Friday, January 04, 2008

Amazon Edges the Bookstore

In an unusual turn of events, the stars aligned yesterday and I got a full hour by myself to pursue one of my favorite activities: browsing at the bookstore. You're probably asking, "what's so striking about that?" Go have two kids and you'll have your answer.

I love browsing at the bookstore. Particularly a big, national bookstore...like Barnes and Noble. Grab a cup of Starbucks and just lose track of time. Ahhh. A lot of my enjoyment stems from the uninterrupted quiet time. Sure, my cell is in my pocket but there aren't any of the normal distractions (see above: two kids...I love 'em though!). Secondly, I love to read and learn. What better place than in the bookstore? Typically, I like to browse by subject: technology, business/management/leadership, current events, history, economics are a few of my regular stops.

Despite my bookstore love, it remains an incomplete experience. The online retailers trump bookstores with (1) superior pricing, (2) reader reviews, (3) sales/popularity/related data, and (4) availability/inventory. Walking into a bookstore, it appears they have every book on earth but as I start to browse, I discover a lot of "this book is really identical to...". I was surprised at how reliant I've become upon online reader and sales rankings. I just don't have time to thumb through enough books (and enough pages of each) to find the one I think would be best. Also, a good bookstore might not even stock the "best" book for my needs. Without a global inventory, I would be none the wiser.

Prior to my visit, I spent a fair amount of time browsing Amazon and picking out the top 3-4 books in a given category I wanted to read through and potentially purchase. But, it took a lot of time and the bookstore only ended up having around 50-60% of the books I wanted to review. Sure, I can "look inside" on Amazon but the content is a subset and flipping those pages online just isn't the same.

There's opportunity here in some fashion or another--I think for the brick and mortar bookstore. Seems like something surrounding print on demand and ready access to review and sales data at the bookstore would complete the picture:
Ah, Lincoln on Leadership, this looks good. [Thumb through...read a few pages] Ok, show me the reviews on this book (scan/read ISBN# and up pops some sort of projection/browser). Hmmm, strong reviews. Are folks buying this? What else are they buying? Does the bookstore have that? Sigh, they don't have it...BUT, they will print it up for me right now if I want to read it. And, the price is reasonable because it wasn't shipped, etc. And, they'll give me 20% off if I end up buying it (so they don't have this random book hanging out on the shelf). Cool!
And for goodness sake, please highlight the book I'm looking for on the shelf. Make it flash or something. How do people find books in these places?

The pricing differences are significant too. B&N brick and mortar wanted $25 for Microtrends while it's $17 on Amazon. That adds up quickly. Typically, I queue up my books spending at least $25 so I can achieve free shipping. Great, I just beat the bookstore by 25%. I like that. Oh, and usually, I'm not charged tax via Amazon. Stick it to the man [publisher...the author typically gets screwed on profits]!

While on the subject of pricing, a discussion of the public library seems warranted. (Yeah Ben Franklin! What a stud.) I enjoy the library too--especially the one in my community--I can reserve via the web and I get email notifications when reservations are in or my books are due. At the same time, the library annoys me too. (Ok, it's free so I can't really complain.) However, their selection of newer books remains weak (by nature) and the 3-4 week check out period isn't long enough for me (I tend to read about 5 books at a time...picking up the one that suits my mood...ok, it's strange but it works for me).

Overall, with the exception of adding a coffee bar and far better selection, brick and mortar bookstores haven't really changed that much in the past well, 20-30 years or so. It's time for an evolution of brick and mortar bookstores and a merging in of technology. Having reviews and other data points accessible during the browsing experience would significantly improve the bookstore experience.

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