Amazon recently opened a bricks and mortar book store in Seattle’s University Village mall. The opening had no promotion or fanfare. It’s a curious move when you consider Amazon’s dominance selling books has edged many book stores out of business.
If you want to speculate about the strategy of Amazon’s bright minds, there are lots of articles out there trying to intuit Amazon’s motives. Forbes think it “has nothing to do with selling books“. The Motley Fool suggest that Amazon are trying to reinvent retail (and aren’t doing it very well). The American Genius can’t figure it out. More interesting to me was two lessons in schema breaking I got from visiting the store. One that serves Amazon, and one that doesn’t.
A schema is defined by Merriam Webster as :
a mental codification of experience that includes a particular organized way of perceiving cognitively and responding to a complex situation or set of stimuli
More simply, a schema is a pattern we use to interpret and simplify the world based on our experiences. For example, if you go to see a James Bond movie you expect that he’ll uncover a plot to take over the world, get trapped by the villain, escape and save the day. Each individual movie is more complex than that, but that’s the general pattern of a James Bond movie. It’s a schema. Now imagine you go to see the latest James Bond movie and instead of keeping him trapped, the villain shoots him immediately that he’s captured. James Bond dies, the villain’s plan succeeds and he takes over the world. Your schema is broken. The movie doesn’t fit the pattern. You are left with a strongly positive or negative experience about the movie. Either way, it will be memorable.
When you challenge someone’s definition of the world, you ask them to pause for a moment to re-evaluate their schema and form a new pattern. It’s a great way to leave a lasting impression or to change behavior. And it can also provoke strong negative reactions and strengthen the existing schema.
Success : Breaking A Schema Drives Seattle Resident Into Store
Amazon is an online retailer. It always has been. It always will be. It put retail book stores out of business. When I visited Seattle’s University Village, I didn’t know Amazon had setup a retail store because there had been no marketing or PR effort. When I saw the Amazon logo above what was obviously a book store that was physical and in the real world, I had a wonderful moment of cognitive dissonance. Amazon doesn’t do retail. Schema broken. Off I went to investigate this curious anomaly in my world.
Breaking the schema grabbed my attention and compelled me to enter the store. I left having bought several holiday gifts.
Less Success : Care Is Needed When Breaking Well Entrenched Schemas
The Amazon retail store looks and feels like any book store. Tall shelves. Polo shirted assistants. Lots of books. A rack of dog-eared magazines. It felt comfortable and familiar. I spotted a holiday gift for a friend and instinctively to the label on the shelf for the price. The label contained the author, the title, number of Amazon stars but no price. My how buying things at retail usually works schema was in full effect. My shopping on the Amazon website schema was also triggered by the star ratings. In both cases, there was a hole where my schema told me the price should be. I had a moment of panic. Should I ask an assistant? Was there a scanner device attached to the wall so I could self scan? The solution wasn’t immediate but it was obvious. Pull out my phone and scan the tag with the Amazon app. It showed me the price on Amazon.
Amazon had broken my how buying things at retail usually works schema.
Breaking a schema is a great way to grab attention and change behavior. But if you break a schema, be sure to replace it with something that’s better so the new behavior / model takes hold. Amazon introduced a lot of new friction into my retail experience : getting my phone out, opening an app, awkwardly scanning a book. Amazon’s reward? The book was priced at it’s Amazon online price, rather than the RRP. I could save a few bucks vs a non-existent Borders store. I’d have been better off staying home or sitting in the coffee shop and ordering from Amazon.com. My retail schema has not changed.
Schemas Are Everywhere
The world is made up of schemas. There are some schemas that are well defined and shared by a lot of people in a society, for example how buying goods at retail works, or that Amazon is a purely online retailer. These are the schemas that we target when designing a product or building a marketing plan. Marketing breaks a schema to create a moment of surprise that makes a customer pay attention and opens them up to receive a message. Innovative products break schemas almost as a matter of course. Video recorders broke the schema of sitting down to watch a TV show at the scheduled time. Tivo broke the schema of having to remember to record your favorite shows. Netflix and Hulu broke the schema of having to record anything at all. Society level schemas are easy to identify.
Individual schemas are much more difficult to identify. Your personal schemas are uniquely yours and they affect how you interpret situations and how you make decisions. If you can build awareness of those schemas, you have the opportunity to find your blind spots. Removing a blind spot is powerful. Suddenly you have a more complete picture of a problem you’re trying to solve, the way you interact with people or the market you’re trying to crack.
Managers who can see and work through the schemas in their team members can get more creative solutions to problems and better engagement.
As you go through your day, see if you can spot any of the schemas you’re using to interpret the world around you and share them in the comments.