Why in the world is Amazon opening a hair salon?

Amazon, known for its domination of US e-commerce, is opening a salon in London.
Amazon, known for its domination of US e-commerce, is opening a salon in London.
Image: Reuters/Abhishek N. Chinnappa
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Amazon is opening a new two-floor hair salon spanning more than 1,500 square feet in London’s Spitalfields neighborhood, known for upscale fashion boutiques and cocktail bars. Customers will be able to receive a full range of services, from cuts to highlights, texturizer treatments, and braids.

But hairstylists who imagine the e-commerce giant muscling in on their business with a chain of shops probably need not worry. Amazon made clear in a press release it has no plans to open other locations. Instead, Amazon Salon will allow the company to indulge in one of its favorite pastimes—testing technology in real life—and the ultimate customer may not even be the general public but the beauty industry.

Amazon will use the salon as a place to try out new ideas. Visitors will be able to see themselves with different virtual hair colors, courtesy of augmented reality. They’ll also be able to browse shelves of products enabled with “point-and-learn technology,” which allows them to simply point at a product on a shelf to activate a display screen with product information and videos. To buy something, they’ll scan a QR code that takes them to Amazon’s site, where they can make the purchase and have the item delivered to their home. Amazon will also put its Fire tablets at each styling station so customers have some entertainment during their visit.

Amazon’s love of testing technology IRL

Amazon, which has more than enough money to run expensive experiments, has a track record of running similar trials in public. Right now, at a few Whole Foods locations, it’s beginning to test out a payment technology called Amazon One that lets customers pay by scanning their palm. (On the first visit, they’ll have to register their palm with a credit card at a terminal.) Maybe its best-known public experiment is its chain of cashier-less Go grocery stores, where cameras and Amazon’s app track customers who are then able to fill a basket with items and simply walk out without stopping at a register.

The company has shown more interest in selling these technologies to other retailers than deploying them at its own brick-and-mortar stores, though that remains a possibility. Last year, it announced plans to sell its Go technology, and an Amazon executive told Recode the company would sell its Amazon One payment system too. They feed into the lucrative service sales helping to drive Amazon’s profits.

Amazon Salon follows a similar pattern of showcasing technologies that Amazon could then license out to other businesses. The beauty industry, which generates about $500 billion in annual sales (pdf), is a valuable target, and Amazon has shown previous interest in gaining a foothold. Recently in the UK it launched a professional beauty store where businesses can buy products at wholesale pricing, and it described the salon as its “latest initiative designed to support the professional beauty industry” in its press release.

For now, the salon will only be open to Amazon employees. But in the coming weeks it will start offering appointments to regular customers, many of whom may be salon owners coming in to see what Amazon’s vision for their business looks like.