Amazon is doubling down on retail stores with plans to have up to 100 pop-up stores in US shopping malls (AMZN)

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Amazon is aggressively expanding its presence in the real-world retail market, with a plan to open dozens of new pop-up stores in US shopping malls over the next year, a source familiar with the matter told Business Insider.

The miniature retail storefronts are a separate effort from the physical book store that Amazon opened in Seattle last year and are primarily designed to showcase and sell the company's hardware devices, particularly its Echo home speakers.

The pop-up stores, which are spearheaded by Amazon's head of devices and services, reflect the company's growing drive to reach consumers directly through a variety of access points including retail storefronts, home delivery and innovative hardware devices. Just as Apple changed its relationship with customers through its sleek retail stores, Amazon is building out its vision for a new class retail business that weaves together a powerful assortment of online and physical components.

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As of August, Amazon had 16 pop-up stores in the US, nearly triple the six it had at the end of last year, according to the source. That number is expected to exceed 30 this year, and could go up to as much as 100 by next year, as new stores are popping up almost every week in shopping malls across the country, this person said.

In fact, Amazon quietly launched a new site dedicated to its pop-up stores just recently, and it shows a total of 21 pop-up stores now. The stores are spread across 12 states, from New York to Texas, with California owning the most at six.

Pop-up stores, typically 300 to 500 square feet and located in the middle of a shopping mall, carry an assortment of Amazon hardware including the Kindle e-readers, Fire TV and the Echo speakers as well as accessories. But the broader goal is to drive more traffic to Amazon's online store, as these devices make it easier to purchase items on Amazon.com.

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End of the test phase

Amazon is currently hiring a number of positions for "Amazon Device Pop-up Stores" in multiple locations that has yet to be announced, including Miami, FL and West Hartford, CT, according to job listings. In one of the job posts, Amazon says pop-up stores "have emerged from the test phase with a goal to expand and grow."

Our source said Amazon seems to be putting a lot more resources in its pop-up store expansion and it could potentially evolve into other forms as well, such as an Apple Store-like brick-and-mortar space. Amazon has tested things like pop-up trucks in the past but they haven't really materialized into any meaningful sales channels.

Amazon pop up store

Amazon never officially announced pop-up store launches although it did confirm the 2014 opening of its San Francisco one in the upscale Westfield Mall. The WSJ's Greg Bensinger once discovered a smaller pop-up store in Westfield Mall a year before that as well. Amazon still hasn't closed its Westfield Mall location, despite the short-term nature of pop-up stores.

The pop-up stores come with hefty fixed costs, including leases in shopping malls and full-time employees to staff the storefronts. But they offer a new way for the company to boost its brand awareness and to drive sales, both at the stores and on its website. Given Amazon's obsession with data, the decision to expand the network of stores may indicate that the company has seen an uptick in online sales in the regions where it already has pop up stores.

The pop-ups also serve a strategic purpose, by providing Amazon with its own physical sales channel — something that's become especially important after big box retailers such as Target and Walmart stopped selling Amazon devices in 2012 (Target plans to bring Amazon products back this year).

Amazon declined to comment on its roadmap for the stores but provided the following statement: "We offer pop-up kiosks so that customers can try out all our new devices and learn about our services like Prime and unique content like Amazon Originals."

The Echo effect

Amazon SVP of Device Dave LimpOne interesting part about Amazon's pop-up stores is that they are run by the devices team, not the retail team that opened Amazon's first bookstore last year. The initiative is led by SVP of Devices and Services Dave Limp, who oversees everything from the Kindle to the Echo.

That means the push for more pop-up stores coincides with the smash hit success of the Echo, which is widely considered to be the next big hit product for Amazon. The Echo's success has prompted rivals such as Google and reportedly Apple to develop competing versions.

According to multiple sources, Amazon is increasingly putting more resources around developing the Echo and its voice technology platform Alexa, and the pop-up stores provide an important way to raise brand awareness for both products.

Another source said Amazon played with the pop-up store concept while the Echo was being developed in 2013, as it's a great way to let people play, hands-on, with its devices, especially the unusual ones like the Echo.

"Lowering the barriers to trial and letting people feel how things actually work is a great way to start," this person said.

It's unclear why Amazon's taking such a low-key approach to its pop-up store expansion. But it's not too uncommon for Amazon to do things quietly when it's clear that it has bigger ambitions. Amazon's fashion team, for example, quietly launched 7 private labels over the past year — and it's expected to overtake Macy's as the top apparel retailer in the US by 2017.

Here's what the pop-up store in San Francisco's Westfield Mall looks like.

Business Insider/Eugene Kim

The view from the other side.

Business Insider/Eugene Kim

It's located right in front of the entrance to Bloomingdale's. So lots of foot traffic.

Business Insider/Eugene Kim

The store's about the size of a small office.

Business Insider/Eugene Kim

You can find every Amazon hardware device there.

Business Insider/Eugene Kim

Including the latest Kindle e-reader devices.

Business Insider/Eugene Kim

And the Fire Tablets.

Business Insider/Eugene Kim

The Echo/Alexa section had the largest crowd.

Business Insider/Eugene Kim

Fro some reason, a Motorola smartphone was on display too.

Business Insider/Eugene Kim

And some random Amazon gear.

Business Insider/Eugene Kim

There's a nice little resting area right outside the store.

Business Insider/Eugene Kim

So people could watch shows powered by Amazon's Fire TV.

Business Insider/Eugene Kim

There were other accessories like Bose headsets too.

Business Insider/Eugene Kim

Amazon plans to open a lot more of these pop-up stores over the next two years. Have you seen one open in your area? Email us at ekim@businessinsider.com

Business Insider/Eugene Kim

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