Amazon, which prides itself on being surprising, is doing two predictably unpredictable things this week.
First, the company is offering better benefits to its 222,000 employees. The hard-driving online retailer has traditionally not supplied its workers with many perks, at least compared to its peers in the technology sector. Jeffrey P. Bezos, Amazon’s founder, once looked toward Microsoft and said if Amazon became “a country club,” it would die, according to a book by John Rossman, a former Amazon executive.
So Amazon stayed lean in the smallest things. It eschewed, for example, free snacks. And it lagged in some of the biggest things: It offered no paid paternity leave and eight weeks of maternity leave.
On Monday, the biggest things changed. Amazon employees learned that birth mothers would now get 20 weeks of leave and fathers would get up to six weeks. Amazon also announced a flexible return-to-work program and an ability to share leave with a spouse who does not work for the retailer. These benefits, the retailer said, “give you more time and more choice in how to manage your leave in the way that works best for your family.”
Amazon’s intense workplace was the subject of an article in The New York Times in August. Asked if Amazon was improving its benefits in reaction to the article, a spokesman pointed to a line in the announcement that said, “We review our benefit programs annually and began considering our leave policies in early 2015.”
In an equally unlikely event, Amazon is opening its first store on Tuesday in the University Village mall in Seattle. An Amazon store has been rumored, and sometimes even reported as real, ever since the online retailer first made its mark in the late 1990s. In the last year alone, there have been reports of a store in Manhattan and Silicon Valley. There were also stories about negotiations to take over some of the bankrupt RadioShack outlets.
This time, however, it is really happening. The Amazon bookstore is called, naturally enough, Amazon Books. It will stock about 5,000 titles, which as stores go is relatively tiny.
In a note to its online customers, Amazon called the store “a physical extension ofAmazon.com.” The retailer, which is spending billions to refine and speed up home delivery, suggested that some people would come to the store to look at the books and then go home and order them online.
Barnes & Noble, the largest traditional bookseller, closed a 46,000-square-foot store in University Village at the end of 2011.
Local booksellers greeted the project — news of which leaked out gradually over the last month as Amazon Books stocked up and hired employees — with some befuddlement.
J. B. Dickey, who owns Seattle Mystery Bookshop, said it might be a large corporation’s small vanity project.
“A brick-and-mortar store is antithetical to what they’re about,” Mr. Dickey said. “The whole point of Amazon is getting what you want through your keyboard. What’s the point of opening a shop that demands people drive to it?”
He cited all the drawbacks of a traditional store, including the need to pay rent, hire employees, work with low margins and persuade customers to battle Seattle’s merciless traffic. Amazon plans to charge the same prices in the store as it does online.
The company remained noncommittal about its longer-term plans.
“We’re completely focused on this bookstore,” Jennifer Cast, vice president of Amazon Books, told The Seattle Times. “We hope this is not our only one. But we’ll see.”