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Amazon has failed as a destination for ‘discovery’ shopping — so it built a physical store to try it the old-fashioned way

The new Amazon 4-star store is an admission of past missteps but also a worthy experiment.

The first thing I noticed when I entered the new Amazon 4-star store in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood was the shelves — and more specifically, how crowded they were.

Amazon is billing its new retail concept as a curated selection of Amazon’s best and most popular products — including most with ratings on Amazon of four stars or more — but my first impression was that the online retailer is still having trouble shedding its “everything store” DNA.

Rather than lure you in, the wall o’ stuff was overwhelming for a first-time visitor, making it easier to glance and pass rather than stay and browse.

A selection of highly rated products on display inside the Amazon 4-Star store in New York City.
So. Many. Choices.
Jason Del Rey

But if you can get past that — and I did — you’ll find a retail store that feels both like an admission of past failures but also a signal of where Amazon might still find green room to run.

Let me explain. It should go without saying that Amazon has built a once-in-a-lifetime business — $100 billion-plus in North America alone last year — by creating the best online shopping destination for shoppers who come to the site with a clear intent to make a specific purchase.

What Amazon has repeatedly failed at, though, is becoming a shopping destination that attracts people looking for the digital equivalent of window-shopping — either for entertainment or because they want to discover merchandise they didn’t realize they wanted or needed.

It hasn’t been for lack of effort: Over the last five years, Amazon has launched multiple attempts aimed at attracting the giant swath of retail consumption that is more impulse buy than premeditated purchase. There’s been Amazon Collections, New & Interesting Finds on Amazon and, most recently, Amazon Spark.

None has been a hit to date.

So Amazon did something that would have seemed like a joke only, say, five years ago: Attempt to inspire serendipitous — or discovery — shopping through a physical, not digital, storefront.

A display of “Amazon Exclusives” merchandise inside the new Amazon 4-Star store in New York City.
Amazon exclusives are not just for the Amazon site.
Jason Del Rey

Amazon’s own blog post announcing the store says as much: “We created Amazon 4-star to be a place where customers can discover products they will love.” Emphasis mine. If a similar blog post were written about the launch of Amazon.com, you could imagine the word “buy” replacing the word “discover.”

Beyond the crowded shelves, there are other parts of this new Amazon experience that still needed work on Day 2 of its launch. For example, I had a bunch of trouble trying to use the Amazon app to pay at checkout, and the experience is still clunky even if I could have gotten it to work.

There are also details that make you think Amazon could be onto something. The digital pricing displays, showing the current price on Amazon.com that in-store Prime members also pay, are a nice touch. Items in the “trending” section could be a go-to display for gift-givers struggling for an idea for said gift.

But more than anything, Amazon 4-star feels like a realization that Amazon.com has yet to replicate the enjoyment many people still find from the serendipity of in-store shopping. So Amazon looked backward to the industry’s history to try to create the retail experience of the future.

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