Does Amazon need to worry about design?

Its seductive promise of friction-free shopping has helped it become the world’s biggest retailer, without the need for a beautiful brand experience. As Amazon now joins the physical retail world, has it moved beyond the need to worry about ‘good’ design or aesthetics?

In 2020 Amazon opened its first physical store in the UK, with a completely checkout-free Amazon Fresh shop in London. Several more have opened since, all of them swapping tills for a QR code that shoppers check themselves in with at the entrance. The shops are classic Amazon fare – unremarkable design made up for by the kind of extreme convenience we all associate with the retail giant. And according to news reports, the company hopes to open at least 30 of them across the UK, building on a series of stores it’s already opened in the US. For all the talk of how retail as theatre will save the high street, it’s notable that the company has gone in the total opposite direction.

In many ways, Amazon is an uncomfortable reality. Most of us are aware of stories about its labour practices and low tax bills, but can’t seem to wean ourselves off of its seductive retail offer – which promises a speed and ease that’s hard for other brands to compete with. For those in the creative industry, there’s perhaps something unsettling about a company that’s achieved wild success with such an apparent lack of interest – aside from its Turner Duckworth-designed logo – in what many of us would describe as ‘good’ design. The Amazon website is, arguably, a pretty ugly, sprawling digital presence that’s often hard to navigate and does very little aesthetically. And it’s no surprise that the brand’s physical stores also index most highly on convenience and use of tech.

For George Gottl, chief creative officer and co-founder of Uxus – which has done retail projects for brands including Clinique, Wrangler and Jaeger – Amazon’s decision to move into physical stores is a highly calculated one. As well as the obvious opportunities to capture data on shoppers, Gottl believes this is all about brand positioning, describing physical space as “the next battleground for digital-first companies”.