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Why Did Local Borders Go Belly Up? Maybe Lack of Personal Service?

The giant bookstore could have been a contender.

Geneva Patch columnist ’s application of karma in regard to closing 200 stores, including its St. Charles location, was dead on. The big-book chain, whose Randall Road appearance doomed any independent downtown Geneva bookstore, is itself on the brink of extinction at the hands of Internet foes like Amazon.

I’m not necessarily applying the word karma in the snarky “what goes around comes around sense” because I hate to see anyone lose their business or their job. No, I’m coming from the perspective that when it was Borders’ turn to face a determined and innovative competitor, while independents like Robin’s Book Store never had a chance, they could’ve competed. Instead, I predict Borders will completely shut down within two years.

Maybe it’s just my keen perception of the obvious, but how is it that so many brick and mortar stores fail to comprehend the two massive advantages they hold over their online counterparts?

First, let’s forget about that “In God we trust” malarkey. Our nation’s motto really ought to be “Give me instant gratification or give me death!” Amazon can offer super saver shipping or their “prime” program ($80 a year for “free” two-day shipping? Yeah right!) till they’re blue in the face, but they can’t come close to scratching that instant gratification itch.

And what was Borders’ 2008 answer to slumping sales? That’s right! Crain’s New York Business reported “steep cuts in inventory.” So much for instant gratification.

When a bookstore doesn’t have an item, the salesclerk will always pleasantly ask, “we can order it for you?” and I always want to reply “so can I.” Why should I let you order the book, drive back home, wait for you call me and then drive back to the store to pay more for the item than I would’ve likely paid online? After walking out empty-handed two or three times, you’ve trained customers to go to Amazon first. That can’t be a good business model.

Then, two weeks ago. my wife was waiting in an eight-person Borders line with one checker. She finally declared, “Can we get another register open?” and they did. She mumbled, “If I wanted to wait that long for my books I’d go to Amazon.”

The second and even greater advantage Borders and all local stores have is, every time a customer walks through that front door, it’s a perfect opportunity to develop a face-to-face relationship. Have any of you have had the misfortune of dealing with Amazon customer service? It sucks!

You have to go through web page hoops just to get to three final options, two of which are email or chat. God forbid you should actually talk to your customers. Amazon will call you, but there’s the inevitable hold time and if his name really is Michael then mine’s Rajneesh. God bless the fine folks in India for giving it their best shot, but the accents and cultural differences can make anything but the most basic questions an exercise in futility. I dread having to deal with them.

If they wouldn’t take it the wrong way, there are times I’ve wanted to hug a helpful store sales associate. And that warm, fuzzy feeling makes me want to come back! But what was Borders’ second strategy? Staff cuts! Have you been to the Geneva Borders lately? Where there was a help desk, they now have a bank of computers where you can look it up yourself! So now you’re training me to use a computer to find a book? As that Guinness commercial used to go, “Brilliant!”

Ironically, the one place they could actually press a computer advantage is their “check store inventory” option on their website. But my wife tells me it’s never accurate and, whenever she’s tried to reserve a book, it didn’t work!

So instead of clinging to and advancing that which separates them from their Net nemeses, Borders tossed those advantages aside like an empty book carton. And now they’re closing 200 stores. More on Borders on Wednesday.

carol mills February 28, 2011 at 02:38 PM
As a past independent toy/bookstore owner, and friend of many independent retailers, I keep hoping that the pendulum will shift back. Online is not going away, but maybe small business service, expertize, and community personal involvement will top the big box experience.
Paula Krapf February 28, 2011 at 03:09 PM
I disagree that Borders doomed an independent bookstore in downtown Geneva. Book selling is a business - which may not be news to you - but unfortunately many in the publishing industry do not seem to realize that superior, personalized service, carefully stocked inventory, an ongoing commitment to innovation and an ability to make the store an institution in the community are the ingredients that keep the doors open. A business run that way has a great chance of succeeding - look at Anderson's in Naperville, and there are many other examples throughout the Chicago area. Borders found a number of ways to shoot itself in the foot, including the incredibly bad decision to hand over its online sales to Amazon for a time. That's right, Amazon.com. Say what you will about Amazon, but I have heard mostly great things about their customer service and responsiveness. It's not enough to simply offer the ease of online ordering, there has to be something behind it, and Amazon has managed to make a lot of customers happy. Instead of snarking at Amazon or making them the villain - which is very common in the publishing industry - perhaps it would make sense to examine their model more closely to see what can be learned. I've gotten far better book suggestions (and deals) from Amazon.com than from any bricks and mortar bookstore in this area, sad to say. It's time for businesses of all stripes to get over the "build it and they will come" mentality. It doesn't work.
Jeff Ward February 28, 2011 at 03:48 PM
Paula, Geez! You said in your first paragraph what it to me 700 words to say! Good Job! Though I disagree with you somewhat about Amazon - thankfully you don't have to deal with their customer service very often - you've predicted the subject of the part II on this topic! Entitlement! Jeff
Colin C. February 28, 2011 at 03:57 PM
The move from bricks and motar retail to online shopping is only the beginning. As rapidly developing technology improves the speed and ease of the online experience brick and mortar banks will be the next to go. I'm over 70; not of the internet generation, yet already I do much of my shopping and banking online. The people born to and raised in the electronic communication culture will not see the need for our traditional method of acquiring everyday items. The exceptions may be food, emergency items needed immediately, and "pleasure shopping" as a unique experience. Think Third St. in Geneva. An even bigger change awaits the development of "additive fabrication" or "3D printing". It may not be too far fetched to say that within this century nearly all manufacturing, distribution, and sales of products as we know it will be replaced by one establishment; the town fabricator. Need a toster, a new set of sheets, a new car? Purchase the CAD plans online, customized to your exact specifications, transmit them to the local fabricator, and pick up your item as soon as they create it. Hoo Boy!! I cannot even begin to imagine what the world will look like in 2100.
Jeff Ward February 28, 2011 at 04:24 PM
Colin, I agree, but you're underestimating the power of instant gratification. When Brian Greene's latest book on string theory came out, even I wanted it right away (and went to Borders!). Though I'm sure it will improve, I can't stand reading stuff on a Kindle. Jeff
Mike February 28, 2011 at 04:46 PM
Regarding the Borders in St Charles that is closing... forget all the other stuff mentioned before in other posts. How about the fact that getting to that store is just too much trouble. Rt 64 on a busy day? Forget it. And look at the center it's in. Mostly vacant. Set too far back from the main road. Once you see the building you're past it, so you have to cut thru other parking lots to get there. I was looking for the store the other day to try and get some deals and it was almost impossible to find. And once I was there? It was obvious from the prices on some of the books that new, higher prices had been put on them so they would be discounted to what they were befre the closeout.
Paula Krapf February 28, 2011 at 08:19 PM
Jeff, I can't wait to see Part 2.... :)
Colin C. February 28, 2011 at 11:21 PM
Jeff, You are right, of course. I forgot Carrie Fisher's wonderful statement: "The only problem with instant gratification is that it takes too long!"

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