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Borders Focuses on Impulse

An article from yesterday's Wall Street Journal basically confirms Borders' ceding some territory in their war with online booksellers both used and new. (And “gently used,” i.e., read once and resold online.) Borders has begun a new shelving strategy in which a great many more books are shelved face-out rather than spine-out. To make room for all those additional face-outs, the chain will be reducing the numbers of titles carried per store by 5%-10%. For the larger stores, that will mean 4,000-9,000 fewer titles carried.

The doofy marketing consultant quoted in the article tells us that “People don't want choice, they want what they want.” I hope Borders didn't pay him too much, because that's an abysmally stupid statement. People who want what they want order online at a steep discount. People who shop at Borders (and other large bookstores) often don't know what they want—which is precisely why Borders is changing to face-outs on their shelves. When I know precisely what book I want, I order online, in part because I'm contrarian in my book tastes, and in part because I don't like to drive when I don't need to. I go to bookstores these days mostly when I have to hit the mall for something else. (My own experience shows that buying shoes online is an exercise in futility.) On those occasions I budget some time for Borders or B&N, specifically to buy a few titles on impulse. Impulse will be easier now. Serendipity has value, and prowling bookstore aisles can broaden one's tastes. (Ordering only what one wants tends to narrow one's tastes, just like hanging out only with people like oneself tends to create a social circle of people a great deal like oneself.)

For impulse buying, covers can matter. A big bold title and interesting graphic make it more likely that an aisle-stroller will stop and pick the book up, which is the big win in any kind of merchandising. It may take publishers a little while to realize that their covers may actually catch the eye of impulse buyers now. We might hope for better covers, or—gasp!—better back-cover or dust-jacket summaries.

I expect there to be a lot of bitching and moaning about this, but it's actually a wise decision on Borders' part. They're emphasizing one of the few facets of bookselling where they have an edge over online merchants, and thus helping guarantee that they remain in business. And from an author's standpoint, they're leveling the customer attention field a little: If you can get into Borders at all, you have a decent chance now of being face-out. One of the guerilla tactics of small publishers used to be sending junior staffers (often attractive young women) to stores to pretend to be browsers, picking up a spine-out title published by their employers, flipping through it for a second or two, then slapping it back on the shelf atop a face-out title fielded by a competitor. I don't know how well this worked. I do know that certain enthusiastic young swirlies (as Coriolis staff started to call themselves at some point) spent an insane amount of time at this. Now there'll be less cause to do it, and I'm good with that. If I want to buy The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities, I'll order it online. If I just want to surprise myself, well, hey—I'll go to Borders.

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