There's a big, new bookstore in town, and there's a catch - you won't find it on any Seattle street map. So if you want to wander down its aisles and peruse the selection, you'll have to hook up to the Internet.
That's what Jeff Bezos, 31, the founder of Amazon.com Books is gambling on - that book lovers the world over will drop in, check out his new Web site and get hooked. He's able to provide customers with a searchable database of more than 1 million titles.
Amazon.com Books has been open for two months as a virtual bookstore on the World Wide Web at: http://www.amazon.com/
Since Amazon - named after the longest river in the Western Hemisphere - doesn't require selling space, it is able to offer customers a selection of books that is larger than what most bookstores offer, Bezos said.
Its motto is "If it's in print, it's in stock.
Customers can search Amazon's database, order books over their computer by credit card, (or, if they prefer, call in their card number to a toll-free number) and expect to receive their books in a few days for mass-market hardcovers and paperbacks. Harder-to-find special orders can take from one to six weeks.
Shipping charges are $3 per order, plus 95 cents per book for orders sent in the U.S.
Amazon has no warehouse since orders are placed directly through wholesalers and publishers. Only a sparse business office south of the Kingdome on First Avenue South with a staff of 12
provides customer service and technical support for the company's Web page, and serves as a shipping and receiving center for orders.
Customers can view the current bestseller list for fiction and nonfiction, as well as customer and staff reviews. Although not a totally graphically oriented page, customers can also view selected book covers.
Low overhead, Bezos said, allows Amazon to pass on savings to its customers. Currently Amazon.com Books offers a 30 percent discount on bestsellers, and a 10 percent discount on hardcovers and paperbacks off the list price.
Amazon is among the first companies with such a large selection to sell books in cyberspace. Meanwhile bookstores, such as Elliott Bay Book Co. and Village Books in Bellingham, are entering the online market in a more limited way by maintaining Web pages that provide information on the stores and allow customers to order books by e-mail. Publishers, such as MacMillan, have created Web sites to allow customers to search their own database and order books.
Kristin Kennell, the night manager at Elliott Bay and creator of its Web site, doesn't see her online competitors as a threat.
"I don't think you'll ever be able to substitute coming in and looking through the book that you want," Kennell said.
The American Booksellers Association maintains its own Web page called the Book Web that lists 64 booksellers, at least five of which could be considered virtual bookstores - stores that are only selling books online.
"It's the kind of thing that sells well interactively right now because the medium itself is not that different from a book. People can browse just as readily, in fact, faster," said Emily Green, a marketing researcher for Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.
Sunil Gupta, a marketing professor at the University of Michigan who is studying Internet marketing, said estimates of the number of World Wide Web users range from 2 million to 13.5 million.
Surveys show that books are one of the more popular items to purchase via the Internet, Gupta said. The demographics of Internet users is also an enticement for businesses since they tend to have higher incomes and education levels.
Bezos is hoping those numbers and demographics pack a punch and create healthy profits, since he has lined up a number of undisclosed private investors for the company.
Although Bezos won't say how much the company has made in its first two months of operation, he did say that it has shipped orders to every state and 45 countries.
Bezos, a graduate from Princeton University, is not new to the corporate world. He formerly was a senior vice president at D.E. Shaw & Co., a Wall Street-based investment bank. With his long-time interest in interactive retailing and computers, Bezos was looking for a good business idea and waiting for enough people to have access to computers.
"The problem had never really been the technology, it was how many people had access to the technology and was that large enough to start a business," he said.
For online businesses to survive, they need to offer good products and services, not just provide an intriguing experience by buying something over the Net, said Green, the Forrester marketing researcher.
"Online sellers need something to give the customers to come by the site, not just the novelty of the experience," she said.
Len Vlahos, industry-relations manager for the American Booksellers Association, agrees.
"It's the same as in the real world, whoever brings the best added-value to the customer is the one who is going to succeed."