We spent part of last Sunday browsing at the Barnes & Noble in Arlington. I’ve always liked hanging out in bookstores. There was a nice little Starbucks cafe. A few people were sitting around reading or surfing the web. Sadly, they all had either Dell or HP laptops, no PowerBooks.
I skipped the coffee and headed straight for the computer books. They had a great selection of programming books. And as I said the other day, I’m really getting back into programming lately so I wanted to pick up a good book.
Here are a few that I was really interested in: Pragmatic Version Control with Subversion, Joel on Software, Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X (2nd Edition), and Foundations of Ajax.
These books ranged in price from $19.99 to $44.99. I always have a hard time deciding what to buy so I asked Paige to give me a number between 20 and 45. She said 32 so I went with Pragmatic Version Control with Subversion for $32.27 after tax. So far this has been a great choice.
So what’s the point of all of this, besided being a look inside my crazy thought processes? Well, now I’m going to tell you why brick-and-mortar bookstores are going out of business. You see, I wasn’t there for the coffee or the free WiFi. I wasn’t there to mingle with the other patrons or to hang out and waste an afternoon. I was there for one thing – a book.
Unfortunately, nothing about the Barnes & Noble experience assisted me in choosing a programming book. I can assure you that none of the employees had read any of those books. Assuming anyone was even working the floor that day. The only people I saw were standing behind the cash registers. There were a few other customers wandering around, but most of them were checking out the “for Dummies” books.
Now we come to the most important part of any shopping experience, the price. It wasn’t until we got home Sunday evening that I realized just how much of a premium I had paid for the Barnes & Noble experience. I paid $29.95 plus tax for the book. Amazon.com sells the same book for $19.77 with no tax. So I overpaid by $12.50. That’s over 30%. With that kind of markup, I could buy books from Amazon and open up my own bookstore.
I realize this is turning into quite a rant, and I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. I’ll still stop in at every bookstore I can and check out the selection, but if they hope to stay in business something is going to have to change.
Some people will say they like to thumb through a book before they buy, you can look inside most books at Amazon. And to me that’s actually one of the downsides of buying a book at the bookstore, other people have already handled it. Lots of times the covers are scuffed and some of the pages are folded just from being picked up and put back down.
I understand that Amazon buys in bulk and smaller bookstores can’t compete on price, but Barnes & Noble is not exactly a mom and pop kind of place. They should be able to at least come close – 10% off the retail price on every book would be a good start. Or how about a free drink from Starbucks with every purchase. They’re already selling $0.50 cups of coffee for $5.00 so I don’t think they’ll miss giving away a few.
After price, they need to work on service. I had to stand in line while the cashier tried to sell the discount club to the guy in front of me just so I could then step up and have him give me the same speech. Amazon doesn’t charge anything for their discounts. If I wanted cheaper books I would just buy online. The cashier’s goal in life should be to handle my transaction as quickly and courteously as possible and then move on to the next customer.
Also, why don’t they even try to compete with technology? Give away the discount cards for free like the grocery stores, and keep a database of everything I buy. Then they could easily recommend books based on my past purchases like Amazon does. Also, put a few terminals with barcode readers around the store. Then I could just scan the barcode on the book in my hand and get the rating and reviews for it. At least put a free bookmark in every bag.
The point is – if I’m going to pay more, I expect to get more. That seems reasonable to me. I think next time I’ll just hang out in the cafe, drink a Frappucino, and order my book online using their free WiFi…