The Amazon “4-star” store on Fourth Street — an odd and curious new retail concept when it opened in 2018 — will close its doors by the end of the month as the online giant shutters approximately 30 such stores across the country.
The company is also shutting dozens of other bricks-and-mortar retail and bookstores, though it’s keeping its in-person grocery and convenience businesses intact and expanding into fashion with a new clothing concept called Amazon Style.
On Thursday, the day after receiving word from Amazon that their store would be closing, employees at the Berkeley 4-star store said they were worried about finding new jobs. The store currently has three-full timers and about a dozen “flex” workers who put in up to 19 hours a week.
“It’s really sad,” said Mia Sharlman, a retail associate who’s been at the Berkeley 4-star for four months. “It hurts us. We all have jobs that we will no longer have. We have families. We have bills. We have rent. It’s hard.”
“We are trying to digest it right now. It is hard to talk about,” said another employee named Mia, a lead manager at the store, who asked that her surname not be used.
She said she’d made the job into a career. “I thought this was it,” she said. “It’s a very stable company. I mean, it’s Amazon.”
The Berkeley 4-star store opened three and a half years ago with 19 employees at 1786 Fourth St., taking up half of the former Crate & Barrel outlet. It was just the third of its kind in the country; the first 4-star store opened in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood.
The concept was to sell items that were bestsellers, trending or rated at least four stars by online customers. The store displays thousands of items on tables and shelves, ranging from books to housewares, with categories like “Devices & Electronics,” “Toys, Kids & Baby” and “Seen on Tik-Tok.” Items trending with Berkeley customers have their own table, like a large Moleskine notebook ($21.90), a Logitech Gaming Mouse ($49) and a scented candle ($34) from the San Francisco-based Homesick.
The 4-star closings are part of a larger pullback from so-called “physical retail” that involves the shuttering of 68 brick-and-mortar stores, including Amazon Pop Up and Amazon Books. Retail analysts are quick to point out the irony: how the online retailer that helped drive major brick-and-mortar bookstores into the ground is now failing with its own experiments in physical retail.
Amazon’s physical stores have often not kept pace with the retailer’s other businesses. Revenues from in-person stores were just 3% of Amazon’s $137 billion in sales last quarter, generated mostly by its Whole Foods division, according to USA Today.
Amazon said it will focus more on Whole Foods, Amazon Fresh (another grocery business), Amazon Go (a cashierless convenience store) and Amazon Style (opening in L.A. later this year), according to news reports. The company has not responded to a request for comment from Berkeleyside or told other news outlets how many jobs will be cut in total.
Steve Dennis, a retail commentator and author, wrote on Forbes that Amazon 4-star “has always been a concept in search of a purpose” and shoddily executed. It “is far from remarkable, hasn’t moved the dial and won’t be missed by many,” he wrote.
George Kiskaddon, the owner of Builders Booksource at 1817 Fourth St., said his message to Amazon would be: “I told you so.” “You can’t sell stuff as cheap as they do and pay rent and pay people and all the overhead,” he said. “Retail is just hard.”
Kiskaddon would love to see an entrepreneurial business take over the space, “but that seems very unlikely” given the cost of doing business.
The owner of the building, Eric Muhlebach of Bond Retail, did not respond to Berkeleyside’s request for comment.