Downsize Me


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The heyday of small, independent bookstores has passed. Our local bookstore—where I used to visit to buy books, get recommendations, and chat about the latest releases from my favorite authors—is now a place I rarely visit, except maybe for an almost forgotten birthday card or last-minute cutesy gift item.

I do still regularly visit my "local" chain bookstore—a big Borders near our office. In it, my path is always obstructed by rows of shelves filled with featured titles. Tables are stacked with books, which many browsers may believe are thoughtful arrangements proffered by the thoughtful and well-read staff. The cynics among us (who also notice every time a character in a movie sips a soda with the label conspicuously in-focus and camera-facing) breeze past these displays and head straight for what we came looking for. We are rightfully suspicious. Yes, some of the displays are based on sales figures—best-sellers are, in fact, the best sellers (and they're likely to stay that way, given their discounted price and prominent placement), and Borders’ Original Voices have been vetted by staff and other judges.

Yet many of us know that bookstores employ "cooperative advertising," which is little more than a pay-for-placement arrangement. So who can we trust? I get my best recommendations from friends, colleagues, and the library staff-picks shelf. In some ways, I am old-fashioned. However, I have also become quite addicted to user reviews, which are done to great effect at Amazon.com. Of course Amazon is not immune to paid placement deals; its homepage and special sections promote all sorts of cooperatively advertised products.

I breeze past those too. Couldn’t tell you the last time I stayed on Amazon’s homepage long enough to focus my eyes on a single book cover. I know that paid placement works—it has been around a long time and has been both extolled and vilified for boosting certain books’ sales into the stratosphere. It simply doesn’t work with me, while user reviews do. Even if I know I’m going to buy a book, I scroll through user reviews because I’m curious what others thought of the title as well as what they recommend or compare the book to.

I’m not alone. Consumer reviews play a big part in purchase decisions for online shoppers in the U.S., according to a June 2008 Opinion Research Corp. study. Eighty-three percent of respondents polled indicated that online product evaluations and reviews had at least some level of influence on their purchasing decisions. The survey also found that 38% of respondents first consult online product or service reviews when they begin their shopping research.

Despite its stellar user reviews, which have in some ways replaced the camaraderie of a local bookseller, Amazon has become almost too much to face for book browsing. Amazon has become a super-sized retailer writ XXL. In its drive to become a one-stop shop for everything online, it now overwhelms me with options, search results, and recommendations.

Partially as a response to this, longtime Amazon partner Borders struck out on its own online a couple of months ago. The Borders.com site wisely took with it some of the better aspects of Amazon—impressive selection, user reviews, and recommendations—but is striving to move away from the megamart mentality. It harkens back to the bookstore experience.

Front and center on the new site is Borders’ Magic Shelf, which the company believes is its digital differentiator. Using an in-store metaphor, it shows browseable shelves of books in categories such as new nonfiction, new fiction, and staff picks. The Magic Shelf can also be customized to individual tastes. While it has a nice "wow" factor, I think that the vibe it gives book buyers is more important than the actual functionality. Most people online use search as the interface of choice for accessing content, even if they are lured away from their original results by recommendations. Yet in many cases it is those recommendations and the community sensibility they foster that boost sales. Borders.com is employing another feature I believe may deepen the sense of community, if virtually: offering author interviews and recommendations. Book lovers love to hear from their favorite authors. Unfortunately, along with local bookstores, book signings and readings have also dwindled.

It was a bold move for Borders to dissolve its 7-year relationship with Amazon and take on the giant for book sales; the company’s July announcement that it will offer MP3 audiobooks against Amazon’s incredibly successful Kindle audiobook program might be even more ambitious. Yet Borders’ decision to provide a store that focuses entirely on selling books, music, and films (rather than every conceivable product) feels like helping buyers escape from the chaos of big-box, discount stores and inviting them to take a leisurely browse through a boutique that will always have exactly what they are looking for—a place where they might also find a few unexpected things, perhaps on the advice of others.