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The Amazon warehouse comes to SoHo

Amazon has recently opened Amazon 4-Star, a catchall gift shop in SoHo — about 100 feet from Balthazar and the MoMA Design Store.

[NEW YORK] I have a faint memory of an article I read some years back, detailing the grim life of a shelf picker in an Amazon warehouse. It described the arrangement of products on shelves — unlikely juxtapositions determined wholly by algorithm.

A worker's life was disorienting; you never knew where anything might be. Nail clippers might be next to stone humidifiers or HVAC filters or picture frames. The worker was given a product location and ran to it. Then another. And again. The warehouse was a game, the products little more than flippers in search of a pinball to thwack.

This holiday season, you are the pinball.

Amazon has recently opened Amazon 4-Star, a catchall gift shop in SoHo — about 100 feet from Balthazar and the MoMA Design Store — that's part of the company's slow seep into physical retail. It is grim. A permanent store with the harried, colourless mood of a hastily assembled clearance-sale pop-up. Lot-Less Closeouts stores have more vim and charm.

Amazon 4-Star asks what would happen if the logic of the warehouse writ raw was applied to a traditional storefront. Who needs a warehouse picker when the customers can do the work themselves?

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Spending time browsing here was among my most dismal shopping experiences in recent memory: joyless, arbitrary, spiritually empty. And that was before a 20-something guy bounded into the store and started screaming: "Alexa! Alexa! Alexa!"

Some of the items Amazon 4-Star hawks are Amazon products, naturally: the Amazon Echo home assistant (which ordinarily answers to "Alexa"), the Amazon Fire HD 8 tablet, the Amazon Fire TV Stick, plenty of AmazonBasics items, including a five-way headphone splitter (US$9.49, US$8.07 for Prime; 4.4 rating). Run-of-the-mill vertical integration stuff. Not my ecosystem, but fine.

Some sections are arranged logically: children's toys, kitchen items, smart-home tools. (I use "section" very loosely. On the wall, each one is perhaps a couple of feet wide.) And each item tag has a price, a lower price for Amazon Prime members (sometimes) and an average star rating (along with the number of customers who rated it).

About that 4-Star name, though. Thing is, I know there's a fifth star. Four stars out of five is already a concession. What's on offer aren't the most premium products, but rather ones that are pretty good.

Add to that the fact that I found several items in the store that actually have a rating below four stars. Say, the iRobot Braava Jet 240 wet mop (US$199/US$169; 3.8), or Don't Lose Your Cool, (US$19.99/US$10.42; 2.4), a party game that includes a contraption you strap to your head that measures rises in heart rate and which presumably was tested on customers shopping here.

You trust a store because you trust how it was curated. That's true whether it's Walmart or Dover Street Market. But there is little oversight here beyond the Amazon imprimatur. In several places, products are arranged by theme. Again, I use "theme" loosely: "Top Selling Around NYC", "Most Wished for Books on Amazon".

"Trending Around NYC on". Taxonomies I have never pondered and which are utterly useless.

On the Trending table, a Lego advent calendar (US$29.99; 4.7) was next to a Panasonic Arc 5 electric razor (US$199.99/US$99.99; 4.5), which was next to a tub of CeraVe moisturizing cream (US$15.06; 4.6) and just inches from Michelle Obama's memoir, Becoming (US$32.50/US$19.50; 4.8).

A couple of tables away, a Big Gulp-size Yankee Candle in a surprisingly not acrid Christmas Cookie scent (US$17.99; 4.1) was next to Less, a novel by Andrew Sean Greer that won the Pulitzer Prize (US$15.99/US$10.87; 3.7).

These are chaotic arrangements, on tables set among floor paths that resemble a field maze. Decoration and filigree is minimal. There were a couple of afterthought cardboard trees on the electronic gift guide table, but not much beyond that. Almost every 10 minutes, a UPS handler would roll in a hand truck filled with those signature Amazon boxes, presumably loading up the store with inventory.

Now look, I rely on Amazon Prime just like the next hypocrite, and I understand how one's needs aren't cleanly categorisable. But this store treats commerce like a tornado. On one table, there was a tossed-together collection of light winter jackets less organised than what you'd find in the Times Square H&M; underneath the table was a set of cardboard boxes with sizes written in marker on the side. Forget farm-to-table; this is pallet-to-checkout.

Maybe I was using the wrong approach — absorbing the store as a whole, and not like a warehouse picker in search of a specific item. So I went through my mental inventory of home problems that need solving.

Inspired by a friend's recent purchase of a 75-inch television (insert drool emoji), I sought out the electronics section. But there was only one option, a meagre 55 inches. There was an impressive-looking Sonos Beam Soundbar (US$399/US$349; 4.1), but that felt like something to address later, once the main itch had been scratched.

Then, a manageable ask. Over Thanksgiving weekend, my mother gave serious side eye to the pan I use to make eggs, which after years of use resembles something extracted from a barn on American Pickers. Easy enough. I went to the kitchen section but found that there were none.

Well, strictly speaking, there was one: a tree-ornament version, the 3.5-inch Lodge miniature skillet (US$6.25/US$4.69; 4.4), good for a single egg or a quick wallop on the head, which, by this point, would have been sweet relief.


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