Amazon launches its first 4-star retail outlet in the UK

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Amazon has launched its first 4-star store outside the US in a shopping centre near London, marking another stage in its experimentation with physical retail formats.

The 3,500 square foot store at Bluewater in suburban Kent opens on Wednesday. Like its US counterparts, it sells a range of books, toys, homewares and Amazon devices curated largely based on reviews left on the Amazon website.

The store does not feature the “just walk out” technology used by the company in its Amazon Fresh convenience outlets, of which there are now six in and around London, so the fit-out costs are likely to have been more modest.

Andy Jones, director of Amazon 4-star in the UK, declined to say how many of the stores it intends to open in the country, or whether it would take the format elsewhere in Europe. The first US store opened in New York in 2018 and the ecommerce giant now has 32 4-star stores in its homeland.

Jones said the store was “just a regular part of our innovation . . . customers responded really favourably to it in the US and now we’re going to see if UK customers respond favourably as well”.

He added that 4-star had “taken the tens of millions of products on amazon.co.uk and filtered that down to the best of the best”.

The selection of products would vary according to season but would always be based on review scores of four stars and above on the Amazon website.

The books section also features selected titles based on web sales locally, items placed on wishlists or “unputdownable” books that are read on Kindle devices in one sitting, while another section of the store showcases products from local suppliers.

Unlike Amazon Fresh, the store is open to shoppers who do not have Amazon accounts and accepts cash, suggesting that it is designed in part to appeal to those who are still circumspect about online shopping or who struggle with the bewildering number of options available in “endless aisle” marketplaces.

“We’ve tried to make it accessible regardless of how tech-savvy you are,” especially in the devices department, said Jones. Customer reviews feature prominently in the shelf-edge labelling, which changes automatically to match the Amazon website.

Existing Amazon customers obtain better pricing on some items, with bigger discounts available to members of Prime, Amazon’s monthly subscription service.

John Ryan, a consultant on store design, said that while he had not yet seen the UK store, the 4-star format in the US had worked a lot less well than the company’s interpretation of convenience food and book stores.

“They just seem to be selecting products independently of each other. There is no sense of ranging,” he said. “That doesn’t matter so much on a website but it does in a physical store.”

“It’s a lot of many things and not much of anything,” he added. “It feels like an algorithm has decided that if you like a turquoise mixer you will also want a set of stainless steel pans.”

Although the store offers the usual collection and return facilities for Amazon online orders, its actual inventory is small with only about 2,000 products held in stock on the site. That compares with anywhere between 5,000 and 20,000 at a branch of Argos.

Much of the retail industry remains fascinated by Amazon’s dabbling in physical store formats, despite the huge boost its core business received from the pandemic.

Its sales in the UK (including cloud computing revenues) grew 51 per cent to $26.5bn in 2020 as lockdowns kept shoppers out of stores. But the group has continued to prefer small-scale experimentation to acquisitions on the scale of 2017’s $13.7bn takeover of Whole Foods.

@jonathaneley

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