(This is the second of a multi-part series on opportunities that I believe exist for brick-and-mortar stores to better compete with their online counterparts. The initial post can be found here.)
Is it me or is it getting harder and harder to find passionate, highly knowledgeable topic experts on staff at the local bookstore? Not that long ago, I used to be able to ask just about any question and the clerk had the answer. That expertise seems to be a rarity these days.
Regardless of the reason why, I think the time is right for a new feature that could dramatically improve the situation. Apple stores have their Genius Bar where any question is fair game...and you're highly likely to get the answers you need. While it would be prohibitively expensive for bookstores to build the same sort of labor-intensive model, why not do it online and offer access in the stores?
Have you noticed that at least one major bookstore chain in the U.S. has computers throughout their stores? These systems are nothing more than intelligent terminals hooked up to the store's title database, telling you whether a particular book is in stock and where it can be found. Why not take this up a few notches and use them to access a Chacha-like service where customers can ask "what's the best travel guide for kids at Disneyworld?" or "what's the most thorough biography on Babe Ruth?" Some store personnel might know the answers to these questions, but a centralized online service like Chacha, with more experts than you could ever employ in one store, is hard to beat.
Doing this online via the existing in-store kiosks also means the service can be accessed by anyone anywhere with an Internet connection. That means this chain could also feature it on their own website, thereby luring customers away from some of the more popular online-only competitors. Recommendations would also be captured in a knowledgebase that could be quickly searched and used by future customers. A rating and commenting system could also be added to incorporate customer feedback on the recommendations, creating yet another layer of highly relevant reviews from real customers. I'd even go so far as to incorporate it into every single product page on the bookseller's website, setting it up as a small instant messaging box that's always sitting there, encouraging customers to "ask the expert."
If you're a brick-and-mortar owner/employee/fan and you dismiss this as a silly idea, ask yourself the following question: How long will it be before one of the online-only retailers offers something like this, creating yet another reason to buy online rather than at the local bookstore?