The Borders Problem

March 28th, 2007 · 3 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

We know that times are tough. In an era where your basic blogger can barely find the time to shop for new shoes (much less purses!*), sympathy must be expended to others in the industry. Even empathy, though that is harder for us to muster. Especially when it comes to the Borders chain.

Borders hasn’t spent the past decade or so focusing on the reader experience.

There we said it. We feel no sadness for Borders, except as it relates to our personal book shopping issues. It is, as you will all recall, 2007. For those who haven’t been paying attention, issued its first gloating press release in 1995 (“Top Bookstore on The Internet”). Soon, pretty much bookstore chain on the planet launched an online retail presence.

So, if we were to be generous (and we are rarely generous), we’d say that the online bookselling environment is starting its second decade. It’s a teenager. The bricks-and-mortar environment is, we have heard, centuries old. Bricks-and-mortar stores face many challenges, there is no doubt about it. Online stores face challenges, too. Mostly in that they see Amazon as the competition and, sigh, try to replicate that experience.

Borders has always tried to be little different, we’ll give them that. Their current website is nothing if not proof of their desire to separate from the portal bookseller crowd. Unfortunately, this desire to march to the beat of their own drummer leads to a bit of “what are they thinking?” followed by “what are they doing?”

Our experience with bricks-and-mortar Borders suggests that the retailer sells books. Upstairs (our store), there are more books and some music and maybe some DVDs and gifts and the restrooms. Look, you shop enough, you know this stuff. The Borders website, however, seems surprisingly intent on pushing the Borders credit card. It’s a key graphic and prominent link on an otherwise fairly minimalist home page. Unless financial services is a highly lucrative part of the Borders business model — and given the highly lucrative nature of financial services, we wouldn’t discount this theory — this says everything we need to know about why Borders isn’t making the online grade.

A friend labels this sort of thing “focusing on the wrong problem”.

Little about the website invites that most intimate of reader experiences (aside from actually reading): browsing through books. There is a link to the Borders book club (previously singled out here for its almost obsessive emphasis on snacks) and a search box, up high on the left. After that what is there for the reader to enjoy?

We searched for “Jane Austen”. First result is “Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets” by William Deresiewicz. Following that comes various critical studies of Austen’s work. Now we appreciate critical studies of Austen’s work as much as the next person (probably more, as a quick perusal of the BS research library reveals), but, okay, most people searching for Jane Austen are searching for Austen’s books. The canon. Pride & Prejudice. Maybe the BBC series based on that title.

You know, her fiction. This year’s hottest thing in fiction, 19th century style.

Emma, a fine novel appears in the Top 20. The Jane Austen Book Club also makes a showing. Northanger Abbey, which we believe is a vastly underrated Austen novel, squeaks into first page listings. Notice anything missing?

We would hardly ever suggest that popularity is indicative of quality, but, c’mon, it’s Jane Austen. The stuff that people want the most is the stuff that we all know and love. Sense & Sensibility. Persuasion. Sanditon is for obsessives.

This is the problem with Borders, we believe. In some ways, it’s the problem with the entire online book experience. Optimizing search results is the least of the issue, but it suggests that, credit card offers aside, Borders hasn’t used the past decade or so to spend time focusing on the reader experience, much less the music-lover experience. Or even the DVD-shopper experience. Focusing on what customers want — books, information, interaction, community — is the important point.

Borders is planning to close even more Waldenbooks locations in the next year. Great for those of us who seek bookstores in emergency mall situations. Indicative of the fact that many booksellers simply cannot see how they can change to meet modern consumer needs. But why keep local bookstores open when, well, you’re building a new website? A website that, shall we be frank?, seems like a disaster coming out of the gate:

The new proprietary Web site, which has been under development since Fall 2006, will roll out in early 2008

Don’t get us wrong. We completely understand that a new website can take several years to develop. And we’d be all excited if this “proprietary” website offered something in the way of innovation. The press release makes it sound so, oh, Web 1.0. And not in a good way.

It will allow Borders to extend successful in-store programs like Borders Rewards to the Web and give customers a live, e-commerce solution using existing in-store Borders Search computer stations when they want to special-order items.

. . .

The addition of new “Digital Centers” in Borders stores will enable customers to learn about, interact with, and purchase new digital products—such as audio books, e-books, MP3 players— and services such as downloading and personal publishing that complement the Borders brand.

Uh, whoo hoo?

No, seriously, this is the minimum that Borders should have been doing back in 1999. We purchased our first ebook in 1998, and, frankly, we were behind the curve. We blame our lameness on the fact that we’d spent the previous year traveling the world and fighting what can only be called challenging Dutch modem technology. Long story.

2008 is like saying “we’re not serious” to Borders investors and customers. And in the event that the “Digital Centers” go live earlier, well, hello, still so 1999. If Borders were telling us that they’re looking for ways to drive online traffic back to the bookstore, that — that — we’d consider innovative. Modern. Fresh. Interesting.

It would suggest that Borders gets it. Reading is solitary, unless you’re lucky enough to find someone with a great reading voice to read out loud to you. But books — finding them, discussing them, sharing them — is very much a social thing. And even the most wired of us desperately seeks other readers for F2F interaction.

* – A travesty that must be rectified. Please send more time c/o this blog. Thanks.

File Under: Square Pegs

3 responses so far ↓

  • Tom // Mar 28, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    Thank you for this great piece. I gives me hope (and some ideas) for the bookstore I am planning to open soon. A lot of what I read about book sales is doom and gloom, but the last two paragraphs really hit home to the experience that bricks-and-mortar store can give that no online store can, and I think that will be the factor of survival for the bookstores (indie or chain) who recognize that getting people back into their stores will prove more profitable than expected.

    I have had numerous people tell me that their shopping online consists of a search for a specific item. Getting people in to a physical store can only help to increase the impulse purchases that help businesses survive.

    And to comment on the article on the iPhone, me personally, until the screens get larger and lighter, I can’t see reading a large novel on a 3.5 inch screen no matter which way it is oriented!


  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 28, 2007 at 9:29 pm

    Tom — I’m glad I could offer even a little bit of help. As much as I live my life online, I cannot resist a bookstore. And once I’m inside one, I cannot leave without making a purchase. My shopping goals are entirely different when it comes to online versus real-live bookstores. Also, as regular readers of the site know, I strongly advocate serving wine to customers (g). Basically, thinking outside the traditional bookstore experience.

    Okay, going further with the wine thing. I am a member of a bookclub that has been meeting monthly for many, many years. I joined at Jane Eyre and they’d already done quite a few of the Russian classics and all the Jane Austens and a whole bunch of other good stuff. Through the good and the bad and the weird books, we meet regularly.

    And we sit and we talk and we drink wine and we eat and we talk about the book. It’s a social experience. Imagine if you had a group of customers sitting around, drinking a glass of wine while talking books. It’s still a bookstore, but it’s also a community. I think the reason that book clubs have been so popular for so long is that they allow groups of people with common interests — especially, I think, women — to get together in a more or less structured manner, with a goal. Why can’t bookstores offer this level of fun?

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 28, 2007 at 9:30 pm

    By the way, I totally can read on the small screen. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve read smaller and with less resolution! It’s the sign of a true reading junkie.