Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Bookstore Grouchiness

As anyone who has followed this blog must know by now, I like books. I like reading them. I like sharing them. And I like shopping for them. I frequent - and I do mean that word literally - bookstores such as Borders. I have also bought a fair number of books online, new and used.

Sometimes I just go into a bookstore to blow time. Even so, I tend to look for certain titles. I look to see if something I want to read is available in paperback. I look for the next book in series that I'm following. On repeat visits, I re-check to see whether something I missed the last time might have come in since then.

In my vast experience as a bookstore shopper, and my brief experience as a bookstore clerk, I have learned that it is pretty much useless to moan about not being able to find what you want. After you have exhausted all hope of finding a given book in the store - after you have gotten help from a knowledgeable employee, checked the inventory records, etc. - the airhead at the cash register is going to ask the inevitable question: "Did you find everything all right?"

No, of course not, you twit. You don't have everything; how, then, could I find it?

The clerk on the sales floor, on the other hand, is going to ask you a much more constructive question: "Would you like to place a special order for this item?" Here, at least, is a sign that someone is really considering what you want. But even though that special-order option is sometimes a lifesaver, most often it isn't the right answer either.

You see, there's something you have to understand about today's customer who comes into a bookstore. Take me, for example. I know perfectly well how to order a book online. If I wanted to order it, I could do it from the comfort of my home. I could probably get a better price, if I shopped for a used copy. I could save on shipping and handling costs by having it delivered to a local retailer, who would then call me to let me know it was ready to be picked up. I know all that because I've done it so very, very often.

But, in spite of all that, I still visit bookstores. I still look for titles I hope to find. I still say "No" when someone asks if I want to special-order it. I go away dissatisfied, and come back another time to see if they've wised up and gotten the book in stock. Why do I engage in this tedious pattern of self-defeating behavior? Why don't I just order the book already? Because I don't want to. Because I want to discover it on the shelf at Borders. Because I want to impulse-buy it with malice aforethought.

Look at it this way. When you shop online, you learn to limit your purchases. You look for deals, you think about shipping fees, and you try to stay within a budget. But you're probably not even going to enter the online store unless you've already decided to buy something, usually something specific. Moreover, you also know what you're not going to get, because it simply isn't in your budget at the moment - even if you're looking for it.

When you go to a bookstore, however, you're basically just browsing around. Your goal is to see whether you can look over the whole store and walk out of it carrying as much money as when you entered. The bookseller's challenge is to break down your inhibitions, to overcome your disinterest, to give you an excuse to spend outside your budget, to pry that money out of your tight fist and make you happy to buy something you didn't plan to buy. You may even be looking to make a "premeditated impulse buy," as I often do. There may be one or more titles you would like to buy, if they happen to be available, but you're not going to go out of your way to get them. Why? Because you don't need them. You have more than enough books to read already. And you are really there to spend time, not money. It's in the store's interest to figure out what product you'll spring for if you see it, even when you're fairly determined not to buy anything at all.

So when I tell the sales-floor clerk that I want such-and-such, and he says "You can always order that," I say, "Wrong answer!" What I want to hear is that they'll make a note of the title and consider adding it to their inventory. I want them to think about the fact that, if I order the book, they're going to lose the sale. I want them to consider the possibility that I would never order the book as long as I considered buying it in-store a possibility; an opportunity for them. I want them to be aware that they have Book 17 of a series of 18, but none of the other volumes; so they should plan on having it in inventory for a long time. I want them to respond to me as a customer whose presence in their store is a challenge to them - a challenge to serve me in a way the online booksellers don't.

When an impulse-shopping customer strolls through a bookstore, knowing that he could easily e-buy anything he sees (and far, far more), he isn't just a client. He's a competitor. He's going to fight to kept his money out of their hands, unless they break down his resistance. Stores have to realize that, in the e-commerce era, they are playing a different game. Instead of merely suggesting the special-order option, they need to make note of customer requests and factor them into their purchasing plans.

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