Tuesday, October 27, 2009

An Open Letter to Borders

The rainy-day marathon was a big success. After a slow start when the cold, dark, rainy day just made me want to nap, I was able to figure out a particularly knotty problem and then move forward. And then I realized that the "forward" came at the very end of the day, fairly late at night, and I'd spent hours re-working what I'd already done so I could reach the "forward" part. Today, though, I really do hope to move ahead.

One thing I did this weekend, in addition to going to the show on Friday and the neighborhood social and the library on Saturday (it was a rockin' weekend, for sure) was swing by Borders, since they'd sent me another one of those tempting coupons. As a result of that visit, I have this open letter to Borders (which I will likely send to their management):

Dear Borders:

I know times are tough and you need to do anything to make a buck. I also know that you think you're being innovative by having your employees hand-sell certain books whose publishers are paying you to do so.

But, speaking as a customer, I have to say Stop. It. Now. It's the most annoying thing ever, it cost you at least one sale this weekend, and it's making me reluctant to go to Borders anymore because it makes book shopping intensely unpleasant.

I had only a few minutes to spend in your store because I was on my way somewhere else, but I'd been lured by a coupon, and I had a list of specific books I was looking for. I had just enough time to look for these books, decide which one I wanted, and then get through the checkout line. But then I got waylaid by your employee, doing the mandatory book-pushing duty. She shoved a book into my hands and told me I would love it.

I don't mind handselling when it's true handselling, when a bookseller who knows me as a regular customer or who has taken the time to get to know what I like recommends books based on her knowledge of my tastes. This program is the opposite of handselling. It's attempting to make books a one-size-fits-all item. There is no possible way that booksellers can honestly tell every single customer that he or she will like one particular book. This book was so far beyond what I'm remotely interested in reading that I practically threw it back at the bookseller in reflexive revulsion once I read the cover copy.

Unfortunately, the time taken up with having to look at this book I didn't want and then fend off the bookseller trying to push the other "make" title on me meant that when I didn't find the primary book I was looking for after searching a couple of different possible sections, I no longer had the time to look at the other possible books on my wish list and then get through checkout before I had to leave, so I just left the store without buying anything. If I hadn't been waylaid by your "make" titles, I would have probably bought a book.

The problems with this practice are numerous:
1) If customers don't realize that this isn't an honest recommendation and instead is merely another form of paid placement, it risks your booksellers' credibility when they make blanket recommendations that are outside their own areas of interest and that have absolutely nothing to do with the customers' tastes. When a bookseller pushes a book the customer has zero interest in with a "you'll love it" recommendation, the customer is less likely to listen to that person's recommendations in the future. Handselling -- real handselling -- then loses its effectiveness. If you do know it's paid placement, you can no longer trust any bookseller recommendations. A Borders bookseller can swear on a stack of Bibles that a book is brilliant and that I'll love it, and unless I know that bookseller personally, I won't believe it. I will assume it's paid placement and disregard it.
2) When booksellers have to focus on pushing particular titles, they aren't available to help customers find the books they're actually looking for.
3) Most people don't really like being rude or rejecting people, so if they have to reject a bookseller every time they walk through the door of a bookstore, they're going to quit going to the bookstore. This practice makes it less pleasant to visit a bookstore. Amazon looks better all the time. At least their recommendations are based on actual data, and I don't feel rude for rejecting or ignoring them. Why would you deliberately create a situation that makes your customers want to avoid your employees?
4) Making me look at a book I have zero interest in wastes time I could be spending browsing books I am interested in (it's probably not smart to intercept people heading to the genre fiction section to push literary fiction) and makes me less likely to buy anything at all.

I find this practice so annoying that even your coupons may not make up for it if I have to enter the store through the cafe and then crawl on my elbows to the section that interests me so I can avoid the "make" title push. I can tell you right now that I will NEVER buy one of these books. On the remote chance that one of them interests me (so far, none of them have been of the slightest interest to me), I will make a point of buying it somewhere else because I refuse to reward this practice.

This may be a radical concept, but why not empower your employees and give them free rein to choose the books they want to push, based on their customers' tastes and interests? Or maybe develop some subject matter experts who can help customers within certain genres? I would love it if a knowledgeable bookseller could take a list of my favorites and give me some good recommendations for other books I might like or could give me insight into new titles in my areas of interest.

I hope the publishers are giving you a ton of money for these "make" titles, enough to make up for the customers you lose by making it so unpleasant to go to your stores. I have my own issues with the other big chain and go out of my way to visit Borders even though the other chain has a store a mile from my house, but my loyalties are about to shift, and I'm a very avid reader.

Love, me.

Or am I being a grouch about this? I was just so annoyed about the fact that I went there planning to buy a book and then didn't have time to choose one because I got stopped and had a book that included the words "crumbling marriage" (one of my auto-reject cues) on the cover literally shoved into my hands, even after I told the employee that I wasn't interested and that I knew she was being forced to push that book rather than making an honest recommendation. I don't ask much of bookstore sales staff. I usually just want to be left alone and can find things for myself. If I need help finding something, like if I'm not sure which section it's in, it's nice if there's a human being at the information desk. If I have time, I don't mind chatting if the bookseller notices what I'm buying and can make other recommendations. Other than that, I just need someone there to take my money.

Otherwise, are there no writing post questions? I have Book Brain this week, so you never know what I might come up with if I'm left to my own devices.

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