“It’s the future,” said a sales clerk, proudly explaining how Amazon’s first physical clothing store works. The shop opened recently in Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles, California. Amazon Style is a different kind of store with a shopping experience to dazzle shoppers. An algorithm that chooses clothes for the customer and magic closets with secret doors in the fitting rooms make the store unique.
The Spanish group Inditex pioneered the integration of physical and virtual stores, and in some respects the Amazon Style store is reminiscent of the recently opened Zara store in Madrid’s Plaza de España. In other ways, however, Amazon Style goes further, integrating some of Amazon’s logistics potential with algorithms and the experience of a physical store. Will it work? It’s not at all clear that the Amazon Style store represents the future, but this is how the store functions now.
Welcome to Glendale
The Amazon Style store is located in the Americana at Brand shopping center in Glendale. Tycoon Rick Caruso, a multimillionaire real estate developer and this year’s political star in California (he is favored to win the Los Angeles mayoral election in November), has built one of the world’s most profitable shopping malls here.
The Americana at Brand draws its inspiration from Boston’s historic Newbury Street. Taking advantage of California’s mild climate, it is an open-air shopping mall, which Caruso has also used to develop housing. The Americana has lampposts with piped-in music, a square with pristine lawns, golden statues, and monumental water fountains with light effects. The mall is a sort of perfect little world. The retail and residential spaces are 99% occupied. Apple, Tesla and Tiffany are among the tenants. The Amazon store occupies a huge space at one end, next to an H&M store. There is a Zara store at the neighboring Glendale Galleria shopping mall.
2. One Store Selling Many Brands
Upon entering the store, customers are met by a huge QR code and smiling, friendly employees ready to welcome them: “Is this your first time here?” the clerks ask. A salesperson then offers to guide the customer.
Customers must first scan the QR code, which opens the Amazon app. As you will see, the app is essential to shopping at Amazon Style. The store has two floors, but the clothes are all on the first floor. Women’s clothes are located near the entrance, while menswear is toward the back; the space is divided between the two. There are also some beauty products, perfumes, and other accessories near the two cash registers.
The store sells multiple brands. Unlike fashion leaders like Inditex, H&M or GAP, which only stock their own brands, at Amazon Style one can find clothing from Levi’s, Adidas, Champion, Calvin Klein, Kendall & Kylie (the Jenner sisters’ brand), Lacoste, Lee, Nautica… Of course, part of the space is dedicated to house brands, mainly Amazon Essentials and The Drop.
Some of the clothing on display is inspired by the style of social media celebrities. One panel has a photo of an influencer with an outfit that emulates the style of the celebrity’s clothing—some more successfully than others—next to it. In general, each model has only a few sizes and colors displayed but others are available.
Last Tuesday, during off-peak business hours (mid-morning), the store had only a few customers but many sales clerks.
3. I like it, I don’t like it
Each garment also has its own QR code. With the Amazon app open, when customers see something they like, they can tap on their phone and quickly scan the code. The app displays the available colors and sizes. After choosing the one they prefer, customers can press the button to try on the garment, which triggers a logistical process for reserving a fitting room and getting the clothing there. It’s a time-consuming procedure. On Tuesday, with the store half-empty and the fitting rooms free, it took 15 minutes after selecting the first item and between five and 10 minutes after requesting the last item. It is unclear whether the store is unable to further speed the process up or whether it’s allowing the customer extra time to continue shopping.
Meanwhile, the app offers customers the chance to say which clothes interest them. After collecting height, weight and size data, the program asks customers if they want casual, elegant, or sporty clothes. After more questions, the app shows an article of clothing or a model on the customer’s cell phone in order to refine its suggestions: “Would you wear this?” The customer answers yes or no. “What about this?” The app shows pictures, like Tinder for clothing, until the algorithm gets an idea of what the customer might want. The program learns through trial and error and, after something of a crazy start, gets a little more accurate by the end.
In addition to individual garments, the customer can also select a complete outfit from the ones on display. When the customer scans the code, everything—pants, a shirt, a jacket, sneakers and a hat, each in the size indicated in the survey—is selected at the same time.
A while after choosing their first items, customers get a message on their cellphone: “We have a fitting room for you.” Shoppers also receive an announcement: “Your first items (and a few more we think you’ll like) are ready for delivery.” One can either ask that the fitting room be prepared right away or wait a little longer to continue shopping. If customers want to move on to trying on the clothing, they receive another notification minutes later: “Fitting room 23 is ready for you” along with a button that serves as a key for opening the fitting room. If shoppers don’t need to try the clothing on, they can request the items be taken directly to the cashier.
4. Magical fitting rooms
Undoubtedly, the fitting rooms are the store’s most unique aspect, not so much because of how one reserves them, but because of what happens when one gets there. The store has 40 fitting rooms, more than half of which are on the second floor, an area that doesn’t have merchandise. When customers arrive at the fitting room, they are greeted by a large touch screen with their name on it. The items that they have requested are on a hanger and shelves. In addition, there are other garments that Amazon’s algorithm thinks the customer might like, based on the clothing they have selected and the items they said they would wear in response to questions about their style. Some of the garments are directly from the style survey, while other items are of the same ilk.
When the customer clicks on the screen, the requested and suggested garments brought to the fitting room appear on the device along with more suggestions. Both the additional items that show up in the fitting room and the on-screen recommendations are the equivalent of the “usually bought together” and “you might also be interested in” functions of Amazon’s online shopping. If the customer clicks on an item on the screen, new offers pop up with messages such as “more similar items” or “complete your look.”
What happens if a customer tries on a shirt and it’s too big, or if they like one of the suggestions? Shoppers can simply order a smaller size or request the additional item easily and intuitively on the screen. Once the request has been made, the screen shows a message: “[The item is] on its way.” This is where the closet with a secret door comes into play. When customers go into the fitting room, they see a seemingly plain, empty closet that actually has a concealed back door. With the closet closed, a red light comes on, blocking the door, and then, like a special effect, a white light comes on inside. As if by magic, when the door opens, the items the customer has requested on the screen appear in the closet. Behind the door, a warehouse, logistics and delivery system make all of this possible in just three minutes.
Once customers have decided what they want to buy, they can take it, leaving the items they don’t want in the fitting room for someone to pick up.
5. With the palm of your hand
A glassed-in area of the store reveals a logistics area and the elevators behind it that allow the system to operate. As automated as the algorithm and the warehouse are, one gets the impression that quite a few people are working to get things to the right fitting room relatively quickly.
The customer must go to the register to pay. Customers can do so with just the palm of their hand, if they have activated Amazon One, which the company introduced in its Whole Foods grocery stores, Amazon Go and Amazon Fresh. Otherwise, customers can use any other method of payment, but they cannot pay through the app. Near the entrance, in addition to the cash registers, there is a pickup area for online purchases; the system is not automated here, either.
6. An experiment
“It’s great,” a young woman said on Tuesday as she left the store after buying some clothes. “I haven’t found anything I like,” lamented another woman. “That system probably is not for me,” one lady averred. The store is original and different, but it looks more like a test lab than a business model.
Shopping at the store is a fun experience to try out, but it doesn’t seem very functional. The suggestion algorithm can work, and it serves as a temptation for unplanned purchases. However, a lot of retail space is wasted by a warehouse and logistics system that takes up so much room. In addition, the wait times delay the shopping process even when the store is empty. A large influx of shoppers would test the store’s entire system and require a lot of staff.
Despite some of its progress, in many aspects the store lags behind Zara and other Inditex stores, which adopted the strategy of integrating physical and digital stores under former CEO Pablo Isla and still maintains this approach. For example, in the most modern Zara stores, the Pay&Go system allows the customer to scan the product, pay for it with the app, remove the alarm and take it home without going to the cash register. This can also be done at Amazon Go stores but is not currently possible at Amazon Style. Zara’s app also allows one to locate clothes in the store and automatically pick up online orders. The stores have the same virtual fitting room lines, but at Zara you carry the clothes there yourself. Finally, we should not forget that we are talking about fashion here. Inditex makes thousands of designs and the results prove that people like their products. The product is equally or more important than the shopping experience.
With regard to in-store returns for online purchases, Amazon Style allows them but there’s just one store. Will there be more? That depends on the Glendale store’s results and the extent to which Amazon wants to expand its experiment. Amazon is an e-commerce and cloud computing giant. It has billions of dollars and is willing to lose money for years if it believes a business model has a future. Does Amazon Style represent the way forward?