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Jul 26, 2005: Bitching and Moaning about Borders

WARNING: narcissism ahead

Bumming around Ann Arbor this morning, I popped into Borders store #1 (Ann Arbor is Borders' hometown). I have a love-hate relationship with Borders.

Back in olden times, when there was but one Borders on the planet, we Michigan library school students couldn't imagine a better place to land (aside from an actual library, but they weren't exactly snapping us up at the time). A few years later, Borders was Argus's first big client, and we struggled to drag them into the Web era, giving up in frustration just about the time Amazon launched. (First consulting gigs are like first loves: intense, passionate, and doomed.)

As Borders exploded from one store to 460, certain aspects of its service, um, declined. I sensed that today when I found the polar bear book classified under "Web Services," rather than in the "Web Design" section where it belongs. I mentioned this to the guy responsible for the computer books section. "Look, it has a testimonial from Steve Krug where he says this is a web design book, and his book is stored in the Web Design section. Jakob Nielsen wrote our foreword, and his book is over in Web Design. Why not ours?" Bordersguy said he'd see about fixing this in store #1, but that there was nothing he could do about improving classification chain-wide. So to make this fix, I guess I'll have to visit each of the 460 Borders stores to bitch and moan.

You'd think the Borders folks would take this a bit more seriously. Mis-categorization should hurt sales, right? Well, maybe not: after all, there are something like 40,000 titles in each Borders store. A few mis-categorized items won't bring the entire chain to its knees.

But still, I'm left wondering a bunch of things:

  1. Can Borders' classification scheme really be so rigid?
  2. How sensible is it for book distributors and publishers to bother employing sales staffs? I'm imagining someone (a sales rep) who knows next to nothing about a book's topic spending 30 seconds explaining the book to someone else (a buyer) who knows next to nothing about the book's topic before moving on to the next new title. Maybe that's what happened here.
  3. Do large bookstores like Borders and B&N bother with the "little things"--like service and navigation aids--anymore? If not, what's the point? Why not just finish the process of morphing into warehouses and be done with it?
  4. Let's say only 5% of Borders' books were mis-categorized (and I'll bet the number is actually quite higher). Wouldn't that hurt the bottom line?
  5. Or maybe readers of technical books don't even bother browsing their local bookseller's shelves any more. Do most of us come in already knowing exactly what we'll purchase because we learned about it on the Internet? If this is the case, then see my Question #3.

Bitch and moan, bitch and moan. Sorry folks. I just find it sad that the former hometown hero grew up, lost its soul, and lost its opportunity to be Amazon along the way. And that Borders doesn't care about admittedly little things, like how my book has been classified. Nothing surprising here though; I guess I should at least be grateful that it didn't wind up buried in the Architecture section.

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Comment: vanderwal (Jul 27, 2005)

I have been switching local allegiance from Barnes and Noble to Borders (much better design and technical book selection at the White Flint Borders than any other store in the Washington, DC area). Borders coupons have also caused me to give up my Readers card at Barnes and Noble and helped push my loyalty. The shelving is quite different between the two store chains, but also the idea of dominant classification (where one book in the store sits as more than one book may sit in more than one section) is quite different. Things get really funny with CogSci books in Borders as they are in Psychology, not sciences as they are in Barnes and Noble.

I always use the Borders store search prior to going to the store so I have an idea if the book I desire is in stock, but primarily to understand what section (or sub-section) the book may reside. On the other hand the local Barnes and Noble (used to have great design and technology sections, but they let them dwindle and are now horrible maintained with a myriad of mis-shelvings) has odd physical locations for their offerings with technology (the doing books) nowhere near sciences and technology theory books, in fact they are two floors apart. The design books are also not situated near either of those sections.

I really want a mobile mapping of book locations in each book store as I walk in the door. I can query with books off my Amazon wish list (I have it load as I walk in the store's door) and then have the interface tell me if they have it in stock and what section that book is located as well as how to get there easily.

Last weekend I was in Portland, Oregon and I can still find the proper book sections from memory (three years ago was last physical visit) to peruse. I always find books I currently want and my wish list explodes. The downside with Powell's is that many of the older used books I really want are in their warehouses and I can't flip through them to validate whether I really do want that book.

Comment: Lou (Jul 27, 2005)

Thomas, a lot of interesting stuff in your posting. Sounds like you'd like to use aspects of Amazon--and other online sources of book information--in concert with bricks-and-mortar stores. It'd be useful for book industry folks to do an ethnographic study of how all these things fit together. Maybe they should hire Bonnie Nardi to profile the information ecology of book buying?

Comment: eric Scheid (Jul 27, 2005)

To counter #5: I wonder what portion of book sales are category driven, rathern than known item driven. Example: i've heard about this new-fangled "information architecture" thing ... I go to borders, go to the Web Design section, and find plenty of books to choose from. The fact that there is one particularly good book shelved elsewhere doesn't matter. Your needs (as an author) may not be satisfied, but mine as a webdesigner are, and Borders as a bookseller is.

Comment: Lou (Jul 27, 2005)

Actually I'm not sure that would be the case Eric. I don't recall for sure, but it's likely Borders would have misclassified the other IA books for the same reason they misclassified ours. (Probably because they all use the term "architecture" in the title; sounds like software architecture.)

But Borders' needs aren't totally being met even if they are making other IA titles available in the Web Design section. They lose the ability to sell multiples on a given topic, they pay to shelve titles (two copies in my case) somewhere where they're not likely to be seen and bought as often, and the lose the ability to show off a wide selection on even such an arcane topic.

I'd guess that "known-item" customers account for a much bigger chunk of Borders store sales these days. Thomas' comment illustrates this well: find out about titles through all sorts of other means like Amazon, then go to Borders because they warehouse titles locally. (Of course, the opposite can be true: I've browsed for books at Borders and then purchased from Amazon, especially when looking for gifts that need to be shipped.)

Comment: Glen (Jul 27, 2005)

Former O'Reilly Product Marketing Manager here (yours wasn't my area)...Iím currently reading your 2nd edition in preparation for a project with University of California Press.

Categories are tricky: the standards were so out of date that they were hardly usable. The opportunity for multiple shelving locations was rare. The national chains are rigid and purchasing/shelving decisions are made on regional and/or national levels.

Sales reps generally pass along the shelving info as provided on a sales sheet during the sales call (3-12 months before book is available). I generally tried to create a general to specific path (Computer/Web/Design) that would go on the back of a book and on the sales sheet. The national accounts sales rep at O'Reilly may be able to reclassify the shelving in the Borders computer, but that doesn't mean it will be re-shelved correctly. You'll need to call for the assistance of readers, friends, and family to spot check (and correct) for you.

Comment: Lou (Jul 27, 2005)

Thanks for the suggestions Glen, and best wishes with your project at UCP.

Comment: vanderwal (Jul 28, 2005)

Eric, I agree with Lou. In many of my instances I am looking to put my hands on a specific book to see if it is what I want to buy. If I can not find the book there is a much hirer probability that I will buy nothing than if I can put my hands on the book. In the end the store loses, Lou or the author may win, but not that day.

I have multiple drivers in my book buying practice. Price (book stated cost, book discounted cost (almost never pay full price), and total cost of purchase). Need (immediacy, knowledge gap to be filled (limited knowledge or looking for alternative solutions/perspectives), use as guide for others, and/or entertainment). Interest (determined or possible interest -- putting my hands on the book is usually what tips this, but many strong reviews from peers does much the same). Availability.

I use my Amazon Wish List as my guide to what I want. I really with that list was more portable through their open API. I not only use it for shopping in other stores, but I put books (and other media) on that list when I am out in physical stores if it is not going to be an immediate purchase given I have just my determined interest. I use Amazon to evaluate price points and it sets my gage elasticity on price -- if cheaper than Amazon's discount price it increases my potential for buying immediately.

Borders coupons have levelled the playing field for me as many are 25% to 30% off an item. There is sales tax added. I only buy one book (sometimes more), which makes my floor (bookcases more than filled - even the reserves in teh basement) and wife happy, and I have the book immediately. The 30% discount coupons I always find a use for (180 plus items on my Amazon Wish List), but lesser coupons will wait if it is not one of the books at the top of my list. Barnes and Noble 10% discount was only valuable to me if it was on top of one of their books already on sale, but I tend to buy closer to the long-tail and not the power-curve spike, which limits the probability of the books I have an interest in being on sale.

[I should note I have much grad school work (part of Public Policy Masters) in economics, econometrics, statistics, and qualitative and quantitative research, which only encourage my lines of thinking about how I buy or make "rational" decisions. But I also am always doing guerrilla ethnographies with others I run across who are willing to share their shopping methodologies.]

Comment: James Melzer (Jul 30, 2005)

I think Lou's experience is fairly universal. I use the same book-buying strategy, and I see a lot of other people doing it too: if I am looking for a known item in a Borders or B&N, I first look on the shelf where I think it should be - I invariably can't find it - and then I go ask a clerk. The store's computer knows exactly where it should be shelved (whether it's there or not is another question) and after some wandering and digging, the clerk can usually find it. The shelving by topics is actually a hinderance a lot of the time because the some topics offered are so random and counterintuitive. If you want a travel book, or a cook book, you are all set. If you want anything having to do with business or computers, good luck.

Comment: andrew hinton (Aug 3, 2005)

Tom beat me to the punch on this, but really... why can't they track every book and know its whereabouts? And why can't there be multiple kiosks with super-fuzzy/rich search to find said books?
They already put "theft detection" strips in the books now, and they all have UPC symbols. Shouldn't the shelves be lined with something that can tell what books are sitting on them?
Ten years ago that would've sounded like crazy sci-fi super-expensive stuff, but these days it doesn't seem like a big deal to me.
Heck, why not folksonomy for bookstores? If a book seems out of place, tag it differently?
silly, probably... but at $30-$50 per hardcover, and lots of people hanging out in bookstores with untapped processing time, it doesn't seem that strange.

Comment: Lou (Aug 3, 2005)

Andrew, it doesn't seem strange at all; tagging crossed my mind too...

Comment: Lou (Aug 17, 2005)

Apropos; thanks to Dan Klyn: http://www.boingboing.net/2005/08/17/ministry_of_reshelvi.html

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