As I walked through a local brick-and-mortar bookstore the other day I overheard this exchange:
Customer #1: This is why I don't always buy online. I love holding and flipping through books.
Customer #2: Me too, but I really like spending time in the store and seeing if I can get any good recommendations while I'm wandering around.
That's so true. Shopping in person can have a social element to it but shopping online is always a solitary experience. To be fair, I don't make a habit of bothering other customers in the bookstore but there have been times when I've asked their opinion, particularly if I overhear them saying something I'm interested in or if I see them picking up a book I'm considering. Then there are the in-store clerks. I've gotten valuable pointers from store personnel countless times.
What's the analog to that in the online bookstore? There isn't one. Sure you can read through product reviews but that's not the same as talking realtime with other customers or a clerk.
Online bookstores have gotten along just fine despite this brick-and-mortar advantage, of course. But if online stores enable this functionality would it lead to an even richer shopping experience? I think so.
Let's say you're searching your preferred .com for books about one of my favorite topics, the New York Yankees. Wouldn't it be cool if part of the screen listed other shoppers currently browsing the online store who have a history of buying books about the Yankees? They'd appear in a frame just like you see with instant messaging apps and you could initiate a quick chat with any of them about a book you're considering.
Before you privacy advocates get too wound up I'd like to point out that this service is something you'd have to opt into. If you prefer to shop without chatting with anyone you'd simply leave this service disabled. But if you're interested in talking to others with common interests and would love to get their recommendations this service is for you.
The service would automatically include your purchase history, excluding items you may not want to make public or just showing topics/areas of interest, not specific titles. Think of it like an overlay of your Goodreads shelf with a chat service, built right into the online bookstore.
As a consumer I'd love to have access to something like this. As a publisher I'd get even more use out of it. You could do real, live customer research anytime you want to (assuming the right customers are currently logged in).
Forget about the customers for a moment though and let's think about the in-store clerk. Wouldn't it be cool if there were virtual in-store clerks available to chat with, ready to make a recommendation or answer your questions? You might figure it makes no sense for an online bookstore to add to staff just to have a bunch of subject matter experts online for customer inquiries. I agree, but this is where the brick-and-mortar stores could use it to their advantage...
Think about B&N, for example. There are hundreds of stores open from about 9AM ET till about 10PM PT each day. That's 16 hours each day and every store has one or more in-store clerks on the job at any given time. Connect the in-store computers to this service so that the NY clerk who manages the sports section and loves baseball gets notified when I have a general question about Yankees books. The clerk steps over to the computer and joins me in a chat session. The in-store employee now adds value to the online bookstore experience as well.
I'm just scratching the surface on this idea. How about making it more compelling with badges and credits earned for answering customer questions? Better yet, how about including an affiliate program so that if my recommendation results in a purchase I get a cut of the transaction? Then there's the ebook side of this. How about letting me send you an excerpt from a book I'm recommending? If it's a better sample than the one the publisher made available it only increases the likelihood of generating a sale. And if it doesn't, the retailer should be capturing all this information and using it to follow-up with that customer to nudge them again on that book (or other related books).
I'm convinced social will play a crucial role in the future of search in general and I also see a terrific opportunity for it to add to the online book buying experience. How about you? Would you be interested in something like this if your favorite online bookseller implemented it?