Closing a Chapter?

Borders has gone belly up and e-books are outselling soft cover books at Amazon. Online and e-reading aren’t just denting the brick and mortar book business: they are utterly destroying it.

Let me get one thing straight. I love books. The ones made of paper and ink. I am a self-admitted Amazon junkie but I spend some of my time and disposable income in real, brick and mortar shops as well. Selexyz for example is an excellent chain of bookstores in the Netherlands. I could spend an entire day wandering through magical places like this.

Of course, if I want something less overwhelming I have other options. A short walk from home takes me to a small mom-and-pop bookstore. Its offering may be dwarfed by what (or its Dutch equivalent have on offer but I really like the experience of going there. excels at making me buy more than I thought I would. My personal preferences and previous purchases are matched and compared to others with similar profiles by their well-programmed automatic suggestion system. Amazon never really surprises me; they always know exactly what I want.

My tiny local bookstore is also very good at making me buy more that I thought I would. They are pretty much clueless about what I want or what I bought earlier. However their pretty book displays and the love for books create an atmosphere that entices me into buying something. Anything. My local bookstore always surprises me with books I would never buy at Amazon because I simply wouldn’t look for them.

A Real Life Book-Buying-Experience.

Two weeks ago I paid my local store a visit. After 30 minutes or so of browsing I bought three books totaling a little over 63 euro. Having just watched the first season of HBO’s series Game of Thrones I also wanted to buy the books on which the series are based. My store has only the tiniest English language section and needless to say they didn’t have them on stock.

“Could you order them for me? I don’t mind picking them up sometime later this week,” I asked.

“Sure I can,” the friendly lady behind the counter assured me and a she started looking them up on her computer. Within moments her happy smile turned into a worried frown; she couldn’t find any of the titles in her database.

“Maybe I could help you with that,” I suggested.

“Sure, why not,” she invited me to join her behind her computer screen.

We ended up using on my iPhone to find the correct ISBN-numbers that we used to place the order in her store’s computer system. That felt a little awkward.

“Will you give me a call when they are here?” I asked.
“Of course I will,” she replied.

A week went by and I had not heard from her yet. So after getting my weekly groceries done I hopped by again.

“Any news? Are they here yet?”
“Sorry sir,”
she said, “these things usually take a few weeks. But I’ll be sure to call you when they get in.”

Weeks!? She must have felt really awkward after those words came out. I know I did. I also felt sorry for her. We’re talking four books, which together cost something over 120 euro. That’s double the amount I spent in her shop during my previous visit. It is probably also the last time I will order any books from them, because staging excellent experience isn’t enough when one cannot deliver the actual goods in time.

The shift from bits to atoms

Had I take my business to any online retailer these books would have been in my possession within a few days – (or the e-book version within seconds.) The shift from bits to atoms is now happening at an even faster pace than the still ongoing shift from brick and mortar to online shopping. From an innovation perspective this shift is irreversible. South Korea for example is investing 2 billion USD to replace all paper books with e-readers in classrooms across the country by 2015. An entire generation of kids will be growing up that doesn’t consider e-books the alternative to paper. E-books will be the de facto standard and paper books a quaint relic from the past.

I really see no happy ending for my local bookstore. When giants like Borders bite the dust, I’m hard pressed to believe that my friendly little bookstore will innovate its way out of this.

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