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How to Improve the Brick and Mortar Bookstore Experience

My local bookstores don’t seem to have changed much in the last 10 years. I don’t see the stores adapting that well to the ever-changing market. Sure, Amazon and the other online retailers were destined to steal some portion of the industry’s sales, but have the brick and mortar stores lost more share than they need to? If I could influence the bookstore decision-makers, here are three things I’d recommend they consider:

Free WiFi – If it makes sense to encourage customers to spend time in the store with comfy chairs and caramel lattes, why not offer free WiFi? I don't have a T-mobile account and I don't plan to get one. If Panera Bread can do it, why can't Barnes & Noble, Borders, etc.?

In-store web kiosks – For those customers without WiFi laptops, why not offer systems in the store to browse online, research, etc.? Is it a cost issue? How about featuring sponsors? Publishers would likely be interested in subsidizing this as a promotional vehicle. I'll bet they could get other sponsors as well, for example, a hardware company (Dell?), a broadband provider (SBC?), etc. Brick and mortar stores need to figure out how to truly embrace the web. If I'm in a Barnes & Noble store, I'm probably interested in going online to read the customer comments for the book I'm thinking about buying. Those comments might be on, or somewhere else. If I’m the Barnes & Noble bookseller, do I really care where my customer gets input from, as long as they make the purchase in my store?

Online fulfillment – If I’m in a bookstore and the title I want is not in stock, the store has to order the book and I have to return several days later to pick up. Why don't they just put the order through online and deliver it to me for free? I'll probably be paying full price as opposed to 20% or 30% off, so they could absorb the shipping cost. Or, if they want to really play it up as an advantage over Amazon, give me the discount and free shipping!

I think these changes would increase store traffic and produce higher sales. What do you think? Do you have any other suggestions?


Kathy Sierra

What great ideas Joe! I especially like the kiosk idea because I always want to buy books--even at full price--the moment I see one I like in Borders or B&N. (Books are my biggest impulsive weakness.) But unless the book has lots of credible endorsements printed on the cover or inside, I still usually want to wait until I get home to check Amazon reviews. And once I'm outside the brick and mortar store, there's no incentive to go back, since Amazon can get it to me in a couple days anyway. But if I could check the reviews right there in the store, I would pay the extra money to take the book home at that moment rather than waiting for Amazon.

I wonder if the brick and mortar stores could do their own variation of Listmania/Playlist kind of things... because if I'm first starting to look at a topic that's new to me, I usually don't know where to begin. A customer playlist feature might encourage me to buy not just the RIGHT book for me, but also *more* books than I would have walked out with.

With fiction, I often want to know which of the author's work I should start with, and with non-fiction especially--I would love to have a whole learning path laid out for me.

Of course, one can just go on Amazon and get the info, but perhaps there's something more interesting the physical stores can do to get customers involved both locally, and as an aggregate of all the physical stores that chain has.

I know a lot of stores also have study groups/discussion groups as well, but I think a lot of them could do more to encourage and support this...or even offer little classes which are free to anyone who buys the required book from *them*.

I would love to see bookstores become a little more than just yet another place to buy books, but a place to help me figure out *which* books are right for me... more of a learning orientation. Right now, I always *feel* like a lot of what the store tells me I should buy is based exclusively on which publisher has paid for the extra promotion. The one thing I *do* put more trust in are the "staff favorites", simply because I assume those recommendations aren't motivated by paid promos, and because they're often accompanied by a description of the *reason* the employee is recommending the book or music.


I think it is a tax code issue as to why they can't order the book in the store and deliver to you...separation of online/ doesn't have that issue.

amazon avoids sales tax issues by only being can avoid that by keeping separate from the brick and mortar.

Naba Barkakati

Hi Joe, Seems like nowadays I hardly ever find time to visit any brick and mortar bookstores. It's all Amazon for me :-)

Joe Wikert

Hi Kathy. I think you've done a good job summarizing what I was trying to say in the original post: Brick and mortar stores need to figure out how they can turn the perceived weakness (of not being a pure online outlet) into a strength. They need to think about how they can better leverage the fact that customers are actually in their store, not just browsing a virtual store online. People are there -- now do something for them! I think you also highlight a critical problem that's cost brick and mortar stores a lot over the years: people who browse a bit in the store, then go home and order off Amazon. They need to figure out how to reverse some of that. I know I periodically research a book on Amazon first, then I buy it at my local bookstore; that's primarily due to my need for instant gratification. I wonder if the staffs could periodically host events on how to get the most out of the in-store kiosks I propose above. They probably cater to a lot of technophobes out there...

John, surely in this day and age a company like Barnes & Noble could figure out how to circumvent the tax issue you cite. It would really surprise me if this was the only thing holding them back from something like this.

Naba, there are a lot more people out there like you than B&N, Borders, etc., would like to admit. I still like the in-store experience and often need books/magazines right now, so I split my sales between online and brick/mortar strores. Is there anything the brick and mortars could do to win you back?

Brad Hill

I'm in B&N pretty often. I reposition my books on the shelves. I look at the gift merchandise. I browse the magazine rack. I drink the coffee. I read books in the aisles. But I almost never buy books. I'm sitting here trying to understand why that is, and part of it is definitely price. There is always the thought, "It's probably cheaper at Amazon." A simple sign at the entrance: "We Match Amazon Prices" would get my attention. But the other thing is the Amazon shopping cart. I have a better relationship with my own desires thanks to Amazon's persistent tracking of what I want. I'm no impulse buyer, that's for sure, and Amazon owns me because I've got my future purchases stored there.

B&N could do this. When I got married, my wife and I were given a scanning gun at our registry store. We walked around scanning bar codes of items we wanted in the registry. Then, at home, we could manipulate the registry on the computer, adding to and subtracting from our inventory. Why shouldn't B&N hand out scanning guns in the store for building wish lists? Link it to the online account. In fact, why don't all stores do this, aside from weddings? It is a compelling way to take ownership of the customer.

The more I think about this, the more I like it. Making a sale today is fine, but STORING FUTURE PURCHASES is the killer app. B&N could absolutely steal me from Amazon (almost the only place I've bought a book in the past eight years) by adding wish-list interactivity to the physical store.

Joe Wikert

Brad -- great idea! The beauty of this is that B&N doesn't even have to limit this to store scanning only. They already have a "wish list" feature on their website, just like Amazon. Why not build a connection between that and an in-store version of this? The kiosks I mentioned in the original post could also come in to play on this. I can add to my wish list both at home (online) and in the store while I'm browsing in person. Anyone who wants to buy me something for my birthday could get ideas at home (online) or by typing my name in on the in-store kiosk. *That's* the type of approach a brick and mortar could use to one-up the on-line only store.

As far as matching Amazon's discounts, I think that's a great suggestion as well. However, I'm sure the brick and mortars of the world have to be careful there since they've got so much overhead that the online's don't. It seems to me that Borders, B&N, etc., used to try and offer many more discounts in the early years of Amazon than they do now. Maybe it's just my imagination, but I'm assuming the pressures of paying rent, upkeep, store personnel wages, etc., probably forced them to abandon such an aggressive approach.

Kathy Sierra

I really love Brad's idea about the scanner. As for discounts, if Borders/B&N don't want to compete on price, they'll have to make up for their higher prices with something else. Apparently not everyone is as "instant gratification" as you and I are, Joe : )
But if they can add value that can come only from a store (beyond the ability to browse through the physical book and then walk out with it), and give you an experience you can't get from Amazon...
The physical stores have something the online stores don't--real, breathing, face-to-face humans (both customers and employees). Surely they can do something to exploit that. I don't have real ideas for this, but if it were *my* bookstore, I'd do a lot more to support/host/encourage user groups, book/discussion clubs, salons, and classes.
People who are interested in books are interested in being *changed* in some way. They're interested in growing and learning. If learning is like a drug to the brain, bookstores should capitalize on their position as "dealer" ; )

Brad Hill

>> The kiosks I mentioned in the original post could also come in to play on this. I can add to my wish list both at home (online) and in the store while I'm browsing in person. Anyone who wants to buy me something for my birthday could get ideas at home (online) or by typing my name in on the in-store kiosk. <<

Whew. That is killer. That adds an extra dimension to the wedding registry idea. The store I described, by the way, is Macy's, which my wife and I would probably not have chosen for a registry (we didn't want a registry at all, actually) if her sisters hadn't pushed us there. At the time, Macy's dominated the wedding-registry business, probably because of the excellent channel integration combined with the far-flung chain of stores. B&N is perfectly positioned to do the same thing. I love the kiosk idea.

Kathy -- I think the big bookstores near me have dialed back the in-store events in the last few years. It used to be that you couldn't walk into Borders without interrupting a reading or getting blasted with live music. I'm guessing the stores learned that customers didn't like their bookstores becoming auditoriums. My closest B&N remains an impressively sticky environment, though, with its Starbucks and couches. People hang there, laptops open. Who doesn't like a cafe with books and magazines? But cafes are not in the business of keeping customers at the tables for long periods. So bookstores provide the caffeine and hope that it doesn't occur to customers to buy books anywhere else.

Naba Barkakati

One thing brick and mortar stores have going for them (notwithstanding Amazon's "look inside the book" feature) is that you can actually browse through books before you buy (or decide not to buy). That was one reason I used to go to the physical store. Now that I am pressed for time, it's hard to think of anything short of big discounts that'd entice me to visit the store. On the other hand, I have lots of time in front of the PC, so it's easy to sneak in and buy something online in between other chores.

John Neidhart

All great ideas - the issue is, of course, cost vs benefit. Would the investment in the equipment and the associated training and infrastructure result in sales that would be significantly greater than the cost?
Online retailers are very different from bricks & mortar stores: they have few direct selling costs (bookstore employees), no costs associated with running a store (building maintenance, trash removal, utilities, etc.), very small inventory carrying costs, etc., and these benefits can be passed along to their customers as discounts. Because bricks & mortar retailers must shoulder these costs, they operate on razor thin margins and, so, any investment must be weighed very carefully.
Retailing is still based on three very simple factors:
1) Traffic, the number of people who enter a store on a daily basis;
2) Conversion Rate, the number of those people who make a purchase, and;
3) Average Sale, well, the amount of the average sale.
Each investment a store makes is based driving those numbers up, whether that investment is in a kiosk or an additional employee. Great employees are still the number one way, the best investment in other words, that can have an immediate, positive effect on all three of those factors.

Joe Wikert

Hi John. I still think the kiosk idea could be implemented at zero cost to the retailer. They just need to configure it with enough promotional opportunities to lure in advertisers and other sponsors to pick up the tab. I also agree with you that employees are one of the best ways to make a difference in all this. No matter how interesting the idea is to increase traffic (e.g., the kiosk), the employees are in a position to make it work or make it fail. Ultimately, I think the brick and mortar stores need to decide where to go from here. If they continue to operate as they have, sales increases will be hard to come by. If, however, they're willing to reinvent themselves, the possibilities are endless.

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