Reading Fee – and not the kind you think

Today, the Washington Post blog had an item about “showrooming”. If you’re not familiar with the term, they helpfully defined it. Customers enter a book store, sample a book then go home – or online through their phones right there in the store – and order it off Amazon. To combat this, the UK HarpersCollins CEO suggested charging customers – or loiterers, she might say – for looking at books before they buy (or don’t).

Apparently they do this sort of thing in British shoe stores. Unless I am allowed to put my feet through Finnegan’s Wake and An Infinite Jest, I disagree with the strategy.

I have worked in Barnes & Noble. Claims that 40% of customers use the store to discover new books they then go and buy cheaper elsewhere is not only not new but a facet of the store beyond any threat of internet commerce. B&N led the charge in getting customers to get comfortable. Stores not having their own cafes are often connected to a Starbucks. Every store has various settings of extremely soft chairs in cozy nooks to drink coffee in, eat cookies at and read. People have been taking advantage of that kind of generosity for years. Far from buying books online, they just read them through pleasurable routines in their favourite seats.

Brick-and-mortar stores – the big box ones (i.e. dinosaurs) – will never combat this through complaining to publishers. They can only fight back through price points. Barnes & Noble won’t if it means sacrificing what the company owners think makes their stores unique. Borders can’t because it’s out of business. And for much of its life in the 21st century, Borders partnered with Amazon and directed online customers there. Borders did not fail because of Amazon. It failed because of bad business practices. It failed because most of its stores weren’t in the business of customer service.

The answer is not in big box stores but in a return to small local stores. Customer loyalty, the frequent interactions between store and patron, the edification of being recognized and acknowledged will trump a savings in price any day. Its knowing when entering a storefront and have more than fair chance of knowing the first name of the clerk behind the counter that will save traditional book stores from the frugal online community. And that’s usually not found in a three-tier, highly-monetized library/warehouse hybrid struggling to make $20 million a year.