with student loans, and everything is relatively more expensive for them than it was for their parents. But I also think it’s because people who were born between 1982 and 2004-ish remember the emergence of the internet or never knew a world without it. And because of this, they unconsciously long for more physical interaction with the world around them.
They say Millennials want experiences. This is true. But all humans want experiences. It’s not in our nature to interact with the world through screens.
Which brings me back to the little fairy tale store a few doors down from the Amazon 4-Star.
Castle in the Air has realized that their store is also an experience, whether or not they know it explicitly. In addition to offering a storefront that evokes a sense of joy and wonder, they also offer a wide range of arts and crafts classes, like watercolors, collaging, and calligraphy.
They understand that shopping in a brick-and-mortar store can be a feast for the senses. It can spark wonder and curiosity. And that it continues to be an embodied interaction.
Which is why walking through the Amazon store felt so jarring, disorienting, and disconnected.
And why I’ll probably never visit it again.