Independent Bookstores are missing the point

I spent the morning of my first day in between jobs at one of my favorite places, the Barnes & Nobles in Hillsdale mall in San Mateo, CA. I’m willing to drive to this bookstore from Redwood City simply because it has the best browsing experience. It’s a very large store with a little Starbucks outlet, but primarily it has the largest cushiest chairs I’ve ever seen. This makes it incredibly comfortable to stop in and check out the latest books. I usually try to do so about once a week and make at least one purchase per visit.

Since I’ve moved to California in 2000, I’ve spent thousands of dollars purchasing books in this one store. While I was there today I stopped to think about it a bit. Usually I’m a fan of supporting small local businesses. The problem is that none of the small bookstores in the area can compare with this one B&N for book purchasing experience. This is not limited to just the small bookstores. There is actually another B&N about a mile down the road from where I live, but I don’t prefer to go there because it suffers from the same issues as the small bookstores. The only places to sit are wood benches in front of a window that get awfully hot in the California sun.

So, examining this issue a bit it occured to me that the book business is remarkably like the coffee business. It’s not so much about the product that you’re buying it’s more about the actual purchase experience. If you can create a better experience then you’ll be able to hold onto more customers.

When I know exactly which book I want, I don’t even bother going to the bookstore. I order the book off of Amazon.com. Amazon usually can beat the local retailers at price and time taken to purchase. However, the browsing experience suffers with Amazon. 9 times out of 10, I go to the book store with no idea what I’m looking for. I enjoy walking and letting my mind wander. Discovering new areas and ideas to chase after. I like to walk up and down the aisles and look for new books that catch my attention. Sometimes I intentionally walk down aisles that I don’t really have any interest in just to see if there is something new that will catch my attention. This is just something you can’t do on a website, at least not yet.

Getting back to the independent booksellers it would seem prudent to me to follow the path of Starbucks, focus on the customer experience. As a small retailer, you’re never going to be able to afford the same size stores as Borders and B&N so you can’t win at total book volume. Amazon has all of them beat at that game anyway. The area that the small book store can win is in providing a higher quality environment, with better service. Bring in guest speakers and have book centered events.

Books are a commodity, the small book store will have the same exact book as the large bookstore. The only thing left to compete in is the purchasing / browsing experience. And this is what surprises me. The number of small book stores that are just packed with shelves of books. My office has the same feel and I’m sure if I invited people into my office to buy books I’d get about the same results.