Can Borders Actually Compete With Amazon With Virtual Bookshelves?

from the the-magic-shelf-ain't-gonna-do-it dept

Back in 1998 when I worked at an e-commerce startup, I spent a few months working on a project to try to rethink the online retail "browsing" experience. The idea was simple: the experience of browsing an online store was still inherently different than walking into a book or music store, where you would browse across many items on shelves and maybe discover a totally unexpected gem. That process doesn't seem to work as well online. We were unable to solve it a decade ago, but I'm always interested in ways that others try to solve the same problem. However, so far, no one has really been able to do something amazingly useful in the browsing department... and that includes the new Borders website. For years, Borders, the well-known bookstore chain, had handed over its entire online operations to Amazon.com. Basically, if you went to the Borders website, you just saw Amazon.com with a Borders logo. However, a little while ago, the company decided to end that deal and strike out on its own.

The new site has now launched with its main selling point apparently being a shelf-browsing interface using Flash. Unfortunately, it seems that whoever built the website modeled it almost too much like a real physical bookshelf. That is, it includes all of the inefficiencies of a real bookshelf, without adding in many benefits. It's a neat little gimmick, but unless it adds more functionality quickly, it's difficult to see this putting much of a dent into Amazon's efforts. Update: In sort of, but not entirely, related news -- a judge has dismissed an antitrust lawsuit filed against Borders and Amazon for working together. The court found that there was no evidence that the guy filing the suit ever paid more than marketprice for a book due to the two companies working together.


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  1.  
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    Martin Edic, May 27th, 2008 @ 3:00pm

    I think something like Apple's Cover Flow with search capabilities would work a lot better, maybe offer a See Inside option with best sellers.

     

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  2.  
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    Beefcake, May 27th, 2008 @ 3:14pm

    Working backwards

    Focusing on booksellers, the online retailers have a chance to vastly improve the hunt for gems over brick and mortar. Right now, you can't even judge them by their covers-- just the spines. But if the e-tailer actually reads the book, then assigns deep and specific tags based on the content, it would make browsing much simpler. You could either input specific tags, or just start with a genre selection and peruse the tag lists.

    Just doing a Flash-version of a bookshelf is useless. I love the atmosphere of rows of bookshelves, but a Flash app doesn't replicate that atmosphere (and unless we actually get a holodeck, never will), and as the author pointed out, doesn't improve a buyer's ability to find what they aren't necessarily looking for. It basically degrades both experiences, and indicates that someone at Borders doesn't understand books very well.

     

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  3.  
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    Michael Long, May 27th, 2008 @ 3:18pm

    Bricks and mortars...

    There's a bit more to the site than Flash. They can't out-Amazon in the pure web space, no. But they do have one thing that Amazon doesn't and that's a bricks-and-mortar presence.

    You'll notice that, in addition to the typical "add to cart" and "add to wish list" checkout buttons there's also a "Reserve in store" option so you can browse online and then if needed zip over to your local store to pick it up.

    If you really want it today, and not tomorrow or next week, I think tight web site/physical store integration could give Borders a competitive advantage that Amazon can't easily match.

    They may not be able to make a big dent, but there's definitely a niche there that's worth exploring...

     

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  4.  
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    Dimitri, May 27th, 2008 @ 4:23pm

    Amazon's Features

    I have to question how much value a "shelf" system adds to Amazon's already-existing feature set. For example, Amazon's recommendation system and the "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" features seem to marginalize the value of a shelf. Hypothetically, when looking at a physical bookshelf, one is looking at a collection of similar materials hoping that one of them meets desires-- also, one can touch/feel/smell the books. However, Amazon's recommendations and "customers bought" features already achieve the first "similar materials" result via statistical correlations found through the company's many customers. ...and the second is not a "shelf vs index" issue, but a "offline vs online" issue. So I have to ask for clarification: what is the exact value of the bookshelf concept **in contrast to** Amazon's already existing features? I feel like I am missing something here and would sincerely appreciate clarification.

    Inquisitively,
    Dimitri

     

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  5.  
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    Dimitri, May 27th, 2008 @ 4:25pm

    First Sentence

    The first sentence of my post (above) should read:
    I have to question how much value Borders's "shelf" system adds in comparison to Amazon's already-existing feature set.

     

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  6.  
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    Hollis, May 27th, 2008 @ 4:43pm

    someone at Borders doesn't understand books very well

    I get the impression that the key people that made Borders unique are no longer there. They've had a few layoffs & just suffered another round. Anything they do to Online to help turn the company around is too little too late.

     

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  7.  
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    Rose M. Welch, May 27th, 2008 @ 6:39pm

    Huh?

    I went to the site and it looks like an entirely normal site. You can browse by title or genre and on each page it shows you a thumbnail view of the cover of each book in the section. You can delve deeper into any section using the text-based left-side navigation bar (totally standard) and you can choose the next page by using the numbered navigation bar at the bottom of each page (also totally standard). When you see a title/bookcover that you like, you can click on it and be taken to a page that shows a larger picture and more information. This setup is very standard, very easy to use, and has almost no Flash.

    Has the new site design not been placed yet or what? Have they possibly taken it down already? Because what's there is nothing like what you're describing.

     

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  8.  
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    Chiropetra, May 27th, 2008 @ 9:06pm

    Good idea...

    utterly clueless implementation.

     

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  9.  
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    John C. Walker, May 28th, 2008 @ 3:44am

    Border's new website doesn't work

    I tried to buy a book at the new Border's website today but checking out failed. When I tried to check out, I received the error: "We're sorry. This feature is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later." Then, I attempted to notify them of the error using their "contact us" form. Not only did the form not render properly in IE7, but I got the same error when I submitted it. The book prices are also much higher than when they partnered with Amazon.

    The new website is indicative of the problem where a development team focuses on "sizzle" and forgets about the core functionality.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 28th, 2008 @ 7:10am

    While I think this is a worthwhile endeavor, part of me would like to see it fail. Wouldn't it be nice to reinforce the need brick-and-mortar bookstores in the Amazon age?

    That being said, I think that Amazon's recommendations, reviews, and who-bought-what tools actually do a pretty good job. If I were to browse a physical bookstore for 30 minutes I might find 5 books that I would consider buying. If I browse on Amazon for the same amount of time, I'd probably have about 20.

    But perhaps the bookshelf experience is something that is best left to the physical stores. Is the "bookshelf" metaphor something that translates to the web? I'm sure someone will come up with something that works well (maybe even works great), but I wonder whether it may be thinking too literally for a platform as versatile as the web.

    A little off-topic, but I have to bring it up: When I want a book buying experience at a brick-and-mortar store, Borders is the last place I'll go. It is so far from a traditional bookstore experience, it's not even funny. Toys, cafes, calendars, crappy sales, and TVs (!) do not equal a bookstore experience in my mind. (Check this out, too: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/12/business/media/12borders.html).

     

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  11.  
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    TravisO, May 28th, 2008 @ 8:55am

    But who's going to fix Border's horrible prices?

    So I created an account on Border's website and rated a book as I wanted to check out how well their virtual bookshelf would recommend books to me, bizarrely nothing happened even though I added my border's rewards card which I have used in the past in the store. Perhaps recommendations only work on my order history.

    But ignoring all this, a book I recently purchased on Amazon is $29.69 and on Border's website it's $44.99 so if Border's is wondering why they are having problems competing, they need to stop sniffing binding glue and wake up.

    PS: the book in question is ISBN:1590599098

     

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  12.  
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    Moondog, May 30th, 2008 @ 7:13pm

    Agreed - who cares about the site's interface if prices SUCK

    Why pay list price for ANYTHING if Amazon offers the same product at 30% to 40% cheaper? Seriously. THAT is why Amazon rules the online shopping world, and why late comers like Borders are going to get bought out or go under soon.

    Cute little flash graphics of a bookshelf are not worth paying list price for. Hell, even if the "bookshelf" concept somehow worked better than Amazon's recommendations, I'd just use bookshelf to find what I want and then go buy it for much less from amazon.

    This'll be no different than when they first tried to go online. Borders is gonna lose.

     

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  13.  
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    Yo, Mar 20th, 2011 @ 11:46pm

    Border's search is lame

    Try "cognitive therapy trader" on Border's and then try on Amazon. The former doesn't return the right book in the first page of results (I didn't dig further... few would). The latter returns the right book as the *first* result.

     

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