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Blending digital and physical retail: Amazon 4-star

This month Amazon opened its first UK 4-star store at the Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent. 4-star stores have been trading in the US since 2018 (they now have 30 sites) but their launch here in the UK has been met with a mixture of both fascination and measured criticism.

For those who haven’t heard of it, Amazon’s 4-star store basically does what it says on the tin. It stocks the top trending 4-star rated products from Amazon’s UK website and features an ever-changing product assortment to keep pace with customer feedback and emerging trends. In essence, the store appears to be a direct reflection of what customers are liking and buying on the website.

Retail Week columnist, John Ryan, isn’t impressed: “They seem to be choosing products independently of each other. There is no sense of range. It’s not that important on the website but it’s important in the physical store.”

Amazon’s latest venture into UK bricks-and-mortar retailing comes off the back of a number of recent trials here – from the till-less Amazon Fresh grocery store in west London to a hi-tech hair salon in London’s Spitalfields.

What interests us, as well as the wider retail industry, is why Amazon continues to trial physical store concepts despite the significant growth in its core online business during the pandemic. Is it simply their desire to understand how the digital and physical retail worlds interact? Or perhaps an effort to get closer to British consumers in a way that pure play online retail can’t? Whatever their reason, it’s fascinating to see this online giant peddling their wares on the high street in this way.

Those of us experienced in designing retail stores know that physical shopping remains popular post the pandemic. Done well, it offers customers positive human contact again and the best most immersive engagement they can have with a brand. In fact, at the 2021 Retail Week and World Retail Congress Stores Week panel discussion, one speaker suggested that the physical store should be seen as a brand ‘temple” for customers – somewhere they can touch, feel, and truly experience the very best that their brand has to offer.

In this post pandemic climate, most retailers are in general agreement that their future retail success lies not merely online but in seamlessly blending digital and physical journeys for consumers. Indeed, we’re currently witnessing retailers large and small investing in not only their digital platforms but in experiential store developments that give customers a reason to re-enter physical stores again.

This makes it all the more interesting to see an online retail giant like Amazon venturing into the high street. With a seemingly virtual online store concept, it’s hard to see how Amazon’s physical presence will stand out. Being exceptional is more important than ever for physical stores to succeed in the post-COVID high street. Is this really a store that delights shoppers and deepens their customer engagement with the Amazon brand?

Fundamental to Amazon’s success with their 4-star stores will be whether they can persuade UK shoppers to leave their sofas for a genuinely new ‘experience’ rather than just a physical interpretation of its online service.

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