Joe Fassler
When it opened Thursday in New York City, Amazon 4-star didn't look all that radical. But it's a bet that online shopping data can drive competitive physical stores.

Culture Provocations Shelf Tech

On Thursday morning, in New York City’s swanky SoHo commercial district, Amazon opened its latest foray into brick-and-mortar retail. It’s called Amazon 4-star, and it’s a novel concept: It’s a marketplace full of top-rated items already sold on Amazon. The difference here is that, unlike on Amazon.com, with its chaotic of deluge of sellers, this store has been carefully curated—by Amazon, and by you. Everything inside carries a user rating of 4 stars and above.

When I visited Amazon 4-star this morning, it initially appeared to be the kind of everyday home goods store you’d encounter in this section of Manhattan: well-polished wood floors, warm LEDs hanging from the ceiling, sun pouring in from an open skylight. The most obvious difference was the hype, with news vans stationed outside, and multiple TV interviews taking place simultaneously everywhere I looked. Half the customers seemed to be taking pictures. The public seems to sense that, when Amazon does almost anything, it’s news.

Amazon's new 4-star store in New York is like a typical home goods store, except its stocking decisions are guided by huge amounts of data. Credit: Joe Fassler, September 2018Joe Fassler

The diversity and range of the items sold at 4-star is unusual

The store is arranged in five or six rough sections, especially privileging books, home and kitchen goods, devices and electronics, and kids’ toys. The shopping experience itself isn’t all that different from what you might encounter anywhere else. (There’s no cashierless payment system here; you wait in line to pay an old-fashioned human at an old-fashioned checkout counter.) But the diversity and range of the items sold is unusual. That’s not just because you can buy items from Amazon’s private label brands, from Rivet-branded blankets to Stone and Beam-branded lighting, that can’t be found at other physical stores. But there’s also just so much of everything. I heard one guy marveling that Amazon 4-star is like a futuristic flea market. It’s more than that, but in some respects he’s right.

There are Chewbacca masks and high-tech Japanese rice cookers and an oven mitt shaped like a bear’s paw. There are air fryers and a pressurized copper growler to keep take-home craft beer zesty. There’s a Braava mopping robot and a handy avocado slicer (though no sign of Amazon’s famous, and prodigiously reviewed, banana slicer) and a taco holder shaped like a triceratops. There are many, many copies of Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians. The oddest touch might be the little placards arranged throughout the store, featuring an item’s star rating—and sometimes a review from an actual Amazon shopper.

4-star tells us a lot about the future of retail, and why brick-and-mortar isn’t really going away.

“What can I say? I like kitsch,” DanD, an Amazon Vine reviewer, muses. He’s talking about about a fox-shaped mug inscribed with the words “NO FOX TO GIVE.” “This mug makes me smile. It’s kitschy and dad-humor and I like it. Maybe that says more about me than I want to think about. But I’ll take it. We need reasons to smile.” Not all the testimonials carry equal weight—Amazon Vine is a program for influential reviewers of products sold on Amazon.com, and a look at the fine print reveals DanD got the mug for free. But they still make the store experience seem Amazon-branded, a little like the physical version of shopping online.

Then there are the devices. Many, many devices. There are Kindles and Amazon Fire TVs and Amazon Echoes and Amazon Echo Dots. You can even buy a leather cover for your Amazon Echo Dot. But it’s more than that. You can also play with select Alexa-enabled gadgets throughout the store, testing out aspects of the smart home according to Amazon. Next to an Echo, the store offers a series of suggested commands: You can make Alexa turn a counter fan on and off, make a light bulb to change color, and turn a deadbolt in a cross-section of a display door. It’s a fun little party trick for Amazon 4-star to contain. But it’s also really important. It tells us a lot about the future of retail, and why brick-and-mortar isn’t really going away.

Amazon's new 4-star store in New York is like a typical home goods store, except its stocking decisions are guided by huge amounts of data. Credit: Joe Fassler, September 2018Joe Fassler

4-star is a recognition that Amazon may never offer a better browsing experience than the independent bookstore down the road

Voice-powered devices aren’t just all the rage. Increasingly, they’re becoming a primary way that we interact with the internet—and a major part of Amazon’s business strategy. And yet, voice assistants like Alexa are still really new for most Americans, and they still have the potential to confuse us and freak us out. Amazon 4-star, then, helps to humanize the digital ecosystem Amazon hopes we will buy into. You can’t really test out an Echo online, after all. 4-star provides shoppers with a playground for testing out what it’s really like to live with Amazon in our homes and seemingly at our beck and call. It’s a way to make voice search seem more familiar, friendly, and fun.

It’s a sign of what Amazon has surely recognized: that e-commerce isn’t great at everything. Though pundits have long suggested that online sales will be the end of physical shopping, that’s not what is actually playing out. Instead, Amazon is realizing that the opposite is true: by some metrics, brick-and-mortar just does it better.

Existing physical retail chains should be worried.

Online retailers have long sought to replicate the “discoverability” of physical stores: the way that, in a book store, you can run your fingers along the spines and stumble across something you never knew you were looking for. Amazon and other e-commerce platforms have done their utmost to bring discoverability to the internet. (Amazon even bought Goodreads, the reading recommendation site, in an attempt to better help customers find great books.) But it hasn’t been easy. In some ways, Amazon 4-star is a white flag: It’s a recognition that Amazon may never offer a better browsing experience than the independent bookstore down the road. It’s better off opening stores of its own.

Not that Amazon has the physical bookstore totally mastered. Though there are dedicated sections for fiction and nonfiction, I also encountered some perplexing choices. For instance, in a tabletop row of “highly rated” face-out editions, I found a copy of The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin’s searing classic of racial injustice, between a children’s book called There’s a Bear on My Chair and Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up.

If Amazon 4-star also suggests that brick-and-mortar stores will have a future deep into the digital era, I’d still suggest that existing physical retail chains should be worried. Because this store is different from the others in another, more subtle way: It’s all underlaid by customer data. Huge, mind-bending amounts of data. Because in order to stock 4-star, Amazon isn’t just looking at reviews—though that’s one part of it. It’s also looking more broadly at purchasing behavior, the ways that what we buy line up with who we are. As such, it’s able to make deeply informed choices about which items might be wisest to stock in-person.

Amazon's new 4-star store in New York is like a typical home goods store, except its stocking decisions are guided by huge amounts of data. Credit: Joe Fassler, September 2018Joe Fassler

4-star combines the company’s big data clout with old-school, in-person browsability

This specific store isn’t just pitched to general Amazon customers. It’s pitched to New York City residents likely to go shopping in SoHo. I’ll bet the reason Kevin Kwan’s works—Crazy Rich Asians and subsequent novels—are littered across the store, on multiple tables, is because New Amazon has figured out that higher-income New Yorkers are disproportionately fans of his books. Of course, that’s what stores have always tried to do: bring people what they want. But Amazon seems to have an even more granular sense of what demographics are looking for than traditional stores do. I saw “Trending Around NYC” tables, where Amazon offers goods that have shown to be especially appealing to residents of the Big Apple. What are we New Yorker especially into? Black & Decker handheld vacuums and Bob Woodward’s investigative account of Donald Trump’s White House, Fear.

There are an estimated 90 million Amazon Prime members in the United States. With that comes a huge amount of personal data. That’s what gives Amazon a leg up on old-guard retailers: direct insight into the online shopping habits of millions of Americans. 4-star is a bet that Amazon can make better, smarter decisions about what to stock than other brick-and-mortar stores. It combines the company’s big data clout with in-person browseability. Which is what really makes Amazon’s latest offering so novel. For the most part, it looks just like an everyday home goods shop in SoHo. But it’s a store that knows a lot more about you.

Joe Fassler bio

Joe Fassler

Joe Fassler is The New Food Economy's features editor. His food safety and public health reporting has been a finalist for the James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism. Follow him @joefassler. Reach him by email at: joe.fassler@newfoodeconomy.org

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